Scholars often cite competition as the driving force behind important advances and developments in civilization.
That doesn’t make it easy, though. After all, everyone experiences some wins and losses in life, along with the lessons that come with them. With this in mind, how does one of the most popular forms of competition—sports—affect the emotional development of children?
The answer to this question is significant because children will be inheriting our world when we’re gone. Knowing whether sports can help or damage them should affect how we raise and prepare them for the day when they become leaders and game-changers.
Fortunately, psychologists have conducted several studies. We’re here to summarize some of them for you.
Because excelling at sports requires a commitment to time and the ability to formulate strategies, children who play can learn to think critically. Also, those who commit long-term (as opposed to only occasionally) nurture the stamina necessary for overcoming obstacles and practice taking the initiative. Furthermore, they can fight depression and teach children to juggle many challenges, activities, and responsibilities.
This is to say nothing of the more obvious benefits—figuring out how to win graciously and cope with losses, deepening a sense of respect for fair play and rules, and learning to be kind to others.
All of these skills are crucial for succeeding in every possible endeavor in the real world. They are best developed in team sports, such as basketball, soccer, football, or baseball. Such sports require cooperation and persistence, thus providing ample opportunities for children to foster the qualities we’ve discussed.
There is a shadow for every ray of sunlight, however. The dark side of competition and sports is that when kids feel a huge pressure to do well, they could become overwhelmed. They may respond to this feeling by falling into depression or even lashing out at their peers as bullies.
For that reason, it’s essential for parents and sports administrators to present the element of competition in a non-threatening way. This might be by practicing basketball hoops in the family yard, or even organizing a weekly sports night at home. It must be clear to a child that his or her worth or chances of fulfillment and success are not dependent on winning games.
As long as competition remains lighthearted, children stand to gain significant emotional benefits from playing sports. All you have to do is keep it simple, and the complex but highly rewarding processes of the human mind will take care of the rest.
Holt, N. L. (Ed.). (2008). Positive youth development through sport. New York, NY: Routledge.
Theokas, C. (2009). Youth sport participation: A view of the issues. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 303-306.
Zaff, J. F., Moore, K. A., Papillo, A.R., & Williams, S. (2003). Implications of extracurricular activity participation during adolescence on positive outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Research, 18, 599-630.
Zarrett, N., Lerner, R. M., Carrano, J., Fay, K., Peltz, J. S., & Li, Y. (2007). Variations in adolescent engagement in sports and its influence on positive youth development. In N. L. Holt (Ed.), Positive youth development and sport (pp. 9-23). Oxford, England: Routledge.
Zarrett, N., Fay, K., Li, Y., Carrano, J., Phelps, E., & Lerner, R. M. (2009). More than child’s play: Variable- and pattern-centered approaches for examining effects of sports participation on youth development. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 368-382.
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