On the mound, field or court, children learn to grow from struggle

A dad says young kids learn a lot about resiliency through sports. (AJC File)

James K. Rilling is a Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology at Emory University with a secondary appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

By James K. Rilling

My 5-year-old stood crying on the basketball court; he’d banged his head slightly and we took him out of the game. He soon settled down and at half-time, I asked him if he wanted to get back in. To my surprise he said yes. In the second half, he got two rebounds and made his first basket ever.

As a college professor, I’ve been hearing about rising rates of depression and anxiety among college students. I recently asked two mental health providers why this is happening and both independently offered lack of resilience as an explanation. This begs the question of how we cultivate resilience in our own children. Many of us strive to provide our children with warm, sensitive and nurturing environments that will facilitate their development into intelligent, thoughtful and empathic adults. But that’s not all they will need. They will also need to deal with adversity and overcome it, and, especially in a society like ours, they will probably need to compete.

For many children in our privileged society, sports may be the answer. I marvel at the opportunities sports have provided my son for social and psychological growth. When he first started playing at age 3, the anthropologist in me was struck by the harshness of the ritual: small children, on stage, being implored by a crowd of screaming, excited adults to compete and succeed. It seemed almost cruel. I wondered if the kids were thinking, “Have the grown-ups gone crazy?” Nevertheless, the first important lesson our kids learn from sports is that we live in a competitive society where you sometimes have to compete.

I took my son to his first soccer game when he was 3. He had a meltdown, and then he had another meltdown at our third game, but by the end of the season he was OK. I took him to gymnastics when he was 4, and he had a really bad melt-down. As he clung to my leg crying, he pleaded, “I just want to go home Daddy.” It would have been easier for both of us to go home, but I viewed it as a critical moment in his development. Would he learn to shy away from challenges or accept them? I managed to calmly tell him that I knew he was scared, and that I loved him very much, but that we weren’t going home. Then I repeated “we’re not going home” and I think somehow he knew that I meant it.

Eventually I was allowed to sit with him in the gym while he watched the other kids do their gymnastics – I was the only parent in the gym – the others were all watching from outside where we were supposed to be. After about 25 minutes, I got him to try the balance beam while I held his hand, and 5 minutes later he was on his own, smiling and laughing and fully participating. Later that year, he had a meltdown at our first T-ball practice, and I again told him that we were not going home. When he turned 5, we tried basketball – another meltdown, but we stayed … and he kept playing. Now he’s in his fourth season of soccer, no melt-downs, and he’s thriving.

He looks forward to games, tries his hardest, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there. Lesson No. 2: Things that are scary or hard at the beginning get easier if you keep trying and don’t give up, and sometimes they even get to be really fun when you become better at them. Struggle can ultimately lead you to a better place.

I still have no idea how my son managed to get the basketball over the 8-foot rim that day. He had never done it before. He was beaming (Dad was trying not to cry). I remind him about Lesson No. 3 all of the time: Bad things can happen to you in the first part of the game (or the first part of your day or your life), but if you don’t give up and try your hardest, good things can happen later on.

Maybe professional athletes know these things intuitively. As Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” That quote hangs over my son’s bed.

 

 

 

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26 comments
palepadre
palepadre

I was 12 years old, when my Mom married. Until then, no man in the house. All my uncles, had their own kids. Mom wasn't about to take the chance of dating again and ending up making another error. I understood, later the difference between "Error" and "Mistake." We had games during recess, boy games and girl games. I was bad at boy games. tried out for the school baseball team at age 11. Realized, I sucked. Tried out for Scouts, I sucked. Draft forced me into choosing a military. Chose Navy. Loved it ! But by that time, I could understand what was going on. I was mature. My stepfather only had a 5th grade education. He didn't know what to teach me, so we maintained a relationship of non-interference. Sometimes a dad in the home, is no help at all. Also, ladies. One child, no dad, stop there.

Linda M.
Linda M.

Competition is good for kids.  They need to learn to win AND lose.  And if you lose try harder.


My kids played sports all the way through high school - they are all early 20s now.  It taught them valuable lessons.  And sometimes there were tears involved.


My daughter was on the high school tennis team.  She was the best player on a very uncompetitive team.  As #1 player, the first 2 years she played against girls who were way better than her and lost every single match.  Third year she did better and was competitive in some matches, but still lost them all.  If she was the #2 player she would have won some, but she had to stick with playing the best on the other team.  Her senior year she did even better.  The first match she played was very even, went back and forth and into a tiebreaker.  She was a little better than the other girl, but the other girl won.  My daughter was in tears after the game.  Other parents were telling me that I should go tell her that it was ok, somehow make things better.  I told her that it was ok to be upset, but we were proud of her for playing, hanging in there, and knew that she would continue to improve, and she did!


I also remember my son's football team, they worked hard all year and did better than expected and made it to state finals (very small school league).  Close game and other team won with a "miracle" field goal.  After the game, the whole team was in tears.  Coach gave them a big speech, and I bet that every one of them were better human beings after that experience!

teachermom4
teachermom4

I just attended a week-long class on math instruction that made the same point. There is value in struggle and the feeling we get when we persevere through it. Many kids have not learned how to do that because they have been so protected from adversity. If you don't experience falling down, you don't learn how to get back up. While I realize the age of the author's child may have come into play for some of this, the overall concept is so important both in sports and academics. We have to let kids struggle. Sometimes they will fail, but they will ultimately learn so much from the experience and eventual outcome.

TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

Nice job, professor, from the father of two NCAA Division I athletes (with another, God willing, on the way), who started his kids (a boy and a girl) in sports early as well. 

And yes, gymnastics for boys at a very early age (3-5) is good. It helps them get stronger and more flexible. 

Rojer
Rojer

Mostly I question the guy because he put his boy in gymnastics. Now I know that its a very tough physically demanding sport but putting a boy in with all those girls is just weird.  And how do 100 elementary age girls produce that STANK in the gymnastics center?  On a level with a hockey locker room.  Those ages are pushed up a little too much.  They should really offer general movement type games (PE style) for younger kids to sign up for instead of sports they cant do.  Seen lots of kids with decent sport specific skills but cant run fast or change direction.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

While I agree about the benefits of providing challenges to your child, I have to wonder about putting the boy into situation after situation where he has a "meltdown."  A three year old needs to be in age-appropriate situations, not repeatedly thrust into activities that are overwhelming to him.  This father's actions, over and over, smack of extremely demanding, almost sadistic attempts to toughen the little boy up. JMHO, with my background and experience in child/human development theory.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@redweather @Wascatlady I know that is a tough word, and I don't use it lightly.  I am the last one to promote the "snowflake" approach to raising a child; as a teacher I have taught quite a few snowflakes, and quite a few "steel traps"--kids raising themselves with little parental involvement.


The key to my use of the word is the REPEATED, apparently rapid-fire enrolling the 3-5 year old in things they don't seem ready for.  Have my own children protested something I knew was good for them?  Yes.  And yes, I had to reassure each of them that it would get better.  And it did.  But starting at age 3 and setting them up to meltdown time after time?  No.  That seems, at best, that "dad" fears his boy not being tough; at worst, that "dad" somehow enjoys his son's fear and eventually overcoming it.  You don't build a child's sense of efficacy overnight, or over a very short period of time when they are very young.


Dynamics  like this don't foster independence and achievement; they foster feelings of not being good enough for dad.  Take the child to events, and see if there is interest. If there is, dip a toe in one or two, but don't throw the whole Olympic experience at them!


As I said, JMHO.  I think the father needs to examine his goals and motivations and dial it down to manageable bites for his little boy.

redweather
redweather

@Wascatlady @redweather I think you've jumped to some very extreme conclusions based on this blog article. But, hey, you have that right. I'm just glad you weren't overseeing my child-rearing practices.

Astropig
Astropig

Long time coach here: 3 years old is too young for sports.Wayyyyy too young.Kids at that age have a dangerously short attention span and are easily scared by the attention and criticism that they receive. 5-6 years old is okay,but I'd even make sure that the 5 year old was a "solid" 5 emotionally before suiting them up.


That said, I agree wholeheartedly about the value of friendly,fair competition under responsible adult supervision.There is no joy quite so pure as watching kids play for the love of the game.The learning and socialization of a good youth sports experience is incalculable.

Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady @Astropig


In my experience,the parents (especially moms) of the younger age kids should be banned from the ballpark and sent video highlights of their kids play on a 5 inch floppy disc.(So by the time it downloads the kid will be in high school).I always had orientation for my parents before the first practice and first game and attendance was mandatory.I told them in no uncertain terms what my expectation of good sportsmanship and encouragement were and that their behavior would affect their kids and their relationships with them for the rest of their lives.I asked them (and then told them) that the kids were watching all of us every second and we had to be good examples.

Bitly
Bitly

3 out of 4 inner-city kids grow up without a father in the home to share such growth experiences, but political correctness compels some of us to pretend this isn't a problem. 

Bullies should be shamed, along with tobacco users and apparently even "climate change deniers."

But never fathers who abandon their children.


Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Bitly @Wascatlady I am sure many groups would welcome volunteers to act as adult male mentors to young folks in need of them.

Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady @Bitly


"...many groups would welcome volunteers to act as adult male mentors to young folks in need of them."


Yes-They do.Any league organizer will tell you that finding the "right" kind of youth league coach is difficult. Many parents have work and other commitments (including other kids with different interests that cause scheduling problems) that preclude getting enough coaches and yes, mentors.


By "right", I mean selfless,understanding adults that are volunteering for the right reasons-not frustrated would -be jocks that are living out their unrealized dreams of 20-30 years ago.Coaches that realize that they really are role models and mentors.Those people are in short supply.

Wrecker
Wrecker

Good article.  We have taken the competitive nature and adversity out of academics.  Removing or toning down sports (see participation awards for an example) softens our children and fails to teach important life lessons.  Learning to lose or struggle for success is necessary.

redweather
redweather

Good article. I hope most children are still getting opportunities to test themselves against competition. 

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

Are there plans for a blog on the racketeering charges impacting the Floyd County School System?  Given all the blogs regarding financial mismanagement allegations for other school systems in the metro area, it would be interesting to see the level of comments for this case.  In my opinion, these allegations are far more egregious and have gone on for a longer period of time.

I've always said that what APS, Clayton and DeKalb were accused and vilified for goes on in far more school districts than many would admit