Being fully aware of the skyrocketing rates of obesity and all the benefits of physical activity, I will go on to argue that enrolling your kids in formal sport training might not be so good idea, and if you want to enroll your kids in some formal activity outside of school, there are much better alternatives, such as music education or foreign languages. I did formally train sports as a child, first tennis, then swimming. So my arguments come mainly from my experience, but I tried to keep this essay impersonal.
That being said, I am not against physical activity or sports. They are important and beneficial not only for child development, but also in any other period of life, but formal sport training, might not be necessary. By “formal sport training”, I mean membership in some registered sport club that coaches children in a certain sport with the main focus on results and competition.
Also, I am all for letting your kids make their own choices according to their affinities and preferences, so if a kid really wants to train some sport, they, by all means should do it. However, if they don’t show clear preferences, or any preference at all, in that case, I would suggest other activities such as music education, instead of sport training.
Formal sport training inspires unrealistic ambitions and teaches wrong values
By its very nature formal sport training leads to competition, which leads to rise of high ambitions, such as that of becoming a professional athlete and earning lots of money from sports. We are constantly exposed to professional athletes who earn millions doing what they love and being worshiped by countless fans. However, the truth is, such ambitions have an extremely small chance of fulfillment. For one successful professional athlete, there are tens of thousands of people who diligently trained, maybe had strong ambitions and high dedication level and even lots of talent, yet they didn’t quite make it to the professional level. The reasons are simple, it’s just a numbers game. Professional sport rewards only champions, and they are, by definition – very few. To become a successful professional athlete you need tons of luck, plus tons of talent, hard work and dedication. If just one of these elements is not there, you fail. But that’s not all. You also need to significantly cut time you spend on studying and education, maybe even completely give up your academic ambitions. And one more thing: you need to be ready to use performance enhancing substances. They are not all illegal. Most athletes use some legal performance enhancing substances, and many of them also use illegal stuff.
Formal training for most sports teaches some positive values, such as teamwork, dedication, discipline, work ethics, dealing with victory and defeat. However, as most sport training today is done with the purpose of eventually producing professional athletes, the main value that’s communicated is to win and to be better than others, usually at any price.
Formal sport training often ends with failure and frustration
This proceeds directly from the previous point: as most people don’t achieve professional level, they stop training at some point and move on other things. One aspect of this is actually good: the failure creates some humility in person as they become aware they aren’t all that special. But the negative aspect is more significant: after years of intensive training they might get totally fed up with the sport they trained for so many years or even fed up with physical activity in general. This can lead to aversion to exercise and to physical inactivity especially if they haven’t internalized general health and fitness aspects of sport. And eventually it can lead to obesity, chronic diseases etc.
Formal sport training neglects health and development aspects of physical activity and focuses mainly on performance and results
As mentioned before, the main focus of formal sport training is to make you better at that particular sport. To improve your performance. This sometimes comes with certain health benefits and can lead to physical, mental and social development of the person who trains, but these benefits are never in focus and they are not the main goals of sports training. They are just beneficial side effects. How can this become a problem?
First, we need to know that sport = healthy is not always true. While moderate levels of physical activity are certainly beneficial, extremely high levels of physical activity often required for professional sports are simply not healthy. There are many studies that confirm this. This is especially true for endurance sports such as long distance events in track and field. This type of sport training can cause host of health problems.
Second, because formal sport training often doesn’t teach health culture, when you stop training, you’re pretty much on your own, and if you end up spending years inactive, when you start again you’ll have to start pretty much from scratch, and with you’ll need to develop totally new approach, the one that promotes health and integration of physical activity into healthy lifestyle, instead of focusing just on results and performance.
Any sport training should integrate general health and fitness elements in itself, something that could be called “physical culture”, and cover elements like nutrition, good habits, body composition, responsibility for your health, etc. Most formal sport training approaches are lacking in this area.
There are better ways to promote lasting physical activity habits than formal sport training
As I said in the start of this article, I am not against physical activity and sport. I think every person, kid or adult, should be physically active as long as they are capable. But being physically active is not the same as formally training certain sport. The types of physical activity that can probably bring greater benefits than formal sport training include: amateur sports (such as playing soccer on some playground or meadow with friends, tennis matches with friends, etc… generally, playing sports as a GAME, for fun, outside of any sport clubs), hiking and mountaineering, bicycle rides, walking, etc. General fitness, combining cardio and strength training is also an option, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. The important thing is to do it for fun, out of love, and to develop stable habit from earliest ages of regularly involving physical activity in life.
How can parents give great example to kids? Instead of driving kids to the sport club, for a formal training, during which they will probably wait outside while being physically inactive themselves, maybe even sitting in some cafe and smoking, communicating the message that the physical activity is not really for adults, they should go on foot together with kids somewhere, for example in a local park, where the whole family can be physically active. Parents should also run and do exercise in the park, or play tennis, or soccer or whatever, together with their kids, which would be extremely beneficial for everyone, parents would stay fit themselves, they would spend quality time with their kids, developing emotional bond, (instead of sitting bored while waiting for their training to end), and they would communicate the message that physical activity and sport is an integral part of life at any age. So if you keep being active regularly, chances are your kids will copy you. You don’t need to do it always together with them, as this is not so realistic, especially when kids grow up a little. But you should encourage them to be physically active, and the best encouragement is through example, you should do it yourself. So, with your work colleagues or friends you should organize few times a week some recreational activities, something that you love doing, sending message that physical activity is an essential part of life.
If not sport training, then what?
This will be the topic of my next post. However, I will give a quick answer. If you think your kids really needs some sort of formal training or additional activity, unrelated to school, I will suggest opting for music education. There are numerous benefits of it, and I’ll cover this topic in a future post. Other options include some an art school, a foreign language, or even mathematics or programming. These are activities that are usually non-competitive, they don’t pretend to be healthy, yet they have numerous benefits and provide skills that can last for a lifetime. They are not a substitution for regular physical activity. Physical activity should always be a part of life. But they might be a more balanced and more beneficial substitution for formal sport training.