Not every child needs to play sports, right? After all, maybe sports just aren’t his thing. Maybe he isn’t gifted in sports like he is at gaming and coding. Sports can also be a huge time commitment on a family, especially when there are multiple siblings.
I understand these excuses. I had the same thoughts when I was raising a gamer. I had myself convinced that I didn’t want to overschedule him. I also wasn’t going to force him to play a sport that he would later want to quit. I thought that some kids just aren’t athletic. Then I did the research.
We have four children. When they were young, we were not a sports-focused family. For a while, our oldest son was really into playing different sports until—you guessed it—he wanted more time to play video games. Back then I did not understand the important role that sports could play in a young boy’s life, so he got his wish (which meant less carpooling for me!). But now I know that letting him quit his sports so he could spend more time gaming was one of the most significant parenting mistakes I ever made.
What I now know is this:
- All boys (and girls) ARE athletic (even those who are physically challenged).
- All boys love video games.
(For the purpose of this article, I will use the male pronoun and focus on boys and video games. However, most of this material can be applied to girls and social media, too.)
What’s the big deal? Why do boys need so much physical activity?
All children need to move in order to release energy, get focused, learn and be healthy. Why? The quick explanation is that with heavy work (chores and play), muscles and joints meet resistance, resulting in an “energy dump.” This energy release is needed to reduce hyperactivity and aggression. Just three, 20-minute exercise sessions a day can make a difference in behavior problems in the classroom (see notes below). When your child or teen is restrained and overstimulated by a sedentary screen, an imbalance occurs in his energy state that can trigger boredom or an inability to focus. It is no wonder why exercise is now an accepted treatment for attention disorders, as well a proven benefit for the classroom.1
Exercise is also required for healthy brain development. Yes, research says that the more they move, the smarter they will be. Oxygen must be carried to the brain in order for it to reach its highest potential. This principle is carried through our lives which is another good reason to start exercise habits early. 2
Why real team sports beat video gaming sports.
Your son can certainly get his needed exercise without involvement in organized sports. He can play in the neighborhood, pick-up games of driveway basketball, football, wiffle ball and even sandlot in the empty cul-de-sac. The benefits of these activities are many. But the extra benefits of being a part of an organized team when you are a kid are are even greater:
- A schedule to get off the couch. Physical work does not happen on a video game or any screen for that matter. Practice and game schedules can create positive routines and habits for kids by giving them a reason to get off the couch, adding the necessary balance in a gamer’s world. Because screens are everywhere, we have to be more purposeful to get our kids moving. Having somewhere to go, like basketball practice, makes a big difference in the life of a gamer.
- Increased physical coordination. We can all agree that sitting on a sofa does not improve your physical coordination even if your son tries to convince you that shooting bad guys in a game is helping his eye-hand coordination. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest challenges in sports, for example, but building eye-hand coordination in a video game doesn’t help you hit a baseball. The fact is that many video game skills do not transfer to real life, but physical activity in a sport does. No amount of hours spent on Madden Football will help your child improve his football skills on his high school team.3
- Expanded social opportunities. Developing multiple friend groups on teams apart from school (or within school) is very beneficial as kids get older. One way to lower teen anxiety and depression is to have different friend groups and not put all your friends in one “basket.” That way when one group lets you down—and they will—your teen will have another option for meeting social needs.
- Respect and commitment to a coach and team. An authority figure (besides a parent) is very healthy in the life of a child. When your child is motivated to respect a coach and be committed to a team, his character will develop.
- Reflection. Is he not the best player on the team? It doesn’t matter. He will learn how to be okay with that and fill his role to the best of his ability and learn to be proud of that. Boys need to know where they fit in the ”pecking order” of their pack. They need to know the lay of the land. It doesn’t matter to them if they are not the most talented or the most skilled. It may matter to their parents, but not to them.4 Team sports will help your child define who he is in the “pack.” He will quickly learn his role and feel confident as he keeps working toward getting better. He may want to quit if he is not the best, but don’t let him. He may be better in one sport and not as good in another. This realization will help him practice how to function at the top, the middle or bottom, a valuable skill that will be needed for the rest of his life.
- Teamwork. Being part of the team will show your son how to respect the role of everyone on the team. Getting a teammate home from third base with a sacrifice hit on his end prepares him for being a good friend and a better leader in real life. He learns that you can’t win without the support of everyone on your team.
- Mental toughness. All children benefit from some pressure mixed with responsibility. This is how they learn to conquer new challenges with confidence. Throwing a pitch with a full count in the bottom of the 9th or shooting the potential winning shot at the buzzer are priceless moments for your son. It is in these (healthy) stressful situations where he will be tested and grow. It is a game. It is play. It is the perfect place for learning how to practice losing and winning. This type of practice builds resilience and mental toughness that will serve him well. There is no reset button in real sports or real life, as there is in a video game
- Testing their limits. It doesn’t matter how you try to slice it, phrase it, YouTube it or sell it: video games do not test a young boy’s physical limits the way real sports do. Boys need challenges and opportunities to push to their highest potential while learning to keep their cool, control their impulses, and build patience. Every boy knows that testing your limits in real life is much harder than testing limits in a video game.
- Hard work. Sports are hard. The process of maintaining a schedule and physically preparing to play a sport requires discipline. Sometime it hurts too and you have the extra challenge of battling an injury. The preparation to run a 5K cross-country race, get a hit in baseball, catch a football, make a basket or swim in a competition requires persistence. It’s really not the end result that matters in sports, but the process and preparation that benefit a child. Playing a video game is not hard work.
- Opportunities for new friends. Communication is critical for building friendships. The majority of communication is nonverbal (body language, tone, inflection, etc) and team sports provide great opportunities to have face-to-face human contact, which in turn trains players in nonverbal communication. Through these interactions, children develop higher areas of their brains critical for maintaining positive emotional health and confidence in social situations. Sure, our son can have friends on a video game, however, having a team on a video game is very different from an in-person team. It lacks the full physical communication advantages and brain benefits of in-person connection. If face-to-face communication is a D1 varsity sport, then virtual communication is high school intramurals.
- Leadership. Sports participation provides a platform for kids to build common bonds and trust with others, as well as how to deal with adverse conditions in a safe atmosphere. As relationships deepen, leadership skills emerge and can be practiced and developed in a team setting. Rising to a leadership role in a real sport takes longer than rising on the leaderboard in a video game. Sports is more like real life; it is not as instant.
- Empathy and compassion. Sports teach humility. Boys need opportunities to build real life empathy, and participating in sports is a wonderful way to take the focus off self and learn to think of others. The gratification of winning or the overwhelming feeling of defeat can help your child learn humility and empathy for others. When you take your eyes off yourself and help the player on your team who is struggling, or when you understand what it is like to lose, you become a more compassionate winner.
- Competition. Boys crave competition which is one reason why they love gaming. Sports provide an excellent balance of real-life competition and physical exercise. When competition creates a release and surge of testosterone, it is good to balance it with other physical outlets. Without this physical outlet video games can cause issues with focus and impulse control, after all, the energy must go somewhere! 5
- Preparation for real life. No video game will prep your child for future conflict in a boardroom quite like real sports experience. While some may argue that video gaming is the same, deep down every boy knows that real-life accomplishments trump virtual ones hands-down. In addition to the delayed gratification, hard work, team and leadership benefits, and respect for their coaches, sports experiences allow your kids to practice the process and accomplishment of a goal in a safe environment. This safe yet challenging environment happens to be the perfect platform for learning a lot of things.6
- Memories. Playing a virtual game vs. playing a real physical game differs greatly because team sports take place in the physical world. You son can meet many new friends when he plays on a team sport or even a pick-up game of basketball or baseball in their neighborhood. The whole family can bond over the traveling, the food, the camaraderie with special new family friends, and the end of season celebrations. All of the beginnings and endings in a sports season follows a natural order and create meaningful stories of shared experiences. When the day comes when you do finally hit one out of the park, you get to keep the game ball and your mom proudly displays on the kitchen table. Remembering that day you killed a bad guy in your video game rarely makes it to the family scrapbook, the family Christmas card and certainly not the kitchen table.
After our mistake with our oldest son, we took the video games away and put our younger daughter and sons in sports. Our daughter went on to become a college athlete at a D1 school. She didn’t play video games and we did not allow her to have social media. I often wonder what her trajectory would have been like had she spent 4 hours a day distracted by a phone. When it came to her little brothers, we started them early. We focused on the discipline of sports and not on their skills when they were little. In fact, one of our sons once made it through a whole basketball season without making a single basket until the playoff game when he finally scored. You bet he still remembers sinking that one! Did we take him out of basketball because he was not the best player on the team? No. We installed a nice driveway rim and put one over the door in his bedroom. He is now on his middle school basketball team. Sports is a long-term investment.
You see, it isn’t about having the best player or worrying that they are not feeling adequate. It is not about wanting to protect them from embarrassing plays or errors. It is not about showing off a skill, but about building a skill. It is about sticking to something and experiencing the slow process of getting better. It is about putting our kids in gritty situations and giving them stretch goals. We have experienced many championship seasons, but we are just as thankful for the seasons when not a single game was won. Thank goodness that our boys get to practice a lot of “life” before they enter the big game of life on their own one day. Thank goodness we don’t let video games get in the way of this incredible gift the second go around.
I recently watched a family at the beach cheering their son on during an early morning surfing competition. It was fascinating, not only the competition itself, but the dynamics of this family. Mom, dad and three siblings were fully engaged, standing in a line, wearing matching t-shirts and cheering loudly. No phones were in sight. To some it may have looked corny, but to the 12-year-old boy in the water, life just doesn’t get any better—you, your surfboard and knowing that your family has your back. And while he might not act like it matters much, it does. His cup is running over. He has everything he needs to conquer the next wave— and the world.
At the end of the day and this season called childhood, it is the memories and the stories that your children can share that will strengthen their foundations as they finish the hard work of growing up. Childhood sports come in all shapes and sizes. They can help heal family relationships and prove to be the key or lifelong emotional health as memories linger forever and become a rich part of the tapestry of their lives.
So, even if he doesn’t feel like an athlete, he is. Remove the gaming system from your house and get your son off the couch and onto the court, field or just outside. Pretty soon the “buzzer” is going to sound and childhood will be over. This season only happens once, but the lessons learned with his team will last a lifetime.
Continue reading part 2: “How Video Gaming Can Sabotage Sports.”
- Medina, John, et al. Brain Rules. Pear Press, 2008.
- Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, The Collapse of Parenting. How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. (New York:Basic Books, 2016.) p. 93-95 story about Aaron
- James, Stephen, and David Thomas. Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009.
- James, Stephen, and David Thomas. Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009. Page 82.
Further notes on the importance of movement and kids from Cris Rowan, BScOT, BScBi, SIPT Occupational Therapist and Zone’in Programs Inc.
- The vestibular system is a series of three fluid-filled canals located on each side of the brain, and is activated with “off center” movement, such as rocking, jumping, side to side, or rotational movements. When a child’s body is off center, the vestibular system sends messages to stabilizer muscle groups to activate, bring body back to center, and thus strengthening core. As core stability precedes motor coordination of right to left, upper body to lower body, eye to hand, and eye to eye, off center movement is essential for motor coordination needed for printing and reading literacy, as well as sports. Stimulation to the vestibular system also increases brain arousal enabling learning to take place, which is necessary for students who stay up doing sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing video games http://www.zoneinworkshops.com/when-did-we-decide.html
- The proprioceptive system is activated with movement requiring resistance, also termed “heavy work,” such as pushing, pulling, lifting or carrying. Fifty years ago children often were required to help with chores which not only provided a sense of belonging and importance, but also loaded their muscles and joints with resistance, resulting in an “energy dump.” Just as adults might go to the gym or dig in the garden to feel calm and relaxed, children also need to tax their proprioceptive system to release energy and get in the zone to learn, possibly even more so than adults. The body is energy, and when energy is restrained by being sedentary, while also being overstimulated by fast-paced and violent media content, the body’s energy is imbalanced which can look like hyperactivity and/or aggression, or look like low arousal and/or boredom. In the classroom, teachers can help children balance their energy states by providing proprioceptive energy dumps in the form of slam balls, TRX Training Strapping, or exercises such as ‘“plank,”’ push-ups, or tug-of-war. In the gym and on the playground, equipment that challenges and loads muscles would be climbing frames/walls, hanging bars or rings, jungle gyms, or obstacle-course pylo blocks. http://www.zoneinworkshops.com/when-did-we-decide.html
- Children and youth who are physically active in gym and on playgrounds are less likely to have behavioral issues including meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression if allowed at least three 20-minute sessions per day. Secondary schools might consider a 45-minute session on treadmills, elliptical machines, or exercise bikes prior to starting the day. Want Smarter, Healthier Kids Try Physical Education! Paul Zientarski TEDxBend