Practice, Fail, and Be a Good Sport: What Kids Learn on the Field

by Jessica Graham September 07, 2016

I always thought my kids would be like me – quiet, bookish, and massively uncoordinated.

But nope, at least one of them has some athletic ability and he’s been using that ability to play flag football. (I should have known that sippy cup being thrown from the back seat by toddler hands was a sign of things to come.) His time on the football field has been a learning experience for both of us. He’s learned determination and teamwork and I’ve learned that the trick play is actually called a “reverse.” Here are 4 more lessons from the football field.

1 | "I will always be your biggest fan."

The words my son needs to hear from me after every game regardless of the outcome, regardless of his personal performance: I love watching you play. No matter how well-versed you are in a particular sport, or how little you know about the rules of the game, you can make sure you child knows you are their biggest fan with five little words.

2| Sportsmanship is a mark of character.

By now it’s no surprise to anyone that the worst examples of poor sportsmanship are often over-zealous parents and manic coaches. Almost all junior sports leagues now have Codes of Conduct, – for the adults. These days everyone knows a story about a screaming, belligerent parent being ejected from a game or coaches coming to blows. As a parent who is trying to nurture sportsmanship in young athletes, how are we supposed to combat this kind of deplorable behavior? By staying positive. Sure it’s easy to dress down the out-of-line, badly-behaving adults on the car ride home or during a game rehash. Their actions should be used as an example of what not to do. But we should also comment on things done right. Praise the coach who stays positive even when things aren’t looking up, the child who always hands the flag back to the opposing team, the kid who consistently cheers on his teammates, and the player who “hustles” even he doesn’t make it to the end zone. Let your child know that the little things matter and that they’re being observed. Be the parent who is free with the words of encouragement and high fives, not just for the kids who make the big plays but for everyone working hard and having fun. The pee-wee league is a time for planting seeds, not reaping a harvest.

3 | Failure is healthy.

Is your child on the Bad News Bears? Losing isn’t fun, but it is healthy. Your child will learn how to deal with defeat and discouragement and these lessons will serve them for a lifetime. These days, the structuring of teams is serious business, with coaches scouting and recruiting young players. Before you agree for your child to be on a team based on their winning track record, here are a few things to consider. Your child may get a greater opportunity to shine on a team with more varied players. On a team with players of equal or greater ability, your child might get less playing time and less attention to their individual skills. On a team with players of different levels, your child may get greater time to hone their skills and learn to develop stronger leadership skills. We tell kids all the time that winning isn’t everything and it turns out – we’re right! According to the Little Book of Talent, “Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success.” One of the reasons for this is that kids who are praised for their talent, tend to protect their talent and don’t push themselves as hard, often fizzling too soon. Being deemed talented early, may be an impediment not a strength.

4 | Practice is productive.

The old line tells us that practice makes perfect but the adage isn’t true. You can practice repeatedly and still flub something at the crucial moment. Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school basketball team, once said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life… that is how I have succeeded.” Practice may not produce perfection but it can be awfully effective.

Jessica Graham


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