Sports Education

Sports Education

Aiding the stretch for excellence

ne of the most useful lessons playing
sports has taught me is the importance of making and learning from mistakes. Sports fields are excellent learning grounds where attitudes and mindsets which serve for a life-time are developed. This is a subject I write and talk about frequently, because it needs constant reiteration.

I remember as a sophomore (second year student) in college, I made all-conference (i.e. inter-collegiate), which was a major achievement. But the thing that stuck with me as I reviewed the season wasn’t how well I played; rather, it was a comment by a well-respected, veteran basketball coach, who said: "Selleck is very good, but he can’t go to his left." I was right-handed and like most kids, I probably did drive to the basket from the right side of the court more often than from the left. This was definitely a mistake on my part — even though unconscious — because it made my game predictable and easier to defend against. To overcome this drawback, I spent the entire summer practising with my left hand, until I could drive to either side with ease.

John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, used to say that the team that makes the most mistakes usually wins. That’s true in sports as well as in life. Why? Because more often than not, when we make a mistake we take a risk. Risk taking is essential to growth. Taking risks helps one understand the difference between a rash, impractical action and positive, productive one. Taking risks arouses fear and concern. But once we understand that we’re trying something new or attempting to stretch our skill-sets to achieve higher goals, we learn to accept fear. Teams (and individuals) who are willing to try and fail and try again, are the ones who experience high growth and achievement.

In our daily lives the risk of failure is constant. Sports participation helps individuals to accept risk and rectify consequential mistakes, if any. That’s why sports is widely regarded by educators as a skills development and character building activity. Given that usually games and sports are played with less inhibition, certain skill-sets are developed naturally and without conscious effort.

What can parents do to encourage children to stretch themselves, take risks and develop their motor and kinesthetic skills? Here are some suggestions:

• Focus your comments on the effort invested, rather than achievement. The problem with focusing on accomplish-ments ("that homerun was awesome!") is that when children fail to achieve to the level which attracts your praise, they will feel they’ve failed. However, if you praise the effort (i.e. "that was a beautiful swing" or, "nice form on your shot"), they will continue to try to improve even if they don’t always succeed.

• Help your children become responsible. I’m aware that everybody talks a lot about teaching kids responsibility, but when you get down to it, responsibility is really not something you can teach (although you can model it). It’s something children learn experientially. What you can do though, is provide children with opportunities to learn responsible behaviour. This includes letting them assume responsibility for their choices and experiencing the outcomes of those choices. The best time to start is when your children are young and the consequences of their choices are mild. This will prepare them for teen and adult life when they will become incrementally independent.

• However it’s important to note that balance is the key word. It is understandable for parents to be concerned about their children. But there’s a fine line between concern and over protectiveness which has to be recognised while guiding or counselling children. When the fine line is respected in early childhood, children manage to handle their responsibilities and the consequences thereof better as they grow.

• Allow children to experience the frustration of trying something new, failing, trying again, getting more frustrated, trying again and finally succeeding. Too often, parents step in prematurely, take charge and try to make things easier because it’s exasperating for them to witness their children’s frustration. Too often doting parents don’t appreciate that for children failure is a challenge to achieve, improve and attain greater heights and quantum performance leaps. A modicum of parental discomfort is a small price to pay for a child’s growth and development.

Admittedly it’s hard for parents to watch their children make mistakes. That’s why we tell our kids stories drawn from our reckless youth and follow them up by saying, "Now, don’t make the same mistake I did!" We may have protected the child at that moment but actually we’ve deprived her of a valuable experience which would serve to build self confidence.

At the same time, all parents know that being too protective is just as harmful as not being protective enough. When confronted with situations when our children are on the point of making ‘mistakes’ in the sports and games arenas, it’s important to remember that taking risks, making mistakes, learning and growing is the essence of all sports and the way to a meaningful life.

(Dr. George Selleck is a California-based sports psychologist and advisor to Sportz Village, Bangalore)