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!