A Moment with Dr. Moore | Going to Bat for Children – How Sports Help Them Succeed

April 26, 2023

Let the games begin now that spring is here at last. It’s time for kids to get off the couch and away from their computers. They should be outside kicking balls, shooting hoops and racing bikes—all activities young children enjoy. And preschoolers aren’t too young to join in organized sports: baseball, basketball, soccer and even tennis, my favorite sport. Serena Williams, for instance, began hitting the court when she was three, an age at which most children can’t grasp the rules of the game. Still, they can learn how to handle a racket and hit balls, skills that may not lead them to the U.S. Open. Still, practicing the game will help children learn something that great sports stars know: “Champions do not quit,” as Billie Jean King once said. “They keep playing until they are successful.”

Persistence is just one of the many positive traits that children can pick up from playing sports, and I was thinking about them this month as we marked International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. Sure, we all know the physical exercise children get is good for their health. But that’s not the only reason for encouraging them to join in organized athletics and games. Sports also help children become caring, competent adults who win in the game of life and lift others up, too. “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” according to basketball coach John Wooden who won an unrivalled 10 national championships over a 10-year span at UCLA.

The “Wizard of Westwood,” as Wooden was known, developed a Pyramid of Success to train his players. It consisted of timeless character traits, like friendship, loyalty, confidence and cooperation, that he thought would make you a better player and a better person. These are traits children can develop by playing sports, the point of a soccer match at Celebree School, a child care center in Perryville, MD. From the stands, the match looked a little odd. The coach was singing most of the instructions and applauding the young players for listening well. But the goal wasn’t scoring. It was learning the basics of the sport and having positive thoughts about themselves and others.

The preschoolers were all in and so was the American Academy of Pediatrics when it weighed in on the value of sports. According to an AAP policy statement, “participation in organized sports is strongly associated with a positive social self-concept” and a child’s ability to bond with their peers. The exercise they get also encourages better sleep, which enhances mental health. And sports help children develop on an emotional level as they learn about facing challenges and loss. They also come to see that they are part of a team in which they must follow rules, respect authority figures, share and take turns. Besides all of that, sports relieve stress and help children do better in school, according to a recent study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The study found that two-year-old children who spend less than an hour a day looking at screens and who also engage in daily physical exercise have better executive function than those who don’t meet these guidelines. “Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors,” said kinesiology and community health professor Naiman Khan, who led the study. “It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behavior; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.” So, it seems that having children engage in sports is a slam dunk for their future.

Sadly, not all children have an equal chance to get the benefits of sports, according to another recent study from Early Learning Ohio. The study revealed that race, gender, income and the mother’s education determine whether children follow pursuits like art, music and athletics outside of school. The results pointed to a continued and troubling gap in opportunities that has persisted in recent years: white children are 2.5 times more likely to participate in athletics compared to their peers of color.

And this finding comes in the wake of COVID as schools consider how to make up for lost learning by ramping up classroom time and cutting down on physical education. Sure, parents can act on their own to encourage children to play more sports. But physical activity shouldn’t become an area schools feel they can sacrifice to drive up academic achievement. We need policy changes to make organized sports more accessible to children, especially those from communities that are underserved.

I can empathize with our nation’s marginalized youth because we share a similar background. So, I’ve gone to bat for them at the Council by striving to build equity in early learning. It isn’t easy, but I’m determined to level the playing field for all young learners. And I draw inspiration from time spent on the tennis courts. Once the match starts you have to put everything you learned into practice. Based on your preparation, you either win or lose. But sometimes it’s just not your day even if you’re really well prepared and rank higher than your opponent. So, you can’t be too fazed when you fail in a set. You just have to charge ahead if you want to score that final win—a key life lesson I’ve picked up from tennis.

I’m also stirred by the example of Dikembe Mutombo, a giant of basketball who never forgot the folks closer to the ground. After growing up in the Congo, he came to study in this country, went on to become a frequent pick for the NBA All-Star team and earned a fortune. He used his wealth to help his homeland by building clinics, schools and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, named for his mom. “We have an obligation to give back to the place from which we have come,” Mutombo said when asked about his charity work. “In Africa, there is a saying: when you take the elevator to the top, don’t forget to send it back down so someone else can use it.”


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