Sports and athletic games have been a staple of childhood in cultures the world over. The formality differs from place to place, and we modern Americans have been known to emphasize organized sports from a very young age. Some people have criticized the extreme versions of this tendency and I see their point, but we need to make a concerted effort to ensure some version of team sports remains central to childhood. Sports are very important part of growing up healthy and our society has enough problems with physical weaknesses caused by lifestyle failures.
The truth is that good health is, like all things, a habit. Habits are formed not just by good knowledge but by repetition and familiarity. It’s not enough to know that everyone needs to exercise regularly. The people who have a lifelong habit of doing it have a big head start, and even if they’ve fallen off the ladder, they know what it feels like and how to have a routine. It’s also true that strenuous exercise and strength training in the years around and after puberty can make a lasting impression. Many people have noticed that it’s easier to get back in shape if you’ve been very athletic in the past. That’s not just because you know what to do. It’s also because bones, tendons, and ligaments grow with regular stress, especially during your formative years, and take much longer than muscles to fade away.
Athleticism is also an important social conditioner. It introduces children to competition and shows them in a very visceral way the results of differing ability and effort over the short and long term. Learning this in a fun way – and not for the first time with something that really matters – is invaluable. Team sports take this one step further by teaching people how to work together to achieve a goal. That isn’t as intuitive as it sounds. I’ve seen adults pick up team sports for the first time in their 20s having never played any before. Basic lessons I had learned as a child weren’t obvious to them.
For example they see that trying to help the team by getting out of the way of the best players isn’t a reliably good option because the team depends on everyone doing their role, even if better players have to compensate for weaker links. Or they see that even a team of average players can be very successful against more talented rivals if the team is communicative and used to playing with each other. It was only by watching this learning curve that I realized what I had learned as a child. The team needs everyone to be good or at least getting better, but it also needs communication, predictability, and product just as much. If you aren’t used to this you will be surprised in your first real team efforts just how unhelpful lack of communication and consistency of action can be. And this learning curve will probably happen at work for you, which will be stressful.
The problem is that sports are a pain as a parent. They can be expensive and time-consuming. And there can be guilt over pushing your kids into it. But the thing is, you should, at least in the short and medium term. It’s your job as a parent to make sure your children get challenged and are put into situations where they will grow. Some children will love all sports immediately, and some will always hate all sports. But there are many who will not like all sports, but will like some; or who will be shy or unsure with the organization and competition at first, but who will like it quite a bit once they get used to it. If parents don’t push participation long enough and in enough different options for these children to work out their likes and comfort level, their children may miss out on the opportunity to enjoy this aspect of life and get this foundation for active living.
So I do plan to put my children in multiple sports from a young age. I won’t put them in super-expensive competitive leagues very young, but I’ll make them try enough sports and outdoor activities for a few years that they will be familiar with them and be able to pick what they like.