By Diana Simeon
When Madeline was living with her family in Texas a couple of years ago, she joined her middle school’s track team. She was new to the sport, but she was fast. She worked hard. She won medals. Then one day, Madeline fell while taking a hurdle. She cracked a bone in her wrist. Her track season was over.
Her coaches were upset, but probably not in the way you’d expect. Rather than consoling their promising athlete, or encouraging her to return next season, they turned their back on her.“They shunned me for the rest of the year,” recalls Madeline, who has since moved to the East Coast. “I guess because I would no longer be winning them any medals.”
Every year, millions of teenagers in the United States participate in team sports. In fact, Gallup research shows that more than 50 percent of teenagers are on a school athletic team. But, what about the remaining 50 percent? Certainly, plenty of those teenagers are happily involved in other extracurricular activities. After all, not everyone is athletically inclined. Still, there’s a sad story here, too, because there’s a significant number of teenagers who, like Madeline, once enjoyed sports, but no longer participate. These teenagers say it’s just not worth it.
“Sports lost their appeal for me,” says Madeline, who adds that her coaches also verbally abused the team at practices. “I did end up trying out for the track team last year, but I actually found myself overwhelmed with memories and emotions from my experience the previous year and ended up dropping out.”
Talk to coaches, parents and teenagers about the downside of sports, and you’ll hear the same answer: by middle school and certainly by high school, it has more often than not become a game of medals. Not the plain old fun of playing. Not the fringe benefits that sports offer. But winning. Period. No surprise, then, that so many teenagers are opting out.
The Upside of Sports
Here’s what parents should understand about team sports: they greatly benefit the participants, regardless of their talent or the team’s record. Obviously, fitness is a perk. In a nation struggling with weight, a daily dose of exercise goes a long way. But, equally important are the non athletic skills that sports build. “There is an awful lot you can learn in sports that you will use the rest of your life,” explains John Duffy, a Chicago-area psychologist and author of The Available Parent. “You learn to play on a team. You learn to handle challenges. You learn to deal with adversity. You learn to be gracious when you win and when you lose.”
Studies show that athletes also tend to do better in school and have lower dropout rates than their non-athletic peers. What’s more, research also shows that sports can serve as an antidote to many risky teen behaviors. A 2011 University of Michigan study found that teenagers who play team sports were less likely to smoke and do drugs. However, it’s worth noting that the study also found that they were somewhat more likely to drink frequently. Time to re-think the after-game party?
Meanwhile, female athletes have additional advantages. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that girls who play sports are half as likely to become pregnant (because they are more likely to abstain or use contraceptives) and also more likely to have a positive view of their bodies (though this is not the case in sports where a particular physique is prized, like gymnastics, dance and figure-skating).