Thursday, January 27, 2011

Team Sports - How They Help Teens

I remember a conversation I had at a dinner party a few years ago. An attractive woman holding a glass of wine came up to me and introduced herself. She seemed well-educated and articulate. When she asked me what I do, I told her that I produce self-development products.

She immediately told me how silly that was. We don't really change who we are, she said. Her opinion was that our big challenge is to accept who we are. When I asked her if that included liars and child molesters, she frowned and dug in for a competitive conversation. 

"How do you propose to make a person a better person?" she challenged.

"I think it's a matter of people forming positive behavior patterns. With effort, anyone can change a hurtful behavior pattern. For example, people can overcome a drinking habit or a smoking habit. Likewise, they can address any behavior pattern that's holding them back. But I think the big opportunity is to help people do this while they're young, still in school."  

"And what would that be?"

I said, "Well, for one thing, involvement in team sports can make a big difference in setting people up success."

She stood up straight. "That's ridiculous. What does team sports have to do with anything?" I sensed I was in trouble. Not because I didn't know the answer, but because I realized she considered herself to be a successful person and had achieved a lot without participating in team sports. Maybe she thought of athletes as dumb jocks. Also, she had a smug, self-satisfied tone. I thought she was in love with her opinions and would rather argue than engage in dialogue.

But I continued anyway. My way of countering her aggressiveness was to tell the simple truth. 

"I don't think team sports are necessary to becoming a successful person, but I've found they can help. Kids on athletic teams have to work hard every day to prepare for competition. In that way, it's a lot like life itself, how it will be when they're on their own. In practice and in competition, they learn the value of preparation, self-development, teamwork, passion, commitment, effort, perseverance, focus, awareness, effort, optimism, excellence, fairness, and other personal strengths. They're mentored by their coaches and teammates. They learn what success feels like. They learn how to deal with failure. They participate in this for years on the way to becoming adults. It's an amazing developmental experience, and I think it teaches them things that give them an edge."

"That's outrageous nonsense. You've got to be kidding. It's just a game. A waste of time." She didn't get it, and she was making a determined effort to keep from getting it. What I was telling her wasn't her take on things. I remember thinking how impotent the truth can be when it contradicts what someone believes. I also wondered if her closed-minded, arrogant nature was the reason she was still single.

So I took a sip of wine, smiled at her and said, "You know, you may be right." I excused myself to go help the host, making a mental note to avoid conversation with this woman during the rest of the evening. I never saw her again.

Today, I believe in the value of team sports more than ever. I've learned how difficult the teen years can be, and why. After puberty, changes in the body produce changes in their minds and personalities. While this is happening, they can become impulsive and moody and act irrationally. As a result, bad things can happen. Alcohol and drugs. Reckless driving. Fights. Gangs. They can get pregnant, run away, fall under the influence of people with evil intentions, drop out of high school, become depressed, commit suicide. You hear about and read about this stuff every day. Disturbed teenagers who go off the deep end and get into the kind of trouble that can derail or even end their lives. 

Team sports can introduce the kind of structure and discipline kids aren't capable of imposing on themselves. It can expose them to positive values and force them to exercise behavior patterns that may well become habits that lead to their future success. It can create relationships with adults who care about their development. In other words, it can give them some of the help they need during the roller-coaster time of life I call "the teen journey." 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photos purchased by


DrMollieMarti said...

Excellent points, Denny, on the benefits of athletics for teens -- guiding them toward some sport or activity that provides structure, connection, and an opportunity to develop mastery and a positive self image.

Thanks for sharing your "You may be right" tactic - going to borrow that one :) Seeing where the conversation was going (and that it actually wasn't a dialogue at all...), what a great way to disengage with tact.

Meredith Bell said...

This is a really important post, Denny, because you address two critical topics - the value of team sports as a means of developing behavior patterns critical to success in life and the importance of speaking your truth even in the face of disapproval or indifference.

Thanks for always being willing to speak YOUR truth.

Tim Johnson said...

Agree but 100%. I played basketball all the way through high school and it was valuable for the reasons you name. We got a lot of practical experience in learning how to lose. :-)

However, there are several reasons why team sports are not the be-all, end-all. First, not everyone can be an athlete, nor should they be. Also, there's only so much you can learn from "riding the pine." Only the ones good enough to play regularly get the full experience. Finally, there's only limited opportunities to be a leader. There's only one or two team captains and it's the coach who really does the leading.

Youngsters have a number of channels for building character, developing leadership skills, etc. We've chosen Scouting for our two boys, there's also 4-H, Awana and a number of other programs and organizations where they can develop the broader human.


Mel said...

Very good points about team sports. I think teens need to be involved in something extracurricular; drama, debate team, 4H, or anything else productive. They need something they enjoy that takes up those hours where they might get in trouble.

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Thabo Mophiring said...

This is a way too rosy view of team sports. The negative side is not mentioned.
In my youth, I was in team sports - there is minimal mentoring and high competitiveness.
Much of male culture with it's problems is present in team sport behaviour.