My kids have played sports all their lives. They started as toddlers and still play in college.

For many years I saw this as a physically healthy pastime that would teach them something about being a part of a group larger than themselves. I thought teammates would teach them teamwork. I thought that from good coaching they would learn to be coach-able.

And, oh the memories… from personal bests on cross-country trails to hitting the game winning run in little league, to agonizing last second defeats in championship soccer games. Sports is life at full intensity and the memories are thus indelible.

Yet on every level I underestimated the crucial life lessons my sons would learn and the depth and importance of these teachings to their lives. Sports is far from the only way for our teens to gain some of this essential knowledge, other activities where teens become deeply involved also serve as vehicles for these lessons in character.

  1. The best teammates were not the best athletes, but the best people. I failed to realize that these were the people who would teach my sons so much about perseverance and how to truly be there for another person.
  2. Being a good team captain is 20% knowledge of the sport and 80% understanding of people.
  3. They came to understand that luck, good and bad, is a powerful force in everything we do and all we can control is how we react to it.
  4. They learned, over time, to own up to what they had done right and wrong, their own personal successes and failures, and to take responsibility.
  5. Parents can be short-sighted and, honestly, focused entirely on the outcome of a meaningless children’s game. They can get so caught up in an event that will not impact one person’s life that they audibly disrespect other children, authorities (refs) and the good men and women who devote their time to coaching and teaching kids. Young athletes are observing all of this behavior.
  6. Parents can be so wonderful and generous that when you are one of their kid’s teammates they almost treat you as one of their own. My sons saw parents who would drive other people’s kids anywhere and who offered drinks, meals, encouragement and consolation. As they grew older they saw parents who quietly paid the fees for a teammate whose family could not afford the cost or helped a teammate with college applications and FAFSA forms when their own parents were unable. They met parents who taught them that team is family.
  7. They saw that a pickup game or intramural activity could be every bit as much fun as a competitive varsity match. The enjoyment they learned is in the game.
  8. They came to understand that when a team, or athlete or anyone focuses on “winning” rather than learning the building blocks of any sport, skill or job, victory is constructed on a hollow platform. My kids saw how a single precocious athlete could win a game for his team when the kids were still young. But unless the rest of the team learned the skills and strategy of the sport, this was a short-term fix, not a long-term strategy.
  9. They learned to ignore the misguided exhortations of parents, including their own, shrieking from the sidelines. Putting your head down and doing what you have prepared for, without distractions from those who know less than they think, is a lifelong lesson.
  10. I could never have guessed how they would come to love the camaraderie of their teams. Sports at every level brought them friends from every background and nationality, with wide-ranging views and life experiences. In the middle and high school years, teams transcended friend groups and cliques, counteracting some of the social challenges of those years. They learned that common ground and a shared interest is a more powerful force than superficial differences.
  11. They now understand time spent in any intense shared experience with others creates crystal clear and cherished memories that are forever preserved like fossils in amber.
  12. They came to understand that winning is certainly more fun than losing, but that it has absolutely no impact on how much they enjoyed or learned from any given sport, team or coach.
  13. They learned that many people can teach the rules and techniques of a game but that truly wonderful coaches model sportsmanship, create a true sense of team or convey the love of a sport that becomes infectious.
  14. They learned that failure is just a way station and that anyone one day or any one game is only that. And that sports, like becoming good at anything, is about days and weeks and then many years of first progressing and then regressing and then, with effort, moving forward again.

About Grown & Flown

Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington, the cofounders of Grown & Flown, are writers, moms, and friends. They created Grown and Flown when each of their youngest kids were in high school and their oldest kids were in college. It has become the #1 site for parents with teens and college students, reaching millions of parents every month. They are also co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. (Flatiron, 2019). See their book.

In their past incarnations, Mary Dell worked in television and media, and Lisa had a career that included Wall Street, politics, and writing. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author of three books, including Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success. Lisa, a California native, graduated from UC San Diego and MIT. Mary Dell is a graduate of the UT Austin and Harvard Business School. Visit the Grown & Flown website.