Whether as a participant or a fan, when we think of our experiences with athletics growing up, big moments come to mind, from the game-winning field goal that propelled our team to the state championship game to the final shot at the buzzer that sent us home. Moments like these become lifelong memories that help define our adolescent years.
With this perspective, it is only natural for parents to want their children to experience athletic triumphs, and for parents to, perhaps, live vicariously a bit through their student athlete. Sometimes parents will go to extreme lengths in order to accelerate their child’s athletic development, encouraging them to specialize in one sport beginning at an early age and paying for world-class training from experts in the field if they have the means to do so. They may also select a school based on which athletic program will give them the most exposure to outside sources that will potentially lead to that elusive college scholarship.
This plan does work––sometimes––and it’s true that children who have specialized in one sport can develop their skill set at a faster rate than their peers, thus gaining an advantage. But this strategy often leads to burnout, resentment, and injury. Sadly, when viewing athletics through the lens of scholarship or bust, the outcome for most student athletes won’t be as they (or their families) had hoped.
So, how else can we ensure our child’s success when there doesn’t seem to be another option?
Change the lens. Instead of focusing on the endgames of state championships and college scholarships, we need to reevaluate our definition of success and embrace athletics as an integral part of a child’s educational experience and development. Let’s change our focus and prioritize a child’s overall growth and development through athletics, programs at schools that provide opportunities for students to experience a variety of sports, and coaching that places emphasis on important skills that go beyond just those particular to one sport.
While most schools view sports as extracurricular––outside of the course of required studies––some schools value athletics as an integral part of the curriculum and require all of their students to participate, oftentimes beginning at the middle school level. The results are overwhelmingly positive.
Greater Physical and Emotional Wellness
When all students are required and welcomed to participate in sports, they are given time to improve their emotional and physical wellness each day. At the most basic level, movement is critical for adolescents because exercise releases endorphins and these endorphins bring us joy. The more students are given the opportunity to exercise, the more endorphins they are able to release and improve their emotional wellness.
Being exposed to a variety of sports allows students to try something new, and potentially find a new passion. How would a child know if they like basketball if they only play baseball year round? How would a child who is hesitant about sports in general get an opportunity to try? Discovering new activities that they enjoy can be beneficial to a student’s confidence and resilience, and later on in life when they are sure to encounter everyday stressors, they will have more choices among physical activities to engage in to decompress.
Playing multiple sports enables students to learn different athletic movements and use different muscles from season-to-season. Too often, athletes who specialize in one sport sustain injuries because of repeated use, forcing them to miss time and endure pain. With involvement in multiple sports, injuries are less likely to occur because athletes are using different muscle groups for their various athletic activities, actively strengthening their total body. Moreover, as athletes continue to use more of their total body, they learn how their body responds to each activity, the importance of body mechanics as it relates to various sports, and how they might be able to optimize their performance in each sport. While this is essential at the youth and high school levels for performance, the benefits can continue into adulthood and contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
Lessons that Go Beyond the Classroom
If we begin to view athletics as a part of the curriculum, it becomes easy to understand how they can play a critical role in a child’s educational journey. While adversity certainly arises in the classroom, student athletes face a different set of opportunities and challenges that will help develop character traits that will serve them well in life.
Collaboration & Teamwork: For most sports, much like in life, success does not occur in a bubble. The beautiful touchdown pass thrown by the All-State quarterback? It cannot happen without the protection from the offensive line or the precise route run by the wide receiver. The game-winning three-point shot that made the home fans storm the basketball court? This does not occur without the various screens set or the perfect pass that landed right in their shooting pocket. By depending on one another, student-athletes begin to comprehend the power of working together because they are far more likely to accomplish their goals with the help of their teammates than trying to do it all by themselves. And unlike group work in the classroom, which does have its own merits, there is a need for quick-thinking and problem-solving in athletic competitions that is hard to replicate anywhere else.
Empathy: As student-athletes learn the power of working with others through sports, they also learn how to be a good teammate. Tough losses and critical mistakes occur often in athletics, especially at the middle and high school levels. The easy thing for a teammate to do in these scenarios is to point the finger and simply blame the player that made the costly error. Until it happens to them. And because they will inevitably experience this moment in competition, students begin to understand the power of empathy and encouragement because it is how they wish to be lifted up in their own moments of failure.
Tenacity and Resilience: Athletics give students the opportunity to enact tenacity in the face of adversity, testing their own resolve in difficult moments. When they are losing on the field, court, course, ice, or pool, students must learn to adapt, change their approach, and continue to believe in themselves and those around them.
Consider the feeling of being down by a goal or two on the soccer pitch in the second half against your arch rival. Do you give in? Or do you band together with your teammates and try to fight your way back? Naturally teammates play their hardest to recover and win, driven by both their own desire to succeed and their commitment to their fellow athletes. And if winning isn’t the outcome, they have the support of each other and the promise of the next match to help them get over the loss and move on to the next challenge. While this skill of resiliency is wildly important in athletics, it is even more valuable to have as one goes through the ups and downs of life.
The Bottom Line
When a school values athletics more as a unique learning experience and less as a stepping stone, students can benefit way beyond just accolades and scholarships. When families share these values––and are able to view sports through this lens––they will look for a school that exposes their child to rich learning opportunities rather than just college coaches alone. And the payoff for student athletes, ultimately, is improved physical and emotional well-being, and the development of skills that will help them well into adulthood.To learn about Wilmington Friends School's athletics program, check out this podcast with Athletic Trainer Devon Adams.
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