Children need physical activity every day. Exercise leads to improved physical and emotional health. It has been proved that sport contributes to higher grades and academic success too and teaches children valuable lessons that will help them in the workplace. Many academic reports highlight how sport helps children develop character and to learn important social and brain skills such as problem-solving, resilience, perseverance, confidence and teamwork. A team can’t succeed unless they work together so sport teaches children the important lesson of learning how to work as a team to achieve a goal.
Some children are naturally interested in physical activity, while others aren’t that keen. Children can best find a sport they enjoy when they have the opportunity to try a wide variety of different sports. Many students find they most enjoy sports that give them the opportunity to compete individually, rather than as a team. In sports like athletics or swimming, athletes can strive to improve their times without pressure from being part of a team. But as students improve their individual performance, the team will benefit as a whole. Each child ultimately will have a different goal or objective when they practise a sport.
Sometimes kids feel pressured to pursue a sport that is not interesting to them. Others feel pressured to focus on just one sport, which can be limiting both physically and socially if they wish to participate in several different ones. The most important thing is to ensure that children naturally incorporate exercise into their life. Parents, schools and clubs need to help children to find their passion, instead of trying to determine it for them. Keeping it fun and encouraging instead of forcing is key.
Keep it fun
Doing sports together as a family it is also very important. This way, parents show children they value fitness and enjoy sports even if they are not competing at a high level.
Kids learn that sports are important by watching their parents participate in them. They also learn that sports are fun by watching people enjoy themselves while playing them. It is important that parents don’t push the children too early into situations that will be frustrating and don’t push them too hard as it will create burnout. As psychologists suggest, it is important to ask the kid directly: Are you having fun? The answer should be, ‘Oh, yeah,’ with some enthusiasm behind it.” If the young athletes are not having fun, they will eventually walk away. Sports needs to be a strenuous form of play for children.
In the UK, “PE with Joe” was a great hit during lockdown. On Monday 23rd March, Joe Wicks, known as the Bodycoach, started hosting a free live workout aimed at kids on his YouTube channel. With the schools closed, he offered this Physical Education lesson to all children to keep fit during lockdown. He ran those classes for four months. A record-breaking number of 955,185 households tuned in to PE with Joe on the 24th March. It was a family event that encouraged many people to exercise together in a fun way, with dress up on Fridays, for example.
A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that what makes sports really engaging for kids is trying hard, making progress, being a good sport and experiencing positive coaching. It also highlighted the need for rest for children playing a lot of sport. “Kids need a few days a week away from organized sports, but they also need bigger blocks of time off, at least a couple of four-week blocks every year away where their activity is just playing casually with friends”, said Dr Logan, the director of the division of sports medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and co-author of the report.
Clubs around the world have developed their own academies to offer children the opportunity to enjoy playing their favourite sport while learning about the most important values of belonging to a team. Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia has the objective to educate their players of the future both in sports performance and intellectually. In 2010, Le Ballon D’Or had three finalists from La Masia: Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Ajax has also been famous for its Academy and its philosophy of TIPS: Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed.
Rafa Nadal has always been concerned by the fact that it is difficult to prepare for life as a professional tennis player at the same time as continuing studies. He has set up the Rafa Nadal International School which allows athletes to combine tennis and studies. The student-centred education is built around the core values of respect and responsibility.
With sport, children learn about sportsmanship, respect, discipline. They learn to congratulate others on their effort and victories. They learn to play at their best but appreciate the effort of others. They have to respect the rival and teammates and work hard to achieve their best. But things get trickier when sport demands more time. It is understood that 70% of children are dropping out of organized sports by the age of 13. It is an age when school and other interests may take more time and children don’t want to commit to so many hours to training. Here is where the family play again a key role to encourage sport for fun, to socialise even if it is not to compete at higher level.
But some parents may question themselves whether sport is a good idea when they’re up late helping their child with homework. The response is clear: in the long run, the benefits outweigh the inconveniences and prepare children to excel on and off the field. Children who are competent at sports are more easily accepted by children of their own age, and are more likely to be team captains and group leaders. Such children usually have better social skills.
Failure is good
The primary goal of parents and coaches is to help children find the success in sport to make them feel valued and wanted. Great players develop in environments where they do not fear mistakes, where they are encouraged to try and fail, and they are made to understand that failure is a necessary part of the development process. When you are watching your kid’s games, either cheer positively after a play or say nothing at all. Yelling at them won’t help at all.
John O’Sullivan, ex football player and coach, founded Changing the Game Project to ensure that youth sports put the “play” back into “Play Ball”. He reminds coaches and parents that while defeat hurts, failure shouldn’t always be perceived negatively in youth sports. “If we want our children to develop resilience and grit then they will need to face adversity from time to time.” Young athletes learn the most when given the freedom to learn for themselves though sporting situations.
Every child can be successful at one sport or another. It is important to take the time to find the sports that are right for each child and encourage them to keep “playing”.
Tània Vié Riba