Note: This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
As an author of kids’ books, a soccer coach, a mom and an advocate, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how the benefits of kids playing sports reach beyond the fields. In addition to being fun, I believe sports are a powerful tool for education, change and equality.
But like many parents of athletes, I also witness and fall victim to the anxiety, stress and pressure that comes with kids’ sports. Is my daughter playing on the right team? Should my son specialize in playing goalie as a 10-year-old? Will they give up sports because I make a poor decision? It’s fraught with expectations and it’s overly structured. And to me, it often misses the mark on why we want our kids to play sports in the first place: to have fun, make friends and be better people. Let’s face it, the majority of kids will never play in college, or become a professional athlete.
I recently started thinking about how to emphasize the core values of sports that we treasure — responsibility, respect, dedication and compassion — in our everyday lives. I ran the idea by my children Lily, 13, and William, 10. I asked them to talk to me about these values and how they might translate what they have learned on the field into something useful in their lives outside of sports.
Naturally, they were the ones to teach me a thing or two.
My son was quick to jump in: “Mom, it bothers me that after practice there are water bottles all over the place.” I asked him what he could do about it. “I’ll pick ’em up!” Great, I thought. There’s responsibility.
Then Lily chimed in: “Mom, there is a World War II veteran in town, and I wanted to go thank him for his service. Next time I will.” There’s respect.
My son told me about a classmate who has stayed inside for recess every day for months with a teammate who is on crutches. There’s compassion.
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Just having the conversation was powerful. It led to their recognition of how easy it is to change someone’s day or impact their school or community by making these small acts of kindness a part of everyday life. This is something that kids can and should do.
They saw others act and decided to act themselves. William started picking up bottles with his teammates, and Lily is looking for that vet. By seeing and recognizing kindness around them, they transferred the conversation about sports and character from the abstract to the concrete.
Often we consider the lessons of sports as something that will benefit our kids in the longer term. For example, the CEO talking about how playing college sports taught her the perseverance to become a leader in the workplace. But what I learned, and continue to learn from my kids, is that playing sports is teaching strong values that can benefit them right now, right there on the fields, courts, gyms and arenas where they play every day.
Many families invest a lot of time, effort and resources into their kids’ sports activities. I do, as well. But now my family’s “kindness check-in” at dinner has become a part of an ongoing conversation, and my kids are actively pointing out to me the things they are doing, can do or see others doing. When I give a talk about Title IX, or advocating for girls to be allowed the opportunity to play no matter where they live in the world, I am sometimes pained by the reality of what much of our youth sports culture has become: excessively competitive, overwrought and sometimes even damaging.
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Refocusing the conversation on the values of sportsmanship has allowed me to witness its power for good. It seems to be working. An elderly couple lives across the street and after a blizzard this winter, Lily came to me and said, “Mom, let’s go dig out the neighbors.”
I smiled. “Let’s do it.”