We all grew up hearing about how important it was to participate in school sports. Our coaches told us it would make us tough, teach us social skills and, most of all, help us “build character.”
Turns out, the coach was only about half right.
While participation in school and community sports programs can do all the above, studies show it can do much, much more, particularly in the increasingly important area of school connectedness.
School connectedness is a term used to describe the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care not just about their learning, but also about them as individuals. The more we study it, the more we find it plays an absolutely vital role in academic success, lowering drop-out rates and even their long-term success as adults.
Research has shown that young people who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in many risk behaviors, including early sexual initiation, alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, and violence and gang involvement. Students who feel connected to their school are also more likely to have better academic achievement, including higher grades and test scores, have better school attendance, and stay in school longer.
What that means to you and me is that when our children feel a real connection to their schools, they do better in life. And while there are numerous ways to make that happen — arts, music, quiz bowl and clubs to name a few — sports can be a good start for many children.
That fact is so well known that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually recommends that schools use school sporting events and physical education classes to promote teamwork and sportsmanship and emphasize fair play and nonviolence.
So, as we said, the coach was right.
She was also right (and see what we did there, making the coach a female!) in telling us that sports help children develop physical skills, get exercise, make friends, have fun, learn to play as a member of a team, learn to play fair, and improve self-esteem.
All that said, we also can acknowledge that the American sports culture has changed the way we treat athletes, even at the student level. The highly stressful, competitive, “win at all costs” attitude prevalent at colleges and with professional athletes affects the world of children’s sports and athletics and can create an unhealthy environment. It is important to remember that the attitudes and behavior taught to children in sports carry over to adult life. Parents should take an active role in helping their child develop good sportsmanship.
To help your child get the most out of sports, you need to be actively involved. This includes providing emotional support and positive feedback, attending games and talking about them afterward, having realistic expectations for your child, learning about the sport and supporting your child’s involvement and, helping your child talk with you about their experiences with the coach and other team members.
Sports also offer parents the opportunity to help your child handle disappointments and losing, and teaching them by modeling respectful spectator behavior. In other words, how not to be “that jerk in the stands.”
We now know the lessons learned during children’s sports will shape values and behaviors for adult life.
Which is exactly what the coach told us.