The Benefits of Youth Sports by Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., co-founder and medical director of The Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes and one of America’s premier pediatric sports physicians.

Physical Benefits

Fitness. Kids who play sports develop general physical fitness in a way that’s fun, and they establish lifelong habits for good health. This is particularly important at a time when obesity in the United States has reached epidemic proportions: the incidence of obesity has increased by more than 50 percent among America’s children and teens since 1976 and continues to grow at a staggering rate!

Stress relief. Sports allow kids to clear their minds of academic and social pressures, to literally run off the tension that’s accumulated in their muscles. In the words of one patient, “If you play really hard, you feel better because playing takes your mind off things that bother you, and afterwards you can concentrate better.” Most doctors recognize the positive mental effect of physical exertion, even though we’re not sure exactly why this is so. I know that my ability to study in college and medical school was greatly enhanced when I ran during the day, and I’m not the only athlete to find this true. Many athletes get better grades in-season (theories posit the discipline and the need to manage time, along with an increased ability to concentrate). During exams, Duke University opens its gyms twenty-four hours a day to provide stress relief for its students.

Mastery. Sports give kids a satisfying, enjoyable way to develop their own talents: through personal effort they get good at something they’re interested in. Doing something well makes them feel good about themselves, but equally important, it teaches them about the process of how to improve and work more effectively. Learning a skill-to dribble left-handed, say, or to execute an effective second serve-entails a recognition that practice is essential and that improvement is incremental. The process of repetition teaches the athlete how to master a move and also how to experiment with different approaches to improve a skill. The feedback in sports is usually immediate and visible-does the ball go into the basket?-so that the athlete can change or repeat what she’s doing and figure out how to get better. Not only that, the whole process of seeing practice lead to improvement gives kids a feeling of control, a feeling all too rare in their lives.

Healthy habits. Because sports increase an awareness of one’s body and how it responds to different stimuli and circumstances, sports help prevent drug and alcohol abuse. Most athletes value what their bodies can do and want to maintain those abilities. Being an athlete also gives kids an acceptable reason for telling their friends no to drugs, booze, and other high-risk, unhealthy behaviors. (Of course, not all athletes avoid drugs and alcohol.)

Personal Benefits

Valuing preparation. Sports help kids learn to distinguish between effort and ability. Sports increase self-discipline and the awareness of the value of preparation because kids can see the difference in their performance.

Competitive athletes learn the importance of effort, being prepared (mentally and physically), and enlightened risk-taking. They see that raw physical talent is not always sufficient to win the game, but that preparation is essential. This includes mental preparation (staying focused) and physical fitness as well as practicing the plays with their teammates in team sports. They learn to evaluate risk versus reward. Another invaluable lesson is discovering that mistakes are part of learning; they signal that a particular approach is unsuccessful and you must try another. Kids also learn to deal productively with criticism as part of improvement and preparation.

Resilience. Sports provide an unparalleled model for dealing with disappointment and misfortune. Young athletes learn to handle adversity, whether it’s picking themselves up after losing a big game or not getting as many minutes as they wanted. They find ways to deal with losing and go on, because there’s another big game next week or next year. They figure out what to do to get what they want for themselves. They put in extra time on fitness or work on specific weaknesses in their game (long-ball trapping, hitting to the opposite field, looking the ball into their hands).

Athletes also learn to deal with the physical and psychological effects of injury. I broke my jaw playing soccer and missed most of the season my junior year in high school. I went through the classic stages of grief, from “This can’t be true” to ultimate acceptance. Two months of sitting out, waiting to heal, and dealing with physical and emotional pain was devastating. There were times early on when I sat in my bed whimpering from pain. But as time went on and my jaw began to heal, I somehow began to realize what almost all athletes in pain realize: the only person who is going to help you is yourself. You find the limits of what you can ask of yourself and know that you will deliver. This learning to get the best out of yourself carries over into all aspects of life. People can find their internal drive through training and hard work, but adversity really brings it out. In my case, I came back with stronger resolve. In my senior year I became an all-district soccer player and was propelled toward a college soccer career.

Attitude control. Older teens learn that a confident attitude improves their performance, and that they have some control over their attitude. They learn to disregard comparative stats in preparing for an opponent and instead to adopt “attitude enhancers” such as visualization exercises, team or individual rituals, singing specific songs together, or having dinner as a team the night before the game. Some might call these superstitions, others, self-fulfilling prophecies, but they work.

Leadership opportunities. Team sports offer kids a rare opportunity to serve as leaders. Kids can be in a position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their various teammates and help to exploit their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They can minimize conflicts among players. They can reinforce values-such as fair play, teamsmanship, hard work, mental preparation-by speaking up when appropriate and setting a good example. They can also take the initiative in arranging for team dress on game days (football players wear their jerseys to class, female basketball players wear their warm-up pants), organizing team dinners or team movie nights, and inviting teachers and administrators to their games.

Identity and balance. Being part of a group is inordinately important to kids, and sports make kids feel like they belong, whether it’s to the group of athletes in general or their team in particular. Sports also contribute to a teenager’s sense of a stable identity with particular values. “I’m a football player” is a very different statement than “I play football.” People are complicated, however; no individual is just one thing. It’s better to encourage children-and adults-not to assume a single identity to the exclusion of all else.

Time management. Young athletes learn to manage their time productively. They know they have to get their homework done, so they learn not to waste time (some of them even quit watching television and hanging out at the mall). They plan ahead, so that big school projects don’t catch them by surprise. They even figure out they have to eat well and get a good night’s sleep. Countless athletes, in school and the workplace, say that being an athlete taught them discipline that is invaluable in their lives on and off the field.

Long-term thinking. Athletes learn the fundamental lesson of sacrificing immediate gratification for long-term gain. This is the basis for personal success as well as for civilization in general, and no lesson can be more valuable.

Social Benefits

Sports are a social activity. Team sports are obviously done with other people, but even individual sports are often done as a team (tennis, golf, track). All sports, however, are intended to be performed in front of others, and the social ramifications are many. Here are some of them.

Relationships with other kids. Athletes develop relationships with their teammates. For boys, sports are a primary, and unfortunately sometimes the sole, way of socializing with others. In many schools and communities, nonathletic males find it difficult to develop a social network at all. For girls, who according to the feminist theorist Carol Gilligan tend to define themselves through their relationships rather than their achievements, sports offer yet another way to make friends and create an alternate peer group. According to Mike Nerney, a consultant in substance abuse prevention and education, multiple peer groups are always a good idea for teens, who have an intense need for inclusion and belonging, but who can also be volatile, cruel to each other, and foment destructive behavior as a group. Having a refuge when relations go wrong with one group can alleviate a great deal of stress and offer an alternative for kids who feel uncomfortable or frightened by peers who engage in high-risk activities.

Teamwork. On a team, kids learn about cooperation, camaraderie, give-and-take. They learn that while their natural position might be wide receiver, the team needs a cornerback, so they sacrifice their personal desires and play defense. They learn that you don’t have to like someone in order to work together toward a common goal. They also discover that you can work for people you don’t respect and still be productive, improve your skills, and have fun. A team is a natural environment in which to learn responsibility to others: you can’t stay out carousing the night before a game; sometimes you need to pass up a party in order to show up and play well.

Kids learn these lessons from their teammates and, most important, a coach who encourages the good of the team over the needs of an individual player. This attitude is sometimes rare in today’s sports climate, where what’s glorified is to “be the man.” I think the earlier the message is instilled about the good of the larger whole, the better for kids in the long run.

Diversity. Organized sports sponsored by clubs or youth leagues not affiliated with schools offer players an opportunity to meet a variety of kids from different backgrounds. Students from public, private, and parochial schools come together in a common enterprise, crossing socioeconomic and ethnic lines, so that over time all players broaden their sense of how other people live. The genuinely multicultural environment is of tremendous importance in our polarized society. Kids play on the same team, wear the same uniform, share the same objectives and experiences. Sports are a great equalizer: rich or poor, black, brown, or white, are irrelevant. What counts is talent and heart.

Relationships with adults. When coaches, parents, and kids see each other at practice and games week after week, year after year, the adults learn to admire and praise the kids’ prowess and progress, even when kids are as young as third graders. This kind of attention helps youngsters learn to balance their own evaluation of their improving skills with the appraisal of others who are not blood relatives; they also begin the lifelong process of figuring out whom to listen to when they hear conflicting advice or assessments. In addition, for young athletes of all ages, attention from interested adults is not only flattering but also helps them overcome shyness and develop poise when talking to relative strangers in social situations. The ability to feel comfortable in a variety of social circumstances will be progressively more valuable in a world of multiple cultures and decreasing numbers of supportive communities.

Sports give kids an opportunity to spend ongoing periods of time with an adult in a shared endeavor. Indeed, kids may spend more time with their coach than with any other adult in their lives, especially if they’re on a school team or a club team that practices two or more times a week. Ideally this coach cares about them as whole beings rather than particular talents who can run for touchdowns or block opponents’ shots. To thrive, kids need to be with adults who want them to do well in a variety of endeavors, who notice their improvements and hard work, who manifest sound values, and who don’t pay attention to them solely because of their contributions to the win column.

The coach-player relationship can be very strong, and even parentlike. Coaches of young athletes take on a tremendous responsibility to set a good example and treat their players respectfully. Thankfully, most coaches take this responsibility very seriously.

Sometimes, the coach-player relationship can even be life-saving. A female coach of a varsity boys’ team reported that one of her players came to her saying, “I need to talk to you. I found blood in my urine.”

“Let me ask you something,” the coach replied. “Have you been having unprotected sex?”

“No, of course not. I can’t believe you asked me that,” he said. “Well, I need to know what direction to take you in. No matter what happened, you need to see a doctor.”

The coach recalled, “This boy was very good looking and very popular. I knew what was going on. The doctor found he had picked up a venereal disease which could have made him infertile. The boy called me from the doctor’s office to say thank you.”

Participating in a community. Sports foster a sense of community: they give both participants and spectators the experience of belonging to something larger than themselves, the need for which seems to be hard-wired into the human brain. This is why kids love playing for their schools, why high school football games in small cities can draw tens of thousands of spectators week after week, and why adults identify with their college teams years after they have graduated. Playing for an institution or a community gives kids a chance to feel that they are making a genuine contribution to a larger group.