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Four Reasons Why Team Sports Are a Win-Win for Teens

Why you shouldn’t let your teen opt out of sports.

Being a teenager is challenging. Adding athletics to the mix can seem like a tremendous feat. Student-athletes have to balance academic loads, their complex social lives, and extracurricular activities, while maintaining a demanding physical training regime for their sport.

Keeping to the athletic team practice schedule is not just difficult for teens, but also for parents who often shuttle teens to and from practice and competitions. Life would be so much easier for parents to enjoy a lazy Saturday or Sunday at home, instead of being at a tournament, meet, or competition. So why encourage your kids and create a crazy schedule for yourself? Well, here are four reasons why you should keep pushing them (and yourself) through the grind:

1. Improved Physical Health. We all know the benefits of exercise to physical health. Sadly, most kids don’t manage to get the amount of activity recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services (60 minutes per day of moderate or vigorous activity). An unfit adolescent is more likely to have greater amounts of body fat, higher chances of cardiovascular and other metabolic disease, and less healthy bones than those who exercise regularly. Additionally, regular exercise can also keep inflammation (a risk factor of chronic disease) at bay. By participating in competitive athletics adolescents can experience the health benefits as well as build a foundation of good exercise habits for the future. Ultimately, the benefits of team sport participation throughout your teen’s adolescence can last them a lifetime.

2. Athletes Accelerate in Academics. Just before reaching middle adolescence, teens tend to drop off sports teams and focus on other pursuits. The focus on academics intensifies in preparation for university. This shift often leads to the drop-out of sports-related activities in high school. After all, the stereotype of a “dumb-jock” has always been prevalent in sports, especially in recent years. It’s a stereotype that has been difficult to shed, and is often perpetuated by the mainstream media. Most recently it was highlighted by Ryan Lochte’s reality show What Would Ryan Lochte Do? Is this really what all successful athletes look like? The answer is a resounding no.

Even though we hear more about the standouts like Lochte, on the other end of the spectrum are athletes such as the “Harvard Quarterback" Ryan Fitzpatrick, or basketball player Pau Gasol, who put medical school on hold to play professional basketball. Furthermore, recent research on the neurological benefits has demonstrated the brain-enhancing benefits of exercise that works at the cellular level resulting in enhanced brain-power. In contrast to the dumb-jock stereotype, being involved in sports can not only help cognitive performance but also lead to improved academic functioning.

3. Mental Health Benefits. As a psychologist, I’m not alone in prescribing exercise to enhance treatment goals. It is known that regular exercise has many positive effects. First of all, exercise results in overall improved psychosocial health. Specifically, athletes experience lower levels of depression and anxiety than their non-athlete counterparts. Team sports demonstrate even more benefits than more solitary activities. Some researchers speculate that it is due to the social aspect of being on a team. Others go so far as to highlight the importance of adolescents' participation in team sports, suggesting it is essential for their development in the social realm.

Interestingly, researchers have found that children who participate in team sports are more socially advanced than their non-sports participating peers. Sports involvement promotes mentorship relationships and also provides adolescents many opportunities to navigate various (sometimes complex) social situations, be decisive and work as a member of a team. It results in adolescents who are more competent, decisive, better at managing their time whilst providing teens with a sense of community and belonging.

The dark side of competitive athletics can lead to adolescents to experience some negative social interactions, especially when the focus is solely on winning. While it is true that losing can be hard (and frustrating!) for adolescents and parents alike, it is the yin of the yang. Learning to lose is just as important as learning to win (check out Tennis Champion Stan Warwrika’s tattoo).

Not all teens can be the very best at their sport, and being the best should not be the purpose of participation. Competition is tough. Despite this, athletic involvement acts in a protective capacity; adolescents who engage regularly in sports, tend to understand themselves better and are best able to set limits and boundaries, when considering children’s overall social and emotional experience.

4. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily. In order to experience personal satisfaction, a deeper form of success, your teen must learn that working hard, prioritizing, sacrifice, and follow-through will help them reach their goals. These attributes are part of the athletic framework and fundamental to experiencing success not only in sports, but also in academics and beyond. By encouraging and supporting your teen’s participation in competitive sports, parents are teaching them persistence, tenacity, or what Angela Ducksworth, Ph.D., calls Grit. Adolescents can practice and ultimately attain grit through the habits developed in competitive team sports: working hard, often for little or no recognition and learning to tolerate frustration. Participation on an athletic team also provides teens the opportunity to work alongside people better than them and others who might not be (but are inspiring none-the-less) and model the tenacious personality trait (think Rudy Ruettiger). Learning to work hard in sports and tolerate the natural ups and downs of athletics, can support the development grit. Furthermore, as this trait is developed, according to Dr. Ducksworth, adolescents become more resilient across domains and have a better capacity to cope with everyday life stressors.

Parents walk a fine line in between demands and support of their child’s performance. Getting the balance right between the two is the goal. No parent strives to be The Great Santini. As this post demonstrates, it is not necessary to be Michael Phelps or Lionel Messi to benefit from team sports. There are many advantages for teens who are involved in sports such as improved physical health, improved academic functioning, and overall positive effects on the psychosocial functioning of adolescents. Above all, participation in team sports is a win-win for teens.

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