Does Playing Sports Translate to More Success in Life?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

It is something we hear repeatedly as an adage describing the value of youth sports: “Life Lessons.” I’ve written the words myself on numerous occasions. It would be difficult to imagine anyone reading this article who did not believe that the positives derived from kids playing sports far outweigh any negatives. But does playing sports as a child, and into adolescence and beyond, make it more likely we’ll succeed in life? And if so, why?

Throughout my business and personal relationships I’ve come in contact with many successful business people, lawyers, CEO’s and other high-achievers. As I get to know them, I’ve noticed what I believe is a surprising ratio of financially-successful people who starred athletically in high school, or even played in college or the pros. My theory? Maybe they grew up being successful in their sports endeavors and it carried over to the “real” world. Perhaps they just got so used to winning and conquering opponents and being chosen first, that when it came time to put their talents to practical use in the business world, they never considered failure as an option. The natural aggressiveness and competitiveness that served them well on the field of play carried over and helped them “win” in life too.

And, maybe that theory doesn’t hold water. Because we all also know people who were the captain of the team in high school who didn’t end up doing so well.

A study done by economists John M. Barron and Glen R. Waddell of Purdue University and Bradley T. Ewing of Texas Tech University, examines a series of surveys taken by American males who attended high school in the 1970s. It found that high school athletes achieved a level of education 25 to 35 percent higher than their non-athlete classmates. And it’s not just educational achievement that correlates with youth sports participation. Barron, Waddell, and Ewing also found that high school athletes had 12 to 31 percent higher wages than their non-athlete counterparts. And when the wages of college graduates who were high school athletes is compared with those who were not, the athletes generally earned more.

In her article, The Benefits of Team Sports, Lucy Rector Filppu also makes a case for the positive aspects of youth sports. Positive mentors – you coaches – can have a tremendous, beneficial impact on a child’s life, she explains. Often, children will respond better to an objective coach than to their own parent. She also goes on to list her three “Ps”, which are Patience, Practice and Persistence, all of which are virtues kids learn on the field. And finally, she says, youth sports are another reason for family time. “Playing catch in the yard, heading down to the local soccer field for some drill practice… these types of outings with your kids can mean a great deal in our busy parenting culture,” Filppu writes.

But what about the other side of the coin? We have a good friends who are neighbors, and their three kids, two boys and a girl, are about the nicest, most polite children you’ll ever meet. None of them played sports past the age of ten or eleven. For years, we’d hear the oldest boy, who was in the school band, practicing his saxophone in the evening. He graduated from Stanford. His sister was accepted into Stanford as well and is now a doctor. And the youngest, who wasn’t much of an achiever when I coached him in T-ball, is vice president of a large philanthropic foundation. Their dad is an oncologist. He cures people who have cancer. And if you were choosing sides for a basketball game, you’d pick a lot of guys before him. But if you got some bad news from a doctor, you’d hope he was first in line.

Is there a definite correlation between playing sports and succeeding in life? I don’t think anyone knows for sure. But I do believe that there a few benefits we can’t debate. Kids who play sports are generally healthier because of the exercise and conditioning they get. Athletic kids are less likely to get into trouble since they are busy and they’d have to answer to a coach and teammates if they did. Athletes learn that if you get knocked down, literally and figuratively, you can pick yourself up and keep going. They learn the value of teamwork. The longer kids play sports, the more they learn that life is about competition, and that everyone wants glory and success, but only those who work hardest and have the most talent achieve it. And they learn that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things don’t go your way, but that failure is never fatal, defeat only temporary, and there’s always another chance to try again unless you quit.

Of course, academics and personal relationships also extremely important. And these “life lessons” certainly can be learned elsewhere. But as part of a package, it's hard to imagine a better way than athletic competition to prepare kids for the game of life.

Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.

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