From the basketball court to the soccer field, the tennis court to the swimming pool, youth sports are the ultimate classroom. Kids learn the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, respect for authority and rules, and how to win with class and lose with dignity.
“Sports are the greatest tool we have in today’s society to help children develop positive character traits and life values,” says Greg Bach, Vice President of Communications for the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “No other place affords them the opportunity to soak up as many quality values as sports participation provides.”
Here are five important benefits of youth sports and how grandparents can get involved:
“Being involved in athletic experiences isn’t just about winning or losing,” says Dr. Joel Fish, Director of the Center of Sports Psychology, and author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child. “It’s about more important things like effort, skill-building and team participation.”
Even players on the losing team demonstrate their individual skills when playing—kicking, hitting, or catching the ball, or beating a personal record. Losing often motivates kids to work harder for next time. Attitude is all about perspective.
Athletes view competitions on and off the field as opportunities to learn from their successes and failures. They try hard and pursue excellence, not perfection. Learning to have a positive outlook on an experience, win or lose, is an important skill kids can apply to other areas of life. Remember that the most elite basketball players are successful around 50% of the time, and the greatest baseball hitters strike out 65 percent of the time.
“These are characteristics we want our children to develop and carry with them the rest of their lives,” says Bach. “Having a good attitude is something we look for in people that we choose to be friends with or hire to work with us. And it all springs from sports.”
Get involved: Grandparents can be role models imparting the idea that all athletes win some and lose some. “We can’t control the message about competition our grandkids get from TV or from their friends, but we can reinforce the message of the importance of having a positive attitude,” says Fish. “When grandparents role model the perspective that they are proud of their grandchildren whether they won the game or not, whether they hit the ball or not, they are reinforcing how important it is to have a positive attitude throughout life.”
Bonding with coaches on the playing field makes kids more open to what these adults have to say about life off the field, too.
The best coaches do not just teach athletic skills; they use their positive influence to instill healthy habits. Coaches can talk to kids about the importance of staying away from drugs, tobacco, and alcohol and how using those substances can detract from their ability to perform on the field.
“Coaches are in a unique position to impact a child for life so it’s important that they take advantage of it and focus on being a positive influence,” says Bach.
Get Involved: Attend a practice session, game, or event and watch how the coach interacts with the kids. This will help reinforce the coach’s positive impact. If distance is a factor, ask your grandkids about their coaches. Help them see how the coach’s insight can be applicable to other endeavors.
According to Bach, most youth leagues do a background check on each coach, offer a training program for volunteer coaches, and periodically evaluate the coach’s performance throughout the season. Organizations like the National Youth Sports Coach Association train volunteer coaches about their responsibilities as role models. With more than 3,000 chapters across the country, they are dedicated to ensuring that every child has a safe and positive athletic experience.
Dealing with pressure
Part of being an athlete is learning how to persist through difficult tasks, especially when the going gets tough. “Sports helps kids learn techniques to deal with great pressure,” explains Fish. “These are the same skills that will help your grandchild achieve success in other venues. If you can achieve under pressure in the sports world; if you can learn how to relax, focus, and maintain your confidence, you will be one step closer to achieving success in other pressurized situations like exams and sticky social situations.”
Get Involved: In conversation with your grandkids, talk about the importance of sharpening the 4C’s on the playing field and beyond: confidence (the ability to believe in oneself at all times), control (the ability to resist distractions), concentration (the ability to maintain focus), and commitment (the ability to continue working towards one’s goals despite challenges).
Being part of a sports team helps kids develop crucial social skills. Whether they are listening to other people’s perspectives or placing the needs of the team before their own, young athletes are taught that, for a team to effectively work together, all members must respect each other’s abilities, contributions, and opinions.
Teamwork is not just an integral part of youth sports; kids engage in lots of other activities throughout the day that require group participation. In class they work on projects in pairs. On the playground, joint efforts are necessary for fun. And in the lunchroom, kids participate in conversations around the table.
Get Involved: Besides sports, board games can inspire teamwork. Team up with your grandchildren and host a family board game night. Whether you’re playing classic favorites like Monopoly or a cult game like Settlers of Kattan, encourage kids and adults to work together as the family spends a fun evening refining good sportsmanship traits.
Playing by the rules
Learning how to play fair is one of the most important lessons kids gain from participating in youth sports. All athletes experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but when they can win with humility and lose with pride, they leave the field with improved character.
“When kids get involved in team sports from a young age, they are taught to value playing by the rules,” says Fish. “Get them in the habit of being [honorable] on the basketball court, even when it seems hard.”
Get Involved: When kids get mixed messages that success equals winning and failure means losing, this subtlety can lead kids to try so hard in competitions that they go beyond the rules because the stakes are too high.
“Grandparents can offer a very important counterbalance through words of wisdom and support,” says Fish. “Subtle things like a thumbs-up sign and positive behavior on the sidelines when an official makes a controversial call all help a child understand that success isn’t just about winning and that no matter what, rules are rules.”
Everyone experiences the occasional hit or strike, foul or out, throughout life. Playing and living by the rules makes successful citizens, because they make mistakes and learn from them, one inning at a time.