The Unexpected Benefits of Organized Sports

There are plenty of reasons to get your kid off the couch and onto the field, according to most experts.

Organized sports gives children a chance to boost activity and develop physical and social skills. And OK, the uniforms can be totally awesome.

But now there’s one more reason to consider signing your kid up for fall ball, Little League, or soccer.

In a study, University of Montreal researchers found that kids who participate in organized sports in kindergarten are better at following instructions and remaining focused in school later.

Researchers reviewed data on more than 2,600 children born in Quebec between 1997 and 1998, and gathered info about the kids from teachers and parents.

They found that compared with non-sporty peers, kids who played organized sports once a week or more in kindergarten were, by fourth grade, “identifiably” better at remaining focused and following instructions.

The UM study was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

So what’s the link between team sports and academic focus?

"There is something specific to the sporting environment—perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team, a special group with a common goal—that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities,” said lead study author Linda S. Pagani, Ph.D., a University of Montreal professor.

“In a sport, children are learning to coordinate their minds and bodies simultaneously,” she added. “They learn to follow directions and pay attention, two skills that are important in the classroom.  These skills are hard to master, but sports makes it easier because the children are learning these skills from coaches in a fun context.”

Rick Wolff, a former professional athlete, author, and sports broadcaster, is not surprised by the group’s findings.

The study, he said, “confirms what many coaches, educators, and parents have believed for years—that benefits of playing team sports are clearly evident in how kids learn to balance their hours, work toward goals (like doing better in school), direct their efforts, and learn from a coach or educator.”

While many parents support team sports, however, there are others who feel kids’ athletics have just grown way too competitive. They argue that the time, money, and pressure of playing team sports can overshadow the activity’s benefits. 

Of course, finding the right sport (and the level of commitment that works best for your child) may require some searching. But Wolff believes that there is a sport, and a viable schedule, for everyone.

“No, not every kid will want to play soccer or basketball,” he stated. “But as a parent, at least introduce your kids to the rich variety of sports. Maybe they'll enjoy wrestling or cross-country running or swimming on a team.” Keep in mind, too, that there are options—from competitive travel teams to less intense recreational leagues, and your kid doesn’t have to be a star player to reap the benefits.

On the other hand, if your child is beginning to falter from the competition, too many games, or too much pressure, you may need to work out a better balance, even if it means eliminating some activities.

“Kids today are pulled in a lot of directions, and they often feel that they are trying to please their parents. Better to let them know that you're there to support them, not to push them,” Wolff added.