Are Sports Good for Kids?

I grew up in a household that placed little value on sports.  I was lucky to have an Aunt and Uncle next door with a cousin my same age that were a little more encouraging in that direction.  My cousin and I started playing sports when we were 7 years old.  It began with soccer and t-ball and morphed into football, basketball, snowboarding, paintball and later hockey as I grew up.  So was it all just for fun or was there some value to the years I spent kicking or hitting a ball around?  Am I better off today for having played sports growing up or would that time have been better spent studying or spending time with my family? I am entirely convinced my life is improved having played sports.  As my siblings and cousins begin having children I find myself having this discussion off and on.  So far I've found in my generation a general consensus that sports are good.  But my parents don't think that way and I'm sure there are many out there that think sports are pointless, barbaric activities that do harm to our culture.  I'll admit, I can see how some of those arguments can be made.

Let's take hockey as an example.  It is perceived as one of the more brutal sports played professionally in the U.S.  There's a lot of fighting, swearing, cheap shots and anger in that game.  How could playing or watching something like that possibly be beneficial to our kids?  Hockey is probably the hardest sport to justify and for that reason I will choose this to base my arguments.  After all, if I can convince someone (or myself) that hockey is not only ok but good for our society, surely you would find it easy to justify other sports.

The first obvious benefit to playing hockey (or any other sport) at a young age is the social interaction.  It's an outlet for kids to develop outside of the more sterilized classroom environment.  They're allowed to open up more and express their emotions whether it be frustration or disappointment.  It also provides a physical outlet to allow some relief from those emotional outbursts.  Expressing frustration or disappointment is obviously not always good.  Unchecked it can be done inappropriately and even cause harm to others.  When you're playing a sport like hockey you are far more likely to materialize these sorts of emotions, in a most extreme way, than you would during normal daily activities.  This is probably because sports draw the competitive side out of us.  That drive to win makes you vulnerable to losing control of your own emotions.  This is one of the greatest assets of sports, and not for the reason you might think.  I believe losing control of your own emotions is a learning experience, especially when you are a child.  Those times when it feels so right in the moment only for you to realize later how ridiculous and embarrassing it was (easy to to do these days when most phones take video now).  These are the moments when kids are developing themselves into the person they are going to be as an adult.  I'd like to believe someone who learns to control their emotions when someone hacks them in the back with a hockey stick will be able to do the same when someone cuts them off on the freeway.  Maybe an adult that had less exposure to this growing up might feel more inclined to run someone off of the road.  And of course, these things rely on proper mentors to allow this to be a positive experience.  If the emotional outbursts lead to violence on the ice and the coach doesn't explain to the kids why what they just did was wrong, they will have no way to learn from it.  The first step is realizing you're wrong.  You can only go up from there.

The motivating force for me to believe in the therapeutic qualities in sports is my own personal experience.  Through the magic of video and hindsight, I realized many years ago that who I was on the field, the court, or the ice was not who I thought I was away from those places.  When I decided to make fundamental changes in my mindset and my approach to life as a teenager I started right where my weaknesses were most easily exposed.  Sports.  I began talking to myself (in my head) between plays.  Whenever I felt justified in retaliating I would try to pause initially or in the best case just walk away.  It's not like I showed up one day and was a better person.  This process was only the beginning of over a decade long struggle that still continues to this day, albeit in a much more subtle way.   I play hockey every week.  When I am having issues away from the ice I find myself driven to express those at the rink (usually against someone wearing a jersey that is a different color from my own).  It gives me just the opportunity I need to address the issue and stop it where I want to express it most.  Win or lose the game, I always feel great when after the game I can say I don't regret anything I did that night.  Honestly, I don't know how my life would be different now if I didn't have that outlet growing up.  I would probably be in worse physical shape, maybe have fewer friends (or maybe not), probably have less confidence, and I'd have one less thing to look forward to week after week.  I can't imagine a single way my life would have benefited from not playing sports.

Of course, there are definitely down sides to sports that can negate everything I just said.  A debilitating injury would be one of those.  But we risk that every time we get in a car.  Perhaps the emotional highs could lead you to do something in a game with legal ramifications that you'd say were out of character.  It can eat up a lot of your free time, cost a lot of money, and potentially cause your grades to go down in school.  But those are all short term issues (outside of injury) that can be remedied and I believe the benefits of playing sports materialize over your entire lifetime.

I'm not saying make your kid play sports.  But I would like to say that if they're interested in it or any other after school activity, it should be supported!  It's one of the sacrifices parents should make to ensure their kids have a well rounded, interactive, diversified upbringing.  Maximize their exposure to this stuff now so that they're better equipped to deal with it as they grow older.  If they try it and hate it, encourage them to try something else.  If you're lucky they will find something they are passionate about and draw on this motivation throughout their entire lives.  Maybe even make a living of it!

Why Hockey is still Canada's Sport

Few American's could tell you when the Stanley Cup Playoffs are played.  In fact, the vast majority of you probably don't even know that they're going on right now!  Contrast this with Canada where, not unlike the Lakers in Los Angeles, they have rioted after wins and losses.  Why is a sport so beloved by our neighbors to the north stuck in the ratings gutter here in the States? The most common theory behind the struggling league is that it's not a family friendly sport.  It's easy to see where that view point comes from.  Ask any non-hockey fan what a typical NHL game is like and they'll tell you "lots of fights, right?"  Right.  There are fights in hockey.  And I do believe that plays a large role in keeping the league at its "indie" status.  But there are also contradictions in this stigma placed on the game.  Baseball is probably the only other American sport that could rival hockey in the professionalism of its athletes.  Both leagues have bad seeds of course, but you will never hear of an NHL player involved in a shooting at a bar or bringing a gun to the locker room.  Sitting out part of the season to secure a more lucrative contract is unheard of.  In fact, the lockout that cancelled the 2004-2005 season was an effort by team owners to cut pay to athletes already making less than any other major professional sport in the country.  Most NHL players are humble and reserved in pre and post game interviews.  They take the sport very seriously.

You may be wondering how athletes who appear to be so professional would be so vicious on the ice.  The answer is it's part of the game.  Many fights are calculated plays.  It is not uncommon for an NHL team to employ a "bruiser" to be their enforcer in situations where a muscle man is needed.  And it should be mentioned that a fight on ice is nothing like a fight on grass with cleats or tennis shoes on asphalt.  There is a reason injuries in hockey fights are so rare.  They look worse than they are.  You can only do so much when you're standing on a rail on ice.  This is a large factor why there has been little effort by the league to get rid of fighting.  Though many issues were addressed after the lockout season as to ways to better market the sport.  Disallowing fighting was one of the considered rule changes among many that didn't catch much traction.

Also consider how difficult it is for the average American to play hockey as a child.  If you're lucky enough to have an ice rink nearby, you'd certainly have an opportunity to play.  That is if your parents are willing to shell out the several hundred dollars in gear on top of the several hundred dollar league fees (per season).  I believe this is the overwhelming reason hockey remains such an underground sport on this side of the Canadian border.  Like many other sports, it's hard to enjoy or appreciate it when you don't know the rules.  You probably won't be motivated to learn the rules of hockey on your own with the idea that you might enjoy watching it afterwards.

So what would it take to put hockey into the living rooms of American families?  It would probably take a considerable effort by the NHL to promote the sport at the youth level.  Canada has the perfect climate to facilitate a rink on every corner, driving down costs.  That will not happen in the US unless the NHL steps in and makes a contribution.  It's unlikely that will happen anytime soon.  Many hockey teams are struggling financially.  Look at the turmoil in Phoenix with the Coyotes.

For now it appears the NHL will remain on the sidelines for most American sports fans.  Though what fans it does have are tremendously loyal.  If nothing else the public might learn something from that.  Hockey is an exciting sport with highly skilled players.  If you've never tried it go to a game sometime!  You might just discover a new addiction.