We spend almost two decades preparing our children for the challenges of adult life. It is not an easy job, and we won't know if we were successful until many more decades pass. At school, students learn basic and advanced educational skills and begin the process of socialization. Although it is not often seen as equally essential, children also learn through playing sports.
Organized athletic activities offer youngsters the opportunity to develop a variety of skills they will need to function in the adult world. Although we tend to celebrate the business and political achievements of individuals, in fact most adult successes are the product of team efforts. By playing team sports as youngsters, children learn to identify and contribute as part of groups. Belonging to a team and being part of its activities offers to children lessons in collective attachment and achievement.
Winning and losing are parts of life, and they are best experienced first in circumstances where they don't really count. It is a priceless experience to win and a valuable lesson to lose. By comparison, rooting for a local professional sports team simulates but does not substitute for actual participation. Children can participate and learn the lessons of athletic success, of winning and of losing. Life, they will learn, is not one big celebration. Youngsters should recognize and appreciate the positive values of participation.
Most children's sports require that the participants cooperate, an essential life value that might not be fostered elsewhere in the growing up years. Participants must work together to achieve anything in a team sport, as they will as adults in the real world.
Of course, children's sports are not all positive experiences. At times, parents try to achieve through their children's successes in sports outcomes they could not achieve themselves. Although most probably recognize that athletic careers are unlikely to result from childhood athletic participation, they will rationalize that someone has to be a star, and it might as well be their child. The sidelines of children's soccer matches are teeming with parents who may forget that the purpose of the activity is not to develop players for the English Premier League.
The dark side of children's sports was revealed recently when Chicago's brilliant Little League club was stripped of its American championship after it was discovered that ineligible children were knowingly added to the Jackie Robinson West team. In order to improve the team's chances for success, adult administrators had stretched the club's geographic boundaries in violation of Little League rules. As a result of the misdeed of these adults, it was the children who ultimately suffered. It was, as Little League International President Stephen D. Keener said, "a heartbreaking decision" to strip the title, yet it taught a lesson that must be learned. Cheating pays no positive dividends, and sometimes the cheating that hurts you most is committed by someone else.
Children learn the rules of the game by playing sports. Under those rules, you sometimes prevail and you sometimes lose. Those rules may not always seem fair, but as long as they apply equally to all participants, they teach a most valuable lesson.
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