Do youth sports really build character? It depends on what the kids get out of the sport

In the absence of evidence, there are theories and testimonials posited by philosophers, child development experts and ordinary adults who insist that athletics have shaped their lives.

“My high school sports experience made me a functional adult,” Maggie Lynch, now twenty-four, explained in an email.

“I’ve learned to never give up and ignore the noise,” says Aidan Conley, a recent college graduate who played high school football and lacrosse.

Twenty-seven-year-old Jackie Young says playing volleyball, softball and basketball as a teenager taught her how to work with others, to realize her responsibility to the collective. (Group projects resonated in a different way in the classroom: “They made me feel better than anything,” he said.)

Memory may not be a controlled experiment, but the volume and intensity of such reports is striking. In fact, it seems like every adult who has played sports can instantly relive a story from the playground or team bus that had an impact.

Kids can grow out of sports other ways, the very competitive athletic environment forces them to engage with strong feelings about themselves and others. A long time ago they Learn to manage The anger, sadness, embarrassment, and joy that play evokes. Children can also learn to control their aggression if the play environment is healthy. In games, after all, one team or individual competes against another, and the goal during that competition is to defeat the other — aggressively, if necessary. But once the competition is over, everyone reverts to being human again, even friends, and aggression must stop. Weisbard writes, “It is hard to imagine a stronger deterrent to violating another human being than to admit that our hostile feelings toward another human being are a kind of fiction, a game constructed and have nothing to do with him or her. All—that we unreasonably invent enemies.”

With proper leadership, sports can also invoke other moral virtues, including appreciation of an opponent’s skill, tolerance for the mistakes of a weak player, and respect for an imperfect referee. Such “morality demands,” writes Weisbard, create empathy: Children learn that their emotions, however emotional, are not all-encompassing—that the feelings and experiences of others are equally valid.

Professor of Philosophy Drew Hyland argues that serious engagement in sport can trigger two profound inner developments: “deep, affective commitment and the experience of self-knowledge.” Hyland drew on his own time playing basketball to share how deeply it affected him. “There was no experience in my scholastic or college education that led me to more self-knowledge than my basketball experience, no course or classroom where I knew my abilities, my limitations, where I was willing to compromise, and where I was my will take a stand.”

One of the clearest forms of self-knowledge gleaned through sports comes from it Mark Edmondson, an English professor at UVA and former high school football player. in him 2012 article On Sports and Character for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Edmondson explores how the game of football fosters valuable moral development in warrior communities.

Physically unstoppable — “I was soft around the waist, very close, not particularly fast, and not at all agile” — Edmondson was determined to stick with the game, despite grueling doubles practice during the dog days of summer and regular beatings. by the coaches. Defying everyone’s expectations, he surpassed more talented athletes and gained self-respect. “I’ve become a tougher, braver person,” she wrote.

He also overcame the self-consciousness that haunted him and learned to value himself by his own internal standards rather than those imposed by others. It was regular practice, hard practice day after day, that forced this lasting change, he wrote. And the resilience and perseverance he picked up during football carried him through the long slog of graduate school and the job hunt that followed.

But there were rotten lessons, too. The daily organized violence made him more brutal. Given the hierarchical nature of the sport, he became more interested in power and lording it over others. He realized that he had become accustomed to thinking in terms of physical dominance and that it would be difficult to let go of this mindset: “Once a punch in the face is part of your repertoire – once you’ve done it a few times as an adult – it doesn’t really go away.” And he could see that he The culture he lived in was aggressively homophobic, obsessed with physical dominance, and consequently hostile to the value of kindness.

A handful of studies support Edmondson’s experience. Kids who wrestle and play football 40 percent more likely to be violent outside of sports than their nonathletic peers. “Players are encouraged to be violent outside the game because they are rewarded for being violent inside it,” said Derek Kreger, who conducted the research. A Study A study involving sixteen male high school athletes found that football and basketball players were twice as likely to abuse their female dating partners as athletes in other sports. Most research on alcohol use among high school athletes shows a positive correlation Between the two, though, it’s not clear that one “causes” the other. The link is particularly strong in high-income areas.

We take our kids to the field for the same reason our parents did: because we believe sports build character. But evidence is lacking, and the environment kids play in now tends to do the opposite. Coakley believes that the way youth sports have changed in the past twenty years undermines character development. “Sports has become more cutthroat and competitive between kids and parents,” he said.

“Some kids survive the system because they have joined other activities,” he added. “They made it through the sport and turned twenty-three.”

To the extent that there is consensus about the contribution of sports to character, it seems this way: What children gain from athletics depends on a completely variable and complex array. Community values, parental attitudes toward sports, the coach’s approach and methods, the child’s own temperament and training, and countless other ambiguities determine what children will learn from athletics. Sports themselves are empty vessels, tied to the meanings we attach to them.

Author Linda Flanagan
By Linda Flanagan (USA), New York, New York, March 21, 2022. Photo © Beowulf Sheehan