During primary school and beyond, students often gravitate towards others who share similar passions and interests.  While finding individuals with shared passions is a terrific way to form strong friendships, there seems to be an assumed bifurcation that forms arbitrary lines based on the love of sports. Those with athletic proclivities seem to join together, while academically centered children form their own social circles. It seems so black and white, as if you must choose one or the other. But that is simply not the case. There is no reason why a straight-A student cannot be a dedicated and successful athlete. It is absolutely possible to excel at both sports and academics, and attempting to do so will bring students great balance and mental focus.

The pervasive benefits of athletics

First and foremost, playing sports in school helps students deal with the stresses of the school day. After a long day, it is difficult for a child to immediately jump into homework. As a result, many students will try and relax temporarily by playing video games or watching television. While these mini mental vacations provide some much needed down time, they are not the healthiest options when done on a regular basis. Sports, on the other hand, provide students with positive a way to refresh their minds from the long school day in a manner that is healthy and enjoyable. Physical activity does not only bolster cardiovascular health, but it can drop cortisol levels, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, students can learn valuable life skills from sports, such as time management, mental fortitude, discipline, dedication, and camaraderie.

Another educational element of sports is learning how to lose. No one can win all the time, no matter how skilled or athletic a person is.  Accordingly, athletes must quickly get used to the fact that losing is part and parcel of the process. When framed the right way, students can recognize that failure is in fact something positive.  For example, if a basketball player ends up turning the ball over a number of times during a game, he knows what he needs to work on in practice: dribbling fundamentals. A game time failure in this area shines light on a deficiency and shows precisely what needs to be remedied.  There is no amount of self-analysis and introspection that can equate the amount of value that can be gleaned from a real-time failure.  

The same type of learning lessons are ripe for the plucking in the academic arena. Whenever a student does poorly on an assignment or test, it is a golden opportunity to grow.  I regularly see students bemoan a poor performance, considering it an indication of their inadequacy.  Instead, it is simply sign showing what needs to be strengthened.  Students can workout their brains and habits the same way an athlete can ameliorate certain athletic abilities through practice.  When a student makes a mistake, he can critique his study habits and try to see what needs improvement.

Sports also teach athletes how to deal with disappointment despite excellent preparation. In swimming, for example, a hundredth of a second can determine whether or not a swimmer qualifies for state level competition. At the regionals meet, there are many swimmers who come extremely close to qualifying, but end up falling short because of tiny fragment of time. These swimmers recognize that they are excellent athletes with amazing track records despite losing a race.  While this type of an outcome may be hard to swallow, it forces students to disconnect a poor performance from their self-concept. Translation: failure at something does not change the way they view themselves.  They learn to appreciate the process of preparation.  Instead of having an outcome based viewpoint, they train their minds to focus on the positive externalities of athletic competition.  As such, most swimmers learn to handle disappointment very well, both in the pool as well as the classroom. Student-athletes realize that a poor grade on an assignment does not reflect who they are as a person.

Finally, one of the best and most obvious learning lessons that regular participation in sports provides is how to balance a packed schedule.  When students have an academically challenging course load and a heavy practice schedule, there is little time that can be wasted. Students must carefully evaluate their daily schedules and find a way to accommodate both athletics and academics. Interestingly enough, it seems students with extremely busy schedules end up studying more and doing better in school than their counterparts.  According to Angela Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport, and exercise sciences at the University of Kansas, “the lessons learned in athletics, combined with the knowledge that they must do well in school to participate, improves students’ persistence and chances for success.”

Is there an optimal sport?

Parents often want to know the best sport to cultivate good habits, social skills, and strong time management abilities so that they can encourage their children accordingly.  To me, however, directing a child towards a preselected sport is the wrong approach.  I believe that sports, like most endeavors in life, should be pursued out of love.  Sport are meant to be fun, and if athletic participation is borne out of obligation, then a child will be unable to develop intrinsic motivation.  This will likely diminish any chances of long-term athletic commitment, making the entire endeavor less fruitful.  Whether a child wants to play golf, tennis, basketball, badminton, or ping pong, I encourage parents to simply be supportive.  As my favorite saying goes, “follow your bliss.”