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Will team sports develop leadership in my child?

Team sports allow children to work together to achieve goals but it’s not a silver bullet to developing life skills.

As parents, we know that regular physical activity can help children and adolescents improve cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles, control weight, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce the risk of developing health conditions. We’ve also been told that team sports, in particular, is great in helping teach children important leadership and life skills.

With so much emphasis placed on the benefits of sports, many parents are quick to enrol their children in team sports – over other types of extra murals – in the hopes that it will not only help improve the health of their kids, but nurture discipline, teamwork, and critical thinking in their children. It is frequent to hear phrases such as “rugby teaches discipline”, or “soccer teaches teamwork”. Unfortunately, though, it isn’t quite that simple.

The value of sport

While hearing someone say, “rugby teaches leadership” does not sound jarring, if one of your friends were to suggest that “finger painting teaches leadership”, you would stare at them in disbelief. The source of this disbelief stems from what have become commonplace understandings about the value of sport.

These understandings are that sport “naturally” teaches “leadership”, “teamwork”, or “critical thinking”. In turn, these understandings have become deeply entrenched in the way society values sport. Although there is evidence that sport – when delivered appropriately – can help young people develop, the picture is more complex.

For instance, one of the most popular perceptions about the value of team sports is that they teach “teamwork”. But it may well be that not a great deal of teamwork gets learned when more proficient players become frustrated at their teammates for having inferior technical and tactical skills. Or less-skilled teammates feel inadequate and unwelcome because of their limited ability. And this is why we should be cautious about the assumed educational value of rugby (or any other sport) over any other activity – like finger painting.

It’s not what your child does, it’s the way that they do it

Before enrolling your child in a team sport, make sure that they really want to do that particular sport. While a sense of belonging matters to children, it’s important that they participate in an activity they enjoy, with people they liked, all while feeling part of something bigger.

The hidden variable

Team sport itself does not improve young people’s development, the “hidden” variables of passion, relationships, and a sense of belonging, genuinely do. So when it comes to young people’s social and psychological development, the focus should not be on which sport to play, but on how sport is used.

Sport can be a great educational tool, but so can many other interests or pursuits. And instilling passion, relationships, and a sense of belonging is something any activity – such as finger painting or stamp collecting – can achieve.

As the saying goes “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, and that couldn’t be more apparent.  

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