Most children participate in organized sports at some point during their school years, whether they try a variety of sports or focus on one particular passion. Although few kids will grow up to compete at the Olympic or professional level, sports are important for the development of both body and mind for every child.
Whether a child chooses swimming, tennis, baseball, gymnastics or any other sport, physical activity is involved in conditioning, practice and competition. That activity helps ensure a healthy body in several ways:
▪ Improves cardiovascular endurance — Getting a good start now on heart and lung health translates to a lower risk for heart disease long into adulthood.
▪ Weight control — Childhood obesity is on the rise in the United States. By getting off the couch and away from the video screen, kids who participate in sports boost their metabolism and lessen their risk of obesity-related health problems, like diabetes.
▪ Supports physical development — Children’s bodies grow and change well past puberty and into the teen years. Physical activity strengthens muscles, improves bone density and lays a foundation for good coordination.
A child doesn’t have to join an official team to reap the physical benefits of participating in sport activities. Playing catch in the backyard, swimming in the local swimming pool and riding a bike around the neighborhood are all good forms of exercise for kids. The goal is for a child to be active for at least 60 minutes per day, five days a week.
Sports benefits are more than just physical
Sports participation also provides important benefits to a child’s mental health and social skills. Playing a sport with other children of the same age helps teach skills that apply not just for the sport, but in work, school, recreation and social situations throughout life:
▪ Teamwork — Sports teach a child the importance of working together for the good of a team, rather than just for his or her own goals.
▪ Leadership — Team members have opportunities to serve as official captains and as unofficial mentors and teachers, helping fellow participants learn new skills.
▪ Perseverance — Even for natural athletes, winning requires dedication and hard work. Sports teach kids the discipline to persist through challenges.
▪ Self-esteem — Contributing to a team effort and improving personal skills boosts a child’s self-image and confidence.
▪ Body image — Athletics can give kids a realistic idea of what their own healthy bodies can accomplish.
▪ Friendship — A ready-made group of children in the same age range with a common interest provides the perfect opportunity to make new friends and to practice social skills in an atmosphere of both teamwork and competition.
▪ Sportsmanship — Kids naturally love winning; losing is no fun. Through sports, children learn to win and lose with grace.
When kids participate on an organized team, they develop many of these qualities with the guidance of caring adult coaches who serve as role models for healthy behaviors. Having additional positive role models outside the family makes it less likely that children will turn to risky behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse.
Play it safe
Although sports offer numerous benefits, parents should ensure that their child’s participation is at a healthy level. Growing children risk long-term damage to their bodies from over-use injuries, especially if they focus solely on one sport. A child’s level of participation should be age-appropriate. A 3-year-old, for example, should not be participating in strenuous training drills.
Both parents and coaches are responsible for ensuring that the overall sports environment is positive for young participants. Adults who yell negative comments during games or practices have a detrimental effect on a child’s mental health.
For young children, fun should be the focus of all sport activities. The more fun a child has, the more he or she will want to participate, resulting in greater health for both body and mind.
Kathryn Gloyer is a family medicine and primary care sports medicine physician with Penn State Sports Medicine.