The Benefits of Children Playing Team Sport

Summer has finally arrived here in the UK and with the onset of the sun, our lives have been consumed with all things cricket related. With five matches and three practice sessions in the last week for Bean10, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe and reflect on the benefits to be gained from being part of a team sport.

The physical benefits alone should be enough to encourage young people to get involved in sport, including improved cardiovascular health, better sleep, reduced risk of obesity, enhanced coordination and balance, improved muscular strength, lower stress and superior academic performance through the enhancement of brain function and cognition.

But alongside the physical gains, playing team sports provides a whole host of social and emotional benefits too, from the ability to communicate effectively to leadership skills to focusing on team rather than individual performance. Without realising it and whilst having a lot of fun, children are developing important life skills through their play together. And although my focus through this post is cricket (because I may be just a little obsessed right now!), these advantages would translate for any team sport.

Teamwork

Children are naturally egocentric but in a team sport, the aim is to co-operate with others to reach a common goal, so they must learn to become unselfish and focus instead on the performance of the group.

In children’s cricket for example, they bat in pairs for a set number of balls. Every six balls (an over), the bowler changes end. The batting pair may be evenly matched in their ability but sometimes one will be stronger than the other. In these latter cases, the role of the weaker batsman should be to try and keep the stronger batsman on strike – the end facing the bowler – so that he/she faces more balls and has more chances for scoring runs. Although this will negatively affect the batting score for the weaker batsman, overall, the team is more likely to win. Easier said than done for kids who are keen to get a good batting score!

Learning to act unselfishly, make excellent decisions for the team as a whole, respect one another, and understand the individual talents everyone brings are all key life skills children can practise through team sport.

Managing Pressure

Across all team sports, on match days, there is always an element of pressure on the participants to perform to their best and not let their teammates down. Some games are more pressurised than others. Bean10 for example, just played an U10’s district game in which he found himself batting with the last remaining batsmen, with 12 runs to win. I watched through my fingers… I literally sat on the sidelines and prayed with my heart beating ten to the dozen! But the two boys held it together. They didn’t panic and steadily scored the runs to take the game.

Afterwards, I spoke to Bean10 about it and asked him what he was thinking. His answer: “I was just watching to see what type of ball the bowler was bowling, watching their action, and then trying to get myself into the right position to face it.” I asked him if he could hear the crowd, and he replied, “No, why, were they cheering us?” Um, yes, quite loudly. So basically, he’s learned to block everything else out and focus entirely on the task at hand, without feeling any pressure. He knew he had 12 runs to get, but he was only focused on the next ball. All pretty good training for life I’d say, as like it or not, there are pressurised/stressful situations in all of our lives.

Communication

When we think of communication, the idea of speaking is often what comes to mind first. But the flip side of that coin – listening carefully – is just as important.

Matches and competitions require children to listen carefully to their teammates’ calls throughout the game, often for long periods, so they can work seamlessly together. They must also learn to read the non-verbal cues from their teammates, and in the process develop their empathy skills.

As well as their teammates, they need to pay careful attention to what their coaches/more experienced players have to say. Some children have natural talent for a sport. But that talent will only take them so far. A key ingredient for success is their openness to listening to advice from these experienced players/coaches and using that information to enhance their own game. The ones who go furthest are often those kids who are really concentrating and interested in what the coach has to say rather than messing around.

As well as listening to others, children also need to speak clearly, succinctly and assertively throughout the games. In cricket for example, deciding when to run requires both quick thinking and clear communication of the decision to the other batsman. And post-match/training communication is essential too, when players concisely explain what they think went well and what they could do to improve the team’s game.

Building Self-Esteem and a Sense of Community

Self-esteem is your overall sense of personal value and self-worth. Being part of a solid team, a mini community, who support one another, can significantly boost a child’s confidence and self-esteem. Children can build friendships with others who have the same passion as them; enjoy the camaraderie of spending lots of time with their teammates; achieve and be celebrated for their success; and feel like they’re part of something important. What’s not to like?

Resilience/Learning to Fail

Failing is a key part of the learning process (I wrote a blog post here about the importance of failure). And yet, so many of us are scared to fail, embarrassed to admit when we don’t understand or can’t do something and for some of us, this fear can hold us back. Playing team sports involves a complete mixture of highs and lows. Matches expose any weakness. You can have an amazing game one day and a disaster the next. Even the best sportsmen or women have off days. But if your child can move past the frustration, then just as much can be learned from a bad day as a good one. Failure is a natural part of life, so learning to accept what went wrong, park it, move on and try and improve upon your game, is a key lesson for the future.

Bean10 was bowled out in the very first ball of the first game of the season. In some ways with children’s club cricket, it’s even harder, as even if they’re out, they have to stay in to bat their fixed number of overs. That first dismissal knocked his confidence so much that the rest of his batting for the game didn’t go well. But that’s the nature of cricket. If he wants to succeed in this game, he needs to accept that there will always be days like that. We discussed it together and talked about not being hard on himself and instead make it into a learning opportunity. He came home and chose to spend the whole afternoon batting in the garden. Hours he spent trying to perfect his technique. Over the next few games, his batting confidence has slowly improved. He’s learned from his mistakes and made a concerted effort to improve his game. But more importantly, he’s learned not to give up, to push on through and, with patience and discipline, progress his abilities.

Managing Emotions

Learning to control their emotions to cope with the highs and lows of team sport can be a tough ask for kids, but it provides the perfect learning opportunity. When children lose their composure, their focus goes as does the mind-body control needed for muscle memory. So, their performance deteriorates, which makes them more cross, and so it goes in a vicious downward spiral. But playing team sport can help children practice managing these negative emotions. By acknowledging their frustration and how this negativity affected their game; showing them videos of how they reacted; highlighting other players not reacting in such a negative way; trying to understand why they behaved in that way; and forming a plan of how to cope in future games, can really help the child mature.

Sometimes it’s a question of the child being a perfectionist with ridiculously high expectations, and when they don’t achieve these, feeling angry at themselves. In these instances, it can be helpful to work with them to set more realistic goals. Other times, the frustration is directed towards others in their own or the opposing team. Teaching them to focus on the present and to let go of what’s already happened can be key here, as is finding a team with positive role models in this regard.

It might be hard at times, but it’s such an essential skill.  I remember once a new lady coming into the office to work in our team. Academically, she was very gifted: a Cambridge graduate. But emotionally, she struggled, having explosive temper tantrums over small issues. Needless to say, she didn’t last long in the job. For me, this is an excellent reminder of the importance of a well-rounded education – focusing on the emotional and social aspects of development as well as the academic ones.

Leadership

If they get a chance to captain a team, it provides a fantastic way to practise leadership skills for later in life. Skills such as: learning to be yourself, confident in who you are; listening to and respecting others, whilst gathering their opinions; understanding your impact on others; learning how to motivate and encourage others’ performance; knowing how to be approachable; communicating effectively; leading by example; being responsible, selfless, committed and focused. And finally learning to appreciate the importance of politeness – thanking the umpires, scorers, coaches and other team after a game can go a long way. Bean10 had a chance to captain for the first time this week, throwing himself into it wholeheartedly and loving every moment!

Thinking Skills

Team sports are often fast paced, requiring players to make quick decisions in the spur of the moment. Whether it’s a hockey player deciding whether to pass or take a shot at goal, or a doubles tennis player deciding whether to hit the ball or leave it for their partner, athletes acquire critical thinking skills that will benefit them long after the game has finished.

Furthermore, children often need to concentrate for very long periods. Cricket matches, for example, can go on for four hours plus, and although they might not be on the pitch the whole time, they will still need to focus on the match, cheer on their teammates or practise on the sidelines.  Developing these concentration skills will certainly stand them in good stead for the future.

Managing Physical Health

For those children who spend many hours playing team sport, there is also the opportunity to practise managing their own physical health. I’m not going to lie, this is not one of Bean10’s strengths, but given the crazy amounts of hours he’s playing, even he has started to understand the importance of downtime, getting enough sleep, staying out of the hot sun and drinking enough water. He’s also become more aware of the need to eat sufficient healthy food to sustain him through the long matches. It’s definitely a work in progress but at least we’re moving in the right direction!

For the Parents…

And finally, it’s not just the children who are on a learning curve with their team sport involvement. Us parents too must learn how to tread the fine balance of both supporting and challenging our child. Encouraging them, but not so much that they have an unrealistic view of their own abilities, as that will only end in heartbreak further down the line… Not letting them quit at the first hurdle, but not pushing them too hard either. The drive must come from them. It’s not always an easy path to walk as it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of their success.

I have certainly made many a mistake in this respect. But then as Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” 😊


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