The Value of Sports Participation

By Aaron Goldberg

What is the value of sports in a school setting? This question is something that ahletic directors, educators, local community members, and, most importantly, parents ask themselves countlessly. With most student-athletes, you instill in their brains that academics always come before athletics, yet have you ever considered the life lessons and skills that scholastic sports may teach your children? It is quite possible that the most effective classroom in educating children is not a classroom at all, but a school athletic experience.

In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, a message is clearly communicated that supports this argument and provides the research-based framework to answer the athletics value question seamlessly.

The key takeaway from this book is that the development of character, leadership, discipline, and other “non-academic” factors have a more lasting impact on a student’s future success than previously thought (or at least, what it’s been given credit for up to this point). Firmly grounded in research on child development and the social sciences, the text reveals that these types of skills more accurately predict accomplishments as an adult than academic data, GPA, or aptitude test scores alone.

How Children Succeed explains that success is based on developing seven executive functions: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. The best place to pick up and refine these traits is not in the classroom, yet on the field because coaches have been developing grit, self-control, and the rest year after year, student after student, season after season. And they are doing this in an environment that is inherently motivating. Your student-athlete has chosen to be on the team and is eager to improve. They are all ears when it comes to learning from their coach and teammates.

Braking down the executive functions, it’s easy to see how they align with the lessons learned through sports. You would be able to see grit each practice as your child is taught to persevere and push themself through drill after drill. They attempt to do whatever is asked of them just a little bit better, faster, or more efficiently.

You see self-control when your athlete may walk away from an on-the-field conflict because they know that a penalty will hurt the team. Your child also exhibits self-control when they might be asked to fulfill a specific and sometimes unfavorable role so that the team can reach its full potential.

It’s not a word your kids may use, but zest is easily apparent in the actions of many student-athletes. The student who lumbers through the day with little more than a smile, but excitedly bounds on to the field to pursue his or her passion exhibits zest. You can also see it in your athlete if they perform with a style so unique that it forms a lasting signature that defines their play.

The development of social intelligence is a building block for athletics in so many ways. The best coaches are masters of teaching respect, love, patience, and mutual empathy, which allows teammates to effectively communicate with one another. Social intelligence is also gained through being team leaders, as well as simply getting along with those unlike themselves in high stakes settings.

One of the easiest executive functions for you to see in your student-athlete is a sense of gratitude. From the high-five between your child and their teammates to their coach complimenting your athlete, it is an integral part of sports. You can also see gratitude in team members who are taught to thank the grounds crew, the booster parents, and the referees.

In post game or end-of-practice speeches, teams often practice optimism. When your child sinks to a low emotional place following a tough defeat, their coach probably teaches them how to lift their spirits and become excited to get back at it the next day.

Last but not least, you could see curiosity in the eyes of your athlete discussing new strategies and tactical changes with their teammates or coaches. In addition, when your student approaches a coach after practice and asks what they can do to improve, curiosity is apparent in their self-reflection and interest in planning for the future.

Ultimately, athletics participation is critical to your child’s success and why winning needs to take a backseat to many of these other goals. The purpose of sports is to teach grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity – because those traits are your student’s real ticket to success.