A notable casualty amid the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic has been organized sport below the elite and professional level. In recent weeks kids have cautiously returned to school, but youth sports and school sport in particular remain off limits for many. Competition schedules for the coming year are still in limbo. There is a question mark over whether there will even be a competitive season for some sports and this uncertainty extends to college sports, which is the end-goal that many high school athletes aspire to. Against this backdrop, the numbers of kids who have returned to participating in training and practices are way down since the lockdown and their return to school. There is an understandable reluctance among parents and the kids themselves to re-engage in sport, given the perceived risks. Some authors are already sounding the alarm that the present generation of high school kids may be lost from participating in organized sport.
In the temporary absence of the carrot of competition and uncertainty about college scholarships on the horizon, school sports in general have perhaps lost some of the allure for kids and parents. So this seems like a good time to reaffirm why and how participating in sport in itself remains enormously valuable from a developmental perspective. In particular we will unpack the myriad benefits that youth sports participation brings beyond the sporting arena.
THE ROLE OF YOUTH SPORT IN PSYCHOSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT…
Sport is unique in its ability to bring individuals from different societies and ethnic groups together. In the digital age so much of a young person’s life is being lived through their smartphones. Sport is one of the last bastions for in-person interaction with peers, including people outside their usual social circle, where no devices are present. Participation in youth sports brings young people into contact with others both from the local community and beyond whom they might not otherwise interact with.
Sport is a vehicle for prosocial behavior. Whilst team sports is the obvious example of how sport teaches teamwork, all sports require learning to cooperate with others. Among the benefits of outdoor sport participation within communities is a reduction in antisocial behavior and even reduced involvement in criminal activity.
BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT…
Exercise has a positive effect on cognitive performance including attention. Scheduling exercise in the school day is specifically employed to help kids diagnosed with ADHD to boost their ability to concentrate and study successfully.
Youth sport participation provides a structured environment that allows kids to channel and harness their energy. Moreover, the regular exercise that sports provide also benefits executive functions (attention control, self regulation, etc.), which in turn supports the ability to perform in school.
By extension, participation in sport and exercise similarly benefits learning. The brains of children and adolescents are still developing and engaging in exercise stimulates neurotrophic factors within the brain. In this way exercise and sport participation serves to support cognitive development as well as motor learning.
Neuroplasticity is the term for how the brain makes and reinforces the new connections that underpin brain development over time. Exercise supports these neuroplastic changes and motor skill development in particular induces changes in the brain. The brains of elite athletes exhibit more grey matter accompanying their more highly developed athleticism. Measures of both aerobic fitness and motor skill proficiency in children accordingly show a positive relationship with academic achievement.
TOOLS TO SUCCEED IN THE GAME OF LIFE…
Anecdotally, many of us are aware of the apparent benefits of youth sports based on the number of former competitive high school and collegiate athletes among high performers in difference professions and fields such as business and commerce. Those who have engaged in competitive sport bring traits and capabilities that serve them well in the professional sphere.
Engaging in extracurricular activities such as sport has long been identified in serving the individual well in terms of future success in higher education and their professional career. Former athletes in particular have skills that are highly prized. A common thread among many leaders in business and other domains is a distinguished history in college and high school sport.
In particular, competitive sport provides a forum to struggle, fail and overcome difficulties in a relatively low risk environment. Whilst their ego and body might take a few blows in the process, kids largely come through the experience of competing and testing themselves unscathed and with a greater appreciation of the value of toil and perseverance.
Grit is a key asset for young performers, encompassing the ability to selectively invest in working towards a long-term goal, persist in their quest and resist distractions along the way. Grit arguably represents the most important asset to develop in the digital era, and the critical importance of grit in achieving long term goals applies in all domains not just sport. To use the example of the West Point military academy neither physical fitness or academic grades predict success among recruits. What separates those who emerge from the highly demanding selection process are other attributes, notably grit.
The trials and experiences that youth sport provides are invaluable from the perspective of developing grit and tenacity. Beyond developing key attributes, the process of preparing, engaging in practice in a purposeful way, the experience of competing and coming through these trials all serves to develop highly transferable skills to cope and succeed in their professional and personal lives.
MENTAL HEALTH AND GENERAL WELLBEING…
Each of the elements we have spoken about above come into play in supporting psychological and emotional health and wellbeing. Adolescence in particular is a highly challenging time from these perspectives, especially in the present era. Participation in youth sports provides the regular physical activity that improves mood and supports resilient coping.
As we have already touched upon, sport also serves as an increasingly rare forum for in-person interaction. Youth sports not only bring a diverse mix of people together but also creates enduring friendships, all of which provides the social support that comes in particularly handy during challenging times.
Finally, youth sports foster the development of executive functions including emotional regulation and also the interpersonal skills that encompass emotional intelligence. The practice environment and the trials of competition also afford rich opportunities for young performers to develop the coping tools and resilience that are crucial for weathering life’s storms.
Of course we must make allowances for the unprecedented times we are currently living through. Even so, I have been surprised and alarmed at just how quick so many have been to abandon school and youth sport. Whilst I hope this is temporary, it does mirror the wider trend for steeply declining participation in organized sport following the early teen years.
My hope is that the latest offering goes some way to provide readers with a greater appreciation of the wider value of youth sport participation, which extends far beyond the realm of sport and the direct rewards of competition. Engaging in youth sports provides so many benefits across multiple domains, from the academic realm to their personal lives. Regular participation supports academic achievement, develops life skills, provides social interaction, creates friendships and social support and ultimately fosters key attributes for success in life.
Despite the best intentions, by restricting or discouraging youth sport participation we risk taking away a key source of physical and mental health during this time of uncertainty when kids need it the most.