Parents invest hours of their time in youth sports. We chauffer kids to practice, we sit in the stands, we coach from the dugout or the sidelines, and we cheer and encourage our young athletes as they play their sport. We support our kids playing the games they love because we know there is something bigger going on than merely learning how to throw a curve ball or hit a free throw. Life lessons are happening, and the kids are having so much fun they don’t even notice.
Youth sports are huge. Using 2011 data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, ESPN estimates that 21.5 million kids between the ages of six and seventeen play on an organized team. Other studies put the number at 28.7 million kids between the ages of eight and seventeen. That is a whole lot of kids on teams, millions of soccer moms and hockey dads in the stands, and countless miles on the minivan traveling to practices and games.
Recently, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse posted on Facebook a lovely tribute to the role parents play in helping young athletes learn from sports. If you haven’t read it, you need to. It’s some powerful advice. He shared a photograph from a local newspaper that captures that moment in time when the game is over, one team has won, and the other has had a season-ending loss. The winning team is in a joyous dog-pile at center court, and the leading scorer of the losing team is walking off the court, her jersey pulled up to cover her tears. Sen. Sasse talks about helping our kids through that moment to the larger lessons learned by playing the game.
Learning to win and lose with grace is an important part of team sports, but it is not the main reason we tote our little athletes hither and yon to practices and games. Playing a sport and being on a team teaches the kind of soft skills that are important for adult success. Research shows that adults who played high school sports have stronger leadership skills, show more self-confidence, and work better on teams. Those of us who played high school sports can testify that this is true because we learned how to do some hard things while playing the sports we loved.
Here are a few of those hard lessons we learned.
- Be cool under pressure.
Our young athletes find themselves in some tough situations. A soccer player is in the goal trying to stop tiebreaking penalty kicks at the end of a game. A basketball player is on the free throw line with ten seconds on the clock and the chance to put his team ahead. A baseball player steps into the batter’s box with two outs in the bottom of the last inning and the game-winning run at third base. As parents in the stands, our hearts stop, and we can’t catch our breath, but our kids get the opportunity to perform under pressure and learn to keep their cool while doing it.
- Put the team above yourself.
Teammates have to be dependable and work together, and team members must learn to put the needs of their team above their own wants. Sometimes this means a kid needs to play a different position than the one she wants to play. It might mean a kid gets less playing time one game because a teammate is a better match against the team they are playing. Kids learn that the whole group is successful when each person plays his or her part.
- Attitude, both good and bad, is contagious.
There is nothing quite like watching an underdog team at that moment in the game when the players suddenly believe they can win. The emotion washes over them, and they are unstoppable. Kids learn that a positive attitude in the dugout or on the bench can lift up their teammates. They also learn the opposite is true, and a bad attitude can tear a team down. Staying up when things are looking down is an important thing to learn how to do, and kids get plenty of practice doing this playing a sport.
- Realize the work one puts in isn’t always noticed, but the results on the field are.
In the 1980s, Georgia Tech was one of the top college teams in the nation. Point Guard Mark Price led the league in free throw percentage—he was deadly at the line. Reportedly, in high school he had a habit of staying after practice to shoot 100 free throws and continued that work ethic in college. Price retired from professional basketball as one of the all-time greatest free throw shooters, with a better than 90 percent career average. He put in the extra work, and eventually it showed on the court.
- Take feedback and use it to improve.
Feedback helps us turn mistakes into learning opportunities. Successful athletes learn to receive feedback without getting defensive and use it to hone their skills and improve their game. We call these kids coachable, one of the highest compliments you can give an athlete. Most importantly, coachable athletes on the field grow up to be coachable leaders in the workplace.
- Leave it all on the field.
Football legend Vince Lombardi said, “I firmly believe any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out and lies exhausted on the field of battle—victorious.” Our kids give it their all, and—win or lose—they know they can be proud of themselves. We are proud of them too.
I remind myself often that the end goal of raising children is producing young adults who have the tools to build successful lives. I am a big believer that playing sports is a crucial way to get my kids there. I would bet the parents of the other 21.5 million young athletes in the U.S. would agree with me.