Growing up in a downtown urban community without structured resources, some of my happiest memories are hanging out with the neighborhood kids. We played hide-and-seek almost every day, all day. We had to use our eyes, ears, agility, and speed if we wanted to win. It built stamina and taught us to enjoy exercise. It was how we socialized.
As we got older, we played neighborhood baseball in an empty lot in the middle of the block. All we needed was a bat, ball, and enthusiasm. The bases were marked using a red building brick as chalk. We naturally learned about cooperation and competition. It was carefree training for a future of competitive sports. That was a time when it was safe to play outside without supervision. Unfortunately, that safety no longer exists.
Participating in exercise from an early age created a love for sports. At school, I was a natural at Track and Field. I was winning city competitions starting in first grade because I could run.
I got to experience that winning feels good. If I lost, I learned to pick myself up and work harder to face my next challenge.
Lucky for me, we had a terrific Physical Education program. Our PE teacher was not only knowledgeable and dedicated; she was nurturing. She introduced all these different activities: field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, volleyball, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, yoga, dance, cross county, track and field, swimming, diving, hockey, flag football, badminton, golf. There was something for everyone. The secondary bonus was it kept us busy after school until 6 pm. Unfortunately, with cutbacks, many of these programs are lacking in our current public school system. The onus is now on parents to find the time and money to create this outside of school hours. This privatization of PE can be a burden and creates inequalities.
Being part of a school team brought respect from my peers and teachers. It helped build my confidence and self-esteem. That experience taught me how essential athletics is for a child’s overall development. Athletes have an aura of confidence about them. That aura can shield them from bullying. The bullies tend to ignore and leave the athletes alone. Sometimes, I even felt I got better grades than I deserved from teachers because of my athletic success. My competitiveness in sports gave me confidence that led to my academic competitiveness. I believed anything that a guy could do, I could do better.
Here is another example of how sports can shift a child’s self-confidence. When my son was younger, people would ask him what his favorite sport was. He’d answer, “Basketball”. Next, they ask if he was on a team. My son bowed his head in shame and shook his head. It hurt me to see this. He tried out for the school team but got cut. That following summer, he made a commitment to become a better player. We set up a hoop on the driveway. Instead of day camps, we hired a kid from the local high school basketball team to coach him. The next year, he made the school team. When asked the same questions, he answered with pride and confidence. There was a definite shift in his self-esteem. He stood taller. Something I wish every kid to experience.
Get your kids involved with exercise from a young age. The two main categories of sports are individual and team. Different sports require different skill sets. There are the fine motor movements of golf, the agility of ice skating, the balance of gymnastics, the coordination of soccer, the speed of running, the grace and flexibility of dance, the strength of rowing and lifting, the reaction time of tennis, the precision of archery, etc. They all require focus, concentration, adaptability, and strategy—all excellent life skills. Remember, athletics is a type of intelligence. Develop it from a young age, so it becomes a way of life. Practice academics using the same strategy. Let your kids try a variety of activities to see which they gravitate to.
I have met people who say, “My kids will not be good at sports. I am not good at sports. Academics is our focus”. Nonsense. Don’t project your biases onto your children. They pick up on your attitude. Let them discover their strengths where ever they may lie. We don’t own our kids. They are gifts from the universe. As parents, our jobs are to help them reach their potential, whatever that might be.
Being good at sports may protect against bullying from people that you know. But what about societal bullying? I defined this as pervasive discrimination, racism, and hate that even parents experience. It can seeps into our children’s psyche subliminally. Or what if your child asks you, “Why do some people hate someone who looks like me?” This type of bullying is very harmful. It can adversely affect your child’s health permanently.
My response? Tell them: There will always be haters. You need to rise above them. Believe in yourself, believe that you can do anything, be anything you want. As parents or the primary adult in that child’s life, be a pillar for your kid. Encourage and help them to set goals and to work hard to achieve them. Be the example. Be the person with integrity and work ethic. Be the adult that cheers your child on; be their cheerleader. Give them confidence by letting them know you have their backs no matter what. Never judge. Validate them by letting them know that they are never alone. You will be there through thick and thin for them. Let them know that they can come to you for help. Teach them to love and respect themselves as much as you love and respect them.
These are the best gifts we can give our children.
Love and Respect. These are the best gifts we can give our children.
The above image is of the author performing a one handed cartwheel on beam many years ago.