Sports or ‘Soft Kids’? (Revisited)

Who would have thought that insisting on the benefit of playing sports would be so controversial? To those who joined the discussion, thanks for your comments. I hope we can discuss other parenting topics in the coming months. Here’s how I net out this topic (sports): First, every family is different and let’s presume we are all trying to make prudent, wise decisions for our children’s good.

Second, as parents, we need to have a plan—some principles, concrete objectives, and actual follow-through—if we are going to succeed in raising children of strong character.  We need more than the “plant theory” of child-raising (feed ‘em, water ’em, make sure they get plenty of sunshine, and just watch them grow).

I’ll unpack general principles of good character formation another time, but the relevant point here is this: our kids need to engage in sustained, challenging, physical activity on a regular basis. (That’s a more general definition of “sports,” but  “sports” is my shorthand.) In the U.S., “sports” typically means organized team sports or individual sports, but certainly could be pursued otherwise (as Darcy’s comment shows—she’s got a basketball team of boys under her own roof). If your kids are not doing sports, what are they doing to stay fit and to challenge themselves physically, nearly every day?  What realistic plan do you pursue to make that happen?

My experience is that most kids who are not doing sports actually do nothing physical—or at least nothing that’s physically challenging on a regular basis. And that will indeed make them “soft.” It does them a disservice for life.

Why do they need to do sports? Because, as I argue in my original piece,  we are physical beings.  We are made to move and to be strong—and failing to care for ourselves physically makes us less balanced as a person.  It’s like trying to craft a stable chair with one leg made of spaghetti.  Most importantly, physical challenges—like sports—test the character in a way that sedentary pursuits or passive sacrifices (however real) do not.  Like it or not, our life will entail physical—bodily—sufferings and challenges.  Those sufferings and difficulties easily can make us bitter, self-pitying, and resentful rather than holy. The simple fact is that when it comes to virtue, practice makes perfect (almost, anyway)—it just plain helps to have pushed oneself and persevered through physical challenges, with the right attitude.  We become enabled, not disabled, by overcoming difficulty.

The character-building benefits of sports begin with physical testing and pushing our limits, but they extend beyond that to so many other important aspects.  There’s neither time nor space to list them all, but I’ll throw out a few examples: When a 13-year-old playing basketball gets elbowed or fouled on purpose—and it hurts—but the ref doesn’t call it, he learns to control his temper, to resist provocation, to focus on the game, and be a good sport—no matter how much it hurts.  When a runner trains and trains for the CYO track meet, only to sprain an ankle the week before the race, she learns to overcome disappointment, to show up and generously cheer for teammates, and to persevere through the arduous work of getting back in shape all over again, after the injury is healed, but with no trophy or prize to show for her effort.  And when an eight-year-old who is gifted athletically wants to hog the ball and score ten goals–just because he can–he learns to pass, to give others the chance to score, to teach and encourage others less-skilled, to be modest instead of boastful, and to avoid criticizing the mistakes of others.

For the un-athletic child, participating in sports might be even more important. Perhaps that child’s inclination is to avoid physically difficult tasks, or to avoid the social embarrassment of being “the worst.”  To me, it’s better to help the child learn, instilling competency, confidence, and determination to do her best rather than quit. At the same time, it’s up to parents to find a sport which is do-able, fits the child’s temperament, and that provides opportunity for skill development rather than failure.  (For example, kids who don’t enjoy head-to-head competition sometimes thrive in a sport like tae kwan do; it emphasizes personal mastery, progression according to specific skills, and mixed-age classes so there’s no worry about lagging behind age-mates.) The specific goal for a child who dislikes sports (fitness, social confidence) will be different from the one who excels in them (scholarships, excellence).  But for both children, important character training takes place in the pursuit of those goals. If we are motivated to find the options, and believe in their value, there’s a sports-fit for nearly everyone.

A final observation…I spent over a year caring for my mother-in-law during her final illness and spent many hours with other sick, elderly, and dying people.  Old age, illness, and dying are not easy. When we’re in the throes of suffering, it’s too late to prepare.  We just have to deal.  And those who are “soft” ultimately suffer more, because they are unprepared to face physical hardship.  That’s true not just at the end of life, but at every stage.  Who wants that for their kids? We can do better.

Enough said. It’s a beautiful day and I’m heading outside…to soccer.

(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson
See more blogs at Phases of Womanhood

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12 thoughts on “Sports or ‘Soft Kids’? (Revisited)

  1. Mary,

    I held myself back from commenting on your last post. I had so much I wanted to say about the benefit of sports, and also the benefit of any discipline that requires practice and the development of skill.

    I have a son, that at any HS in the area, would have been denied access to sports teams because he is a mediocre athlete. He has play little league and swam on the neighborhood swim team, but never really gained the glory that top competitors achieve. Until he went to his private HS where all were welcomed to join and compete at the level of their skill, did he see the value of working hard to break through that barrier of “never good enough to make the cut.” He now swims for a Div III team here in Northern VA. Those years of perseverance paid off and he has the confidence to succeed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his father and I taught him to never quit.

    Along a similar strain, my daughter is a muscian; she sings and plays the piano. She likes sports, but her music keeps her very busy and very disciplined. She has achieved more than we could have imagined in a short time. She is even learning Irish step from a friend on the side. While she only participates in a team sport in the summer, through the rest of the year she develops her talents to bring joy to others and to herself.

    My point is that I don’t think that what you describe is necessarily achieved only through participation in team sports. A child who trains to sing a very difficult piece of music only to develop laryngitis learns a similar lesson to the girl who sprains her ankle. I think the idea of being in an activity that involves discipline and development of technique, where you are encouraged to strive to do your best, can also produce children who are not “soft” but, rather, prepared to face the challenges that life presents.

  2. I wanted to comment again and say that I, too, think fundamental knowledge of sports is very important. I have alwasy told my husband, especially with 6 boys, that I want them to be competeten enough in sports so that they can relate to other men, as you wrote earlier. I think specifically of future in laws getting together for a pick up game of basketball or some tag football. I think it is important for my boys to know enough to play along. That being said, we have chosen to teach them those skills at home. Knowing that their “coach” was captain of the football and bsketball teams in high school makes me more comfortable doing it that way too. “:0)

    Thank you for your post. It has made me re -evaluate why we do things the way we do, as I know there is always a chance we, too, could end up in your shoes, right in the heart of competetive sports.

  3. Hi Mary,
    Your original post was very timely for my family. In fact, I forwarded it to the email addresses of my older children with a note telling them to read it to understand why our family is going to continue our long standing tradition of summer swim team. Since my children tend to be interested in music and performing arts, we have little time in our schedule for sport team commitments during the school year. (Rehearsals and music lessons keep me driving far too much each week already.) But I have consoled myself with the fact that at least they get hard physical exercise on a daily basis each summer.

    The older kids have complained recently about swim team and asked if they could just drop it this summer. “The water is too cold!” they say. “I hate getting up early day after day during the summer!” “Those coaches must not realize how tiring it is to do all those laps they require.”

    I had already told them that swim team is not optional, but reading your blog post gave me the words to explain it to them better. Thank you!

  4. These two sports posts were exactly what I needed to see now. My 10 yr old is struggling on his baseball team. He loves the sport, but his sensitive nature has him taking personal offense to every correction by the coach. He takes personal offense when his parents correct him, too!

    The temptation is very strong to simply not allow him to play sports. Indeed I believe I threatened him with only being allowed to play chess and be in a book club, simply because I was tried of his never-ending complaints about how the coach made him do push ups (he makes ALL the boys do push ups, even my older son had to do some “just because”), how scared he was of being hit by the ball, and how he doesn’t have any friends on the team (we’re new to the area).

    On the one hand, I’m telling him that “this is life.” Sometimes it hurts, sometimes we get “punished” unfairly, not everybody loves us. And on the other hand, I’m telling him if he can’t handle it, he won’t be “allowed” to play sports. Deep down, I know what he really needs is exactly this. He needs to be pushed, and it needs to come from an external source (coach, team), because he does not yet have the self-discipline or internal drive to improve himself on his own.

    • Michelle- yes! this is such a good experience to be pushed from an external source, and I especially appreciated this as a homeschool mom of sons.
      We saw my son’s transition to Catholic High School almost seem effortless, and he attributes this to all of the “coping skills” (his words) he learned through participation in sports.
      He has also made observations about how he handles his part time job difficulties by drawing on experiences he had on sports teams.
      btw, all sons push ups are a regular requirement around here! 😉

  5. Michelle,
    I think you’ve captured a dilemma shared by many parents. I hope you follow your instincts and encourage him to persevere.

    A few thoughts…
    If you help him set some specific personal goals related to his own skills (working on his batting form, reading the play consistently, covering the base more quickly, etc.), meeting those personal goals can help him push through the other aspects he finds that are unpleasant. It does help to get to know other team members–I’ve found that it helps to find out who lives close by and offer them rides to practice. Over the years, our kids formed the best friendships with teammates who were carpool buddies. It breaks the ice off-field. On field, when your son compliments another player’s good effort (“Hey, nice hit.”) it can open the door to reciprocity and friendship.

    As for coaches’ corrections…Especially at his age, it’s so important that coaches correct specific things a player can change or work on, while encouraging their effort, rather than yelling about them being “too slow” or making a mistake (“What’d ya drop the ball for?”). I have talked to coaches who attempts to motivate by ridicule or constant negativity and even changed teams in situations that were too negative, intense or destructive. You can reassure your son that you’re watching out for him on that score. But the reality is that he has much to learn and no one expects him to be perfect. Most coaches do a really good job encouraging and teaching and I hope your son will focus on the specifics and realize the spirit in which the correction is given–to make him a better player, because the coach has confidence that he can indeed improve his form, strategy, conditioning. It’s a vote of confidence in his ability and potential! Good luck…

  6. I found this part interesting:

    “My experience is that most kids who are not doing sports actually do nothing physical—or at least nothing that’s physically challenging on a regular basis.”

    I wonder to what extent this might be tied back into your dismissal of the “feed ’em, wather ’em…” approach to parenting 🙂 Many children (if not “fed” video games, TV, texting, etc–but I didn’t see those in the plant theory list) will find ways to be physically active and set their own goals and strive to meet those. Perhaps they will gravitate to organized sports, perhaps to long hikes in the woods or climbing the tallest tree (or the tallest crag on the local hill) or running fast and faster, or learning square dance or period folk dances and starting a local society to dance with 🙂 And perhaps we as parents can help this by encouraging involvement in sports, or Boy Scout 50-milers…or perhaps by buying a house in a walkable neighborhood and then walking as a family. Nothing like lugging home pounds and pounds of library books (or a baby brother) just…one..more..block to teach endurance.

    As you say, we are physical beings, and it is exactly that physicality that will lead people (if given the freedom) to find a way to stretch their physical limits.

    On the other hand, while community soccer fun-matches may be a great way to keep fit and let off stress, it is more likely that a passion for piano (even piano, which you don’t have to lug everywhere) or MathCounts competitions will inspire a child to really push past the feeling of not wanting to go on.

  7. THANK YOU! from the bottom of my heart thanks for expressing so eloquently what I have been having a hard time articulating for years.
    We’ve got 4 boys, then a girl. 17, 14,11,8, 5, (and baby due!).
    We homeschool until 8th, then send to Catholic High School. Our oldest showed NO interest in sports. In fact, he would “freeze up” and literally cry when we took him to a Christian soccer league at age 6 or so.
    I am so glad I listened to my gut and my dh and didn’t label him as not liking sports. We persevered gently, but firmly through a fall, winter, and spring sport each year, with each son.
    I don’t think the age of introducing the sport seemed to matter with our sons, whether it was age 5 or 8, they all balked at participating at first.
    Soccer, Basketball, Baseball soon branched into Football, Wrestling, and Rugby as well.
    We told the boys that since we homeschooled, sports were their physical education time.
    Yes, they spend and spent hours outdoors riding bikes, imaginative play and the like.
    Nothing compares to the education they have received through group organized sports participation.
    We underwent many criticisms from homeschooled families when we prayerfully decided to say “yes” to our 3rd son joining a travel club soccer team at a young age.
    These same families spent far more time and money in Suzuki Violin, or Drama – really anything but sports seemed to be acceptable!
    We live on a very limited income, and the time and money spent has been invaluable, and for years now has been a fair portion of our homeschool budget.
    Our oldest is so confident, and thanks us for “making him” play sports as a kid.
    He’s looking at a football scholarship now at Ave Maria University, and a school with a rugby club is a must!
    We’ve noticed a curious thing: his grades actually drop in those few weeks off in between sports.
    Lastly, my sons have ADD tendencies and organized sports- that combination of sheer physical-ness and requirement of concentration have helped them much more than other methods ever have!

  8. We’ve pursued a similar path to Lisa, with most of our kids homeschooling through eighth and then going to high school. I, too, noticed that their grades were higher, academic focus was sharper, and time organization was better during the season than when they were off. Sports have certainly offered that character formation and toughness in the face of pain that I wrote about earlier–but so many other benefits as well. Confidence is a big one! Congrats to your oldest for sticking with it and doing so well…and to you, for following your intuition even when others questioned it.

    I hope other families will persevere and not interpret reluctance as a sign that their kids “can’t” or shouldn’t play sports. It really is worth it! (And our kids often do say “thanks” years down the road, as you discovered. ) Our kids have parents because they often can’t know what’s really in their best interests just by following their natural inclinations. My analogy earlier to the “plant theory” of child-raising alluded to that. I’m a big believer in lots of unstructured, imaginative play and in music lessons, and raising voracious readers. But my point is that we need to do more than let them raise themselves–not everything in life can be interest-driven. They depend on us to point them in the right direction (for the good of their whole personhood, not just morally), even when they don’t “feel like it.”
    Thanks for all the insights and anecdotes. Sounds like some wonderful families out there!

  9. This may be late, but I felt the urge to comment on this also.
    First, I believe organized sports are good for all the reasons noted, but the reality is, most schools cannot have everyone play and it gets to be pretty political.
    Our kids, now grown, all played sports through Jr. High and except for one son, who played football all through HS, did not continue. They also played softball/baseball in the summer through the town recreation program and did swimming lessons.
    We live on a farm in a rural area, and I feel our kids got plenty of physical activity with the day to day activities needed to keep things going, including huge gardens. Same as another commenter, my daughter was into music K-12 and was expected to put in more practice time than some ball players :-).
    Personally, I think PE should be required all through high school and intramural teams for those not in the extra-mural (or whatever it’s called) sports should be part of that PE class. I’m dating myself, but that’s what my high school did for the most part. I can still see all of us girls lined up and Mrs. Anderson (bless her soul) saying “Good morning girls!” and we replied, in unison, “Good morning Mrs. Anderson.”
    All in all, I’ve enjoyed reading this and what I come away with is the need to have our children grow up to be good/strong citizens. I’m proud of what my children have accomplished with or without organized sports.

    • Thanks for your perspective! I agree about requiring PE or intramural sports because, especially in mega-high schools of 1000 students or more, very few will have the opportunity to play on the school’s athletic teams. Individual fitness routines, though, whether tae kwon do, running, or swimming can fill the gap and create lifelong, healthy habits. Glad you’ve raised good, strong kids with the character to be responsible, persevering adults..and thanks for your comments:)

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