- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

It is a sunny autumn Sunday, and a dozen sports teams are playing on a Chantilly athletic field.

A youth football team is warming up, and a handful of girls' and boys' soccer teams are in various stages of the game. Two baseball teams are high-fiving down the line, mumbling "good game" to their opponents.

It is scene similar to ones all over the Washington area and all over the country. The youths might not realize it now, but the lessons they are learning by being involved with sports will go way beyond punting, passing and kicking. Ideally, playing sports sets up a lifetime love of fitness, a foundation of self-esteem and principles of competition and teamwork that will carry over into the workplace one day.

"The lessons kids get from playing sports are completely as valuable as the sports skills themselves," says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a New York physician specializing in sports medicine and author of "The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents."

"The field or court is a safe place to play out and learn the issues of life. You can experience winning and losing, joy and pain, what it means to effectively prepare and what happens when someone is better than you."

Dr. Metzl says sports offer a unique learning experience for children because they provide a way for a youngster to get involved as a complete human being. Being part of a team is a social experience as well as a physical one. It also is a wonderful emotional and psychological training ground.

He can pinpoint highlights and lowlights from his own youth sports career that still impact him today.

"I played on a 10-and-under football team with kids from all different socioeconomic backgrounds," Dr. Metzl says. "So I learned to get along with all sorts of kids. My soccer team lost in the district finals. I was so sad and dejected, but we had to get past that. I broke my jaw and had to recover and get back on the field. Recently, I completed the Ironman Triathlon in 12 hours. It is all about overcoming injuries and setting new limits. Playing sports made a big difference."

Tina Wallace agrees. Her 12-year-old daughter, Hillary, plays for the Chantilly Youth Association's Purple Aces, a select soccer team for 12- and 13-year-old girls.

"There is a certain panache in having to try out and work for something," Mrs. Wallace says of the competitive level at which her daughter plays. "When they have a wonderful season, they feel so great about themselves."

She also sees Hillary setting priorities and making sacrifices.

"When she comes home from school, she knows she has practice, so she really has to prioritize her work," Mrs. Wallace says. "We recently had two commitments in one weekend, one of which was a big tournament. We had a discussion, and she really felt the team needed her. Hillary also has learned from negative experiences, from politics and cliques on teams and a difficult coach. All things being equal, though, if you have supportive parents and good coaches, sports can be a wonderful experience. I hope she plays sports forever."

Reaping the benefits

As a nation, Americans are notoriously sedentary.

Sixty-four percent of adults in this country are overweight, as are 15 percent of children and adolescents, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which was published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Obesity among adults has doubled since 1980, while the number of overweight children and adolescents has tripled. Extra weight can lead to conditions such as high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

Numerous government studies also point out that children who play sports are more likely to stay in school, more likely to get good grades and less likely to use drugs.

With school physical education programs being scaled back because of budget cuts and the need to meet state standards of learning in other areas, extracurricular sports are some youngsters' only chance to avoid becoming part of those statistics, says Shane Murphy, a Connecticut sports psychologist and author of the book "The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today."

"It is tremendously important to get kids involved with sports early, especially with the lifelong pattern of physical inactivity we have in this country," Mr. Murphy says. "As a nation, we are largely inactive. Playing sports builds healthy habits, but we sometimes get obsessed with the competition aspects. I have conversations all the time about what is it going to mean 20 years from now that you won the Under-7 championship. Well, it might mean nothing, but it might mean you still go to the gym every day."

Mariah Burton Nelson, an Arlington author and former Division I college basketball player, grew up swimming and playing tennis, water polo, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball and basketball. Ms. Nelson, 46, still swims on a master's swim team, golfs and bikes, among other sports.

"Even if I wake up one day and find myself too sick or disabled to move, I'll still be an athlete," says Ms. Nelson, who outlines the benefits of a lifelong commitment to sports in her latest book, "We Are All Athletes: Bringing Courage, Confidence and Peak Performance Into Our Everyday Lives."

Ms. Nelson says the payoff for her has been more than physical. Because she played sports, she is able to look at life and all its challenges as a game.

"If you see life as a game, you can lose and go on to win another day," she says. "You realize it is not the end of the world."

She equates taking risks to a basketball game.

"Playing sports lets you forgive yourself for mistakes," she says. "If you steal the ball and go for what should have been an easy layup, but you miss, you could stand there and be mad, or you can hustle down the court and play good defense. Life is like a basketball game it moves very quickly. If you don't forgive yourself immediately, you are going to get bogged down. We all make a lot of mistakes."

Tony Stango, a physical education teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville, says he tries to get that point across daily. Just a small percentage of his seventh- and eighth-grade students play organized sports, so gym class might be the only place they learn the lessons of competition.

"I just want them to get out and keep trying," says Mr. Stango, who played a number of sports as a youth, including football on a state finalist team. "They might fall, but they have to get up and go again. That will help them when they get out in the real world. You might have a job interview, and you have to be on time. You might not get that job, but you have to get up and go to another one."

Sports may be the only area in some youth's lives in which they are getting the praise to boost their self-esteem, he says.

"It is amazing how some kids may have trouble in academics but excel in my class," Mr. Stango says. "It really builds a lot of self-confidence."

Different lessons can come from each level of sports, says Linda Bunker, a University of Virginia sports psychologist. Five-year-olds playing on their first soccer teams may look like they are just swarming the ball, but really they are learning the language of sports, Ms. Bunker says.

"Even at that level they are learning to trust each other, to not try to do everything themselves," she says.

And while sports such as gymnastics, tennis, swimming and golf stress personal performance, there are still team lessons to be learned, Ms. Bunker says. In those sports, individual statistics often add up to a team result so by committing to be better than an opponent, an athlete is committing to the team.

"Individual sports teach us to be responsible for your behavior," she says. "You still learn that you cannot always be a success, and that the competition might be better than you. Then you have to set standards and work on your forehand."

Parents and coaches

The benefits children get from playing sports can go a lot further if parents and coaches work together appropriately, Mr. Murphy says.

"The mark of a good program is to be clear about the goals," he says. "It is OK to have competitive programs if it matches the skill level of the players. To start with, though, there needs to be appropriate training, such as not trying to make 6-year-olds play positional soccer. They should be learning about sharing, cooperation and waiting their turn at that age."

There is also an appropriate way to offer criticism to youngsters who are just learning the game, Mr. Murphy says. Younger children will stick with sports longer if they are offered positive criticism.

"If a child makes a mistake, the way to change that is to say, 'Great effort, but change this …'" Mr. Murphy says. "When children are past 12 or 13 and much more focused and specific, then it can be criticism. They can learn to deal with it and not take it personally. That can also be a life lesson. A child may say, 'The coach doesn't appreciate how talented I am.' I tell him, 'Your boss won't appreciate how talented you are someday, so you need to show them.'"

Jim Thompson is the founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a nonprofit group based out of Stanford University. The PCA offers workshops and training materials for youth sports coaches who want to return to fundamentals and life lessons and reduce the emphasis on winning at all costs.

Mr. Thompson says parents and coaches can ensure that children have a positive experience if they follow these principles:

•Honor the game. This means showing respect for the rules, the opponents, officials, teammates and the traditions of the game.

•Redefine "winner": Help players use a definition of mastery of skills rather than the scoreboard. The focus should be on effort, learning and improvement, and developing the courage to make mistakes and rebound from them.

"A winner is someone who gives maximum effort, improves and learns from mistakes," Mr. Thompson says. "If you focus on getting better, then you win more. And even if you have no hope of winning, you will still focus on trying to achieve that goal."

•Fill children's "emotional tanks": Recognize that athletes need to have full tanks to be able to play their best. Mr. Thompson says this can best be achieved by a 5-to-1 praise-to-criticism ratio.

"If their tanks are empty, they are not going to play well," he says. "I see this all the time, when coaches are screaming at kids. I am in favor of kid-friendly criticism, where you avoid criticizing if it is a non-teachable moment. If a kid strikes out to end the game and his dad shows him again how to hit the ball, that is not a teachable moment. Those [moments] happen when kids' emotional tanks are full.

Instead, go out to eat and discuss the game. That could lead to an empowering conversation.

"When a parent wants a kid to be successful and starts analyzing his performance, that is a tank-drainer to a kid who is already getting advice from his coach," Mr. Thompson says. "A parent's job is to focus on the life lessons, to ask rather than tell. See if your child has any thoughts on how he could have done better."

Parents and children talking about the game might reveal that they have different reasons for being involved, Ms. Bunker says.

"Parents need to figure out what the kids want to get out of the experience," she says. "Some children just want to be part of a team, to play with other kids. If that is the case, then parents have to not get mad if they are picking clovers in the outfield. There is nothing worse than a parent saying, 'That was a terrible loss,' and the child saying, 'But I kicked the ball.' We need to change the focus from 'Did you win?' to 'How did you do?'"

Sometimes, it might take some shopping around before parent and child find the right sport and the right coach. Ms. Bunker says trying a variety of sports can pay off in many skills and even expertise in one.

"Martina Navratilova is a good example," she says. "Growing up, she played lots of other sports in addition to tennis."

Mr. Murphy agrees.

"There are a lot of sports out there," he says. "Soccer, football and basketball aren't the only ones. Shop around. Your child might excel at cross-country running, tennis or volleyball."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide