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Sports – Do kids really need them?

28 July 2007 351 views 10 Comments

Just the other day, I was in a situation where some old friends of mine were seemingly trying to convince me to enroll M in some sort of organized competitive sport. Something like soccer. So far I’ve been pretty firm in my decision not to do it, but I guess I was surprised to be in a situation where there was actually an attempt to persuade me to do it. In fact, just the thought of M joining some sort of team frankly makes me sick to my stomach. I’m almost afraid to admit it because I know that as I write it, people will be poised and ready to email me and say how I’m so wrong, so anti-American, so anti-apple pie, etc, etc. But I really hate team sports. So there.

Now I was quick to be clear with my old friends – if ever M or J genuinely asked me if they could join a sport, I would certainly consider doing it. But otherwise, I don’t see any reason to go in that direction voluntarily.

Here are some of the reasons why I don’t plan to enroll M or J in a competitive team sport anytime soon:

I don’t want to have to watch the games. I know, totally selfish of me. But I’ll admit it anyway. In our family, we don’t watch sports games. I went to a Yankee game once as a child and was totally bored except for the moment a ball came flying into the audience and the idiot in the row in front of me stole the ball from the air 6 inches before it would have been caught by me. A 40 year old man stealing a ball practically from the hands of a 7 year old. I also attended many swim meets in high school, but that was just in devotion to a boyfriend who dumped me a year or two later. I could have been learning how to accomplish time travel, but instead I wasted hours sitting in chlorine-saturated air, watching people swim back and forth a million times, for some guy.

Competitive sports don’t fit into our lives. Part of the reason why we are homeschooling is that I want M and J to live their lives, and be a part of our lives, all the time. I don’t want to jump on the soccer-mom bandwagon and start carting them around to a million extra-curricular activities every day. Considering our “curricula” is our life, I’d be carting them around to something that is totally outside of normal life. Not that doing something outside of the normal isn’t sometimes fun, but driving back and forth to soccer practice doesn’t really seem like it would be fun for anyone right now. Which doesn’t mean that some day, soccer might be a part of M or J’s life. It just isn’t now. Again, if my kids someday have a love of sports games, I suppose that will become a part of our life. But I see no reason to usher it in right now, unprompted by us or our children.

You can learn the same lessons in real life that sports supposedly teach you, and you’d probably learn them better, and in a less artificial way, if you learned them in a real-life endeavor. Let’s take “teamwork”, for example. I don’t think you need sports to learn the value in teamwork. Why not join Habitat For Humanity instead? Or work, alongside your family, at a homeless shelter perhaps. Those activities teach you teamwork, and they also give you the satisfaction of knowing you did something real to make the world a better place. And building a house can be just as fun as kicking a ball around. Heck, we engage in teamwork every day just at home. It takes the cooperation of the whole family to keep the house running, and M and J learn that every day in a thousand little lessons, none of which I plan. I think it goes along with our whole homeschooling philosophy that M and J will learn those lessons much more meaningfully if they are not doing it in some institution that functions outside of life. And sports teams often resemble institutions, just like school does. And they are often filled with kids that go to school and believe in school. Kids that look to a teacher or coach to tell them what to do. Kids that follow the rules and believe that pink isn’t for boys. Kids that believe that it is important to win. Are these beliefs catching? If so, please forgive me if I don’t choose to sign my 4-year-old up to be bombarded by it just yet.

Competitive sports don’t give you lifelong opportunities. Most of the people that I know that participate in organized competitive sports are high school students, or sometimes college students. It is an activity that is very much associated with school. After school is over for these kids, not many of them continue to do competitive sports. I was talking to an acquaintance recently who is a member of the military and who works at a military academy. He was telling me that even in the military, they are seeing the value in other, non-competitive physical activities that will give recruits hobbies for the rest of their lives. Hobbies like bicycling for fun, hiking, mountain climbing, jogging, etc. These are activities that adults can readily do for fun, and will more likely be carried through people’s lives. So why should my homeschooled child be unduly concerned with participating in an activity that is mostly associated with schooling and will cease to be an issue for him once the “school years” are over? I sincerely doubt that my son, at the age of 40, will curse me because I didn’t cart him around to soccer once a week when he was 5. And yes, I do know a few adults that participate in competitive sports. But they are few and far between.

Competitive Sports = rewards and punishments. People cheer when you make a goal. They say, “Good Job!” When you missed the goal, people sigh, they show their disappointment. No matter how you cut it, there are winners and losers. Now, I know there are a lot of sports teams for kids that claim that they don’t focus on winning, but I basically don’t buy it. You can throw a party for both teams and pretend that there are no winners, but when it comes down to it, one team made more goals than the other. And isn’t making the goal the whole point? I believe that’s why they call it a “goal”. And obviously some fall short of that goal. I don’t like it. As a family, we don’t use rewards and punishments. (See Alfie Kohn).

We do athletic activities that the whole family can participate in. We do things as a family. We hike together. We go camping together. We run around the house and chase each other. We garden. We take walks in the evenings. We swim. Why would I want to voluntarily drop off my 4-year-old and surrender responsibility for him to a stranger? I believe that it’s important, especially in the early years, to keep your children continually close to you, at least as much as you are able to. M and J are rarely away from me and I like it that way. I believe M needs to know that his parents are right there when he needs them. Drop-off programs are not for us. (see Hold On to Your Kids).

I’m attuned to my kids, and I don’t see an interest. I suppose if I happened to have a kid that wanted to spend whole days kicking around a ball, I might consider asking someone to teach him more about something like soccer. Maybe. But I don’t see M being drawn to it. I’m not convinced that many 4-year-olds are naturally drawn to competitive sports. Yes, they love to play with balls and run around and climb. I do, however, see plenty of parents around who are practically programming their kids to be competitive and do sports. Parents that start teaching their 2-year-olds to hit a ball with a bat, or parents that start cheering the minute their baby gets a ball in a basket. No wonder the kids are so interested in organized sports – they are pandering to their parents’ cheers and learning to please practically from birth. There are some kids who are genuinely kinesthetic learners. But I suspect the parents of those kids often misconstrue their child’s need for learning through motion as a need for competition. I believe you can learn just as well through yoga as you can through soccer. And nobody loses in yoga.

I could probably come up with more reasons, but I don’t think I have to go on.  I know my kids might ask to be a part of a competitive team some day.  But right now, we’re going to continue having fun, tossing around a ball whenever the urge hits, and not playing the winner and loser game.  And someday, if my child is truly interested in a team sport, I suspect I’ll watch the game with at least some interest because I love my kids, and I’ll know it is an interest they are truly drawn to.  I promise. (and if I can’t summon the interest myself, I’ll at least pretend ;-) )


  • T said:

    I think team sports is GREAT for life-lessons. I played when I was younger, and it was some of the most well-spent time of my youth. Not only is it extraordinarily physically healthy, but also mentally. Kids learn teamwork, hard work, cooperation, good sportsmanship, and competition. It also gives kids a great sense of comraderie, since they’re all around the same age.

    Few things are more satisfying than winning a competitive game. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for building a house is one thing, but competition and adrenaline add WAY more of a sense to it. Also, sports hones your ability to make critical decisions under pressure. I’ve done plenty of teamwork things like Habitat, but it was the great moments from my organized sports days that i REALLY remember.

    As far as the rewards/punishment point, isn’t that a metaphor for life? You’re praised when you do good, and berated when you don’t.

    Maybe your kids aren’t interested in team sports because they know you don’t like it and want to make you happy. Do any of their friends play sports? Do they enjoy playing pickup games with other kids? How old are they anyways?

    Without a doubt my life was made better by participating in organized sports. I’ve forged many life-long friendship from kids that I competed with, because intense competition with peers forms a strong bond between youth.

  • Trish (author) said:

    “pickup games”? Is that some kind of foreign language?

    Competition with peers is beneficial? That pretty much goes against all that I believe.

    Rewards and Punishments as a metaphor for life? Again, read Alfie Kohn and then get back to me.

    “they’re all around the same age.”? I believe that an appreciation for the interaction of multiple ages is what brought me to homeschooling.

    Why would you turn to a synthetic “game” for life lessons instead of actually *living life*? If I needed a synthetic “game” to teach me these lessons, if they weren’t going to appear in life anyway, then why bother at all? Life itself is the lesson. We learn from life.

    Yes, this is evidently the mind-think that I have to deal with in mainstream society. Oi.

  • Arp said:

    Sports hones your abilty to make critical decisions under pressure.

    T: You’re equating the ability to kick a ball without thinking to an actual decision-making process. There’s no comparison, but feel free to clarify.

    My own experience with team sports is limited to pick-up games. I enjoyed playing a lot, but I have no memories of winning or losing – it was just playing with friends.

    I do, however, have a VERY clear memory of the Pick-Up Game That Sucked. Like most pickup games, we’d play hoops with anyone who was there, regardless of age or ability. One day there was a 30-something guy (we were in high school) and he ruined the game by barking out orders and advice. I can still hear the jerk yelling ‘CHEST PASS! CHEST PASS!!!’ repeatedly. We couldn’t end that game fast enough, and he didn’t have much of an interest in continuing with us.

    I played pick-up games of hoops all through college, with the closest thing to organization being intramural sports. Even then, I just liked to play. Winning was nice, but whatever – as long as it was fun. The best pickup games were with the housekeeping staff – I was friendly with the people who cleaned our dorms and they invited me to play with them. I wish I’d taken them up on their offer to hang out and have some 40s.

    Anything that can be touted as a benefit of an organized team sport can be found in other, better ways. Is it wrong that I’d rather my kids self-actualize than score?

  • Arp said:

    You’re correct that sports and athletics are a PART of life, but that’s all they are – just a small part of it. Professional sports have had a pervasive and frankly, undue influence on modern society. The vast majority of people don’t play games but they’ll happily sit around and waste time watching them. I think it would be pretty cool if people would go out and play a game instead of watching a bunch of overpaid, overhyped jocks strut their stuff. And living vicariously through an athlete is really sad.

    But I would like to differentiate between organized sports and informal games (ie pick-up games). Playing and being physically active is just plain fun. The big problem I have is when things get organized, that the focus shifts to winning. Learning teamwork is great, but most people will not have a job where moving without the ball is an important skill. It’s better to learn the teamwork doing something that makes the world a better place.

    There are things that are an important part of life and things that are peripheral – sports are peripheral. I think we know what the response would be if we asked the millions starving worldwide how important sports are. Would volunteering at a soup kitchen be a better use of time than playing, watching or defending organized sports?

  • Summer said:

    I’m not a sports person at all. I’m almost anti-sports, especially in a school setting. I’m sure it’s from my own experiences, but noting pisses me off more than busting my butt to write a damn good paper for class only to have the jock sitting next to me get a B for just writing his name. And not to mention how often our educational needs were not met while the athletic department got new uniforms, new buses, and new buildings.

    Unfortunately I’m with a sports loving guy and seem to have two boys who love anything to do with a ball and other kids. I don’t know if this means I’ll be dealing with organized sports later, I certainly would prefer they jsut have friendly games with the neighborhood kids. But at least I know that with homescholing they won’t be given a free ride academically jsut becasue they can throw a ball and run.

  • Trish (author) said:

    OK, my lovely hubby told me what a pickup game is. I am now in-the-know.

    There is a *huge* difference between pickup games and organized sports. I must clarify that my post concerns organized sports. Pickup games are often quite different – multiple ages and abilities, done by spontaneous interest, no cheering bystanders or coaches, rules can be made up or altered on-the-spot by participants. And the most important aspect of the pickup game is that they are usually small and populated by friends. Hopefully friends that are close and care about each other. I would hope that would lead to the participants not feeling the need to overly compete or to feel that there are losers-winners in the sense that an organized game does.

    Some lovely individuals have made comments in which they use insults against my children, assume that I live on a *compound* (Ha! That one is funny), and that our family is made up of overweight and/or unhealthy individuals. I guess I was right that people would be upset by my opinion, but I was surprised by how much anger this created. BTW, I refuse to publish comments that insult my family or resort to ad hominem arguments.

  • sam said:

    I mostly see the points in the post, but I would disagree with the use of the term synthetic in describing sports. Looking back at the history of humankind, people have always been involved in physical games of different types.

    I would also suggest that there are many possible lessons to learn through sports, and those same lessons can be learned elsewhere. More than where and how the lessons are learned, what I feel is important is the ideas we seek to instill and whether or not our children actually learn lesson and make them useful in their lives. Whether we learn teamwork on the field or helping build a house, what counts is our ability to work on that team in the place where our very best makes that team a better group.

  • Arp said:

    Nicely put, Sam. The big thing I really have an issue with is the idea that organized sports are absolutely vital and that a child is bereft without getting the lessons from that one avenue. If our kids loved a sport so much that they wanted to play an organized variety, I certainly wouldn’t stand in their way. I would probably be one of the loudest parents in the stands too :-P

    Playing hoops or baseball with my friends are some of the fondest memories I have from high school and ended up being my single constructive escapism in college. The best benefit I got from playing actually had to do with my grades – I tended to do better on exams when I played hoops before studying. My guess is that it was a combination of using a different part of my mind and getting really deep, solid sleep.

  • Trish (author) said:

    I still think there is something synthetic about *organized* sports. The kind of “sign-up-your-kid” and cart them around organized sport I see in suburbia. I’m using the term to mean “artificial”. I guess what I’m talking about is more the surroundings of the game. If your purpose in sending your kids to soccer camp is to *teach them various lessons*, then the surroundings of it all are artificial. You don’t need to create those opportunities for learning those lessons. The lessons will be learned as they naturally come up. From some of the crazy comments I’m getting, the belief among many seems to be that if I don’t create and foster these organized sport opportunities for my children, they actually won’t learn these supposed lessons and will fail at life because of it.

    What makes a pickup game very different, in my eyes, is how *real* it came be in comparison. A child picks up a ball with friends and has a sudden excitement at that moment to play a game. Yes, *that* is something that humans have been doing forever. It is coupled with spontaneous emotion and drive. That makes it *real* for me.

    I think this has a lot to do with my reasons for unschooling. The urge to learn is innate, right? Why would we feel the need to create this institution, with it’s age segregation and planned hours of operation and cutthroat competition, instead of just going with the spontaneous learning that goes on in life? There are problems when we create that institution. So why, if kids have naturally been having these pickup games for centuries, do we create this other sort of game, with its’ pizza parties and cheers, and inevitably, its’ losers?

  • Mom Is Teaching » Blog Archive » Homeschoolers and sports said:

    [...] was inspired by this post over at tiny grass, Sports – Do kids really need them?. Trish lists several great reasons why she does not want her children playing organized sports. In [...]