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Matt Bowers with his son at a bouldering gym

What do you want your child to get from sports?

Leadership? Health benefits? The thrill of winning and the dignity of handling defeat with grace?

Think about what psychological and social skills you value and how those may correlate with success in all areas of life. How can you use sports to instill them? Don’t rely on coaches or other adults to do that for you.

Organized sports require your child to balance the immediate reward of a win and the delayed reward of a season-long championship pursuit. Sports can help kids face disappointment publicly and learn how to focus on process-oriented goals.

When the first question you ask your child after a game is “Did you win?” that shapes her psychological response to her performance.

If she’s a four-year-old chasing around the usual swarm of other kids on the soccer field, she doesn’t have the self-awareness, sport-related skills, or psychological development to make a clear impact on the outcome of that game. Yet you just framed how she interprets how you’re evaluating her performance in terms that are out of her control.

Instead, try asking her if she had fun, what she was proud of herself for doing, and one thing she thinks she could improve-–things that are process-oriented and generally under her control.

Matt Bowers helping his son climb a rock wall

Photo by Christina S. Murrey


Which sport should your daughter or son play and why?

As a caveat, so much of the answer to this question depends on the individual coach and the league, but some sports clearly foster different things than others.

Do you want a sport that produces better physiological and health outcomes? Try ultimate Frisbee or cross country.

Do you want a sport that could lead to lifelong participation? Go for tennis or golf.

Do you want a social environment with more peer-led, democratic social structures? Try skateboarding.

Do you want to instill an American rite of passage? Try baseball or softball.

This isn’t a plug for a specific sport, but rather an opportunity to think about what sports can deliver based on their nature, their design, and their implementation. Look for sports–and sport leagues–that align with your values and what you want emphasized in your child’s development.

Matt Bowers helping his son climb a rock wall

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Matt Bowers researches the management of systems for athlete and coach development. He also investigates the potential supplemental impact that non-organized sport settings—such as pick-up sports and video games—may have on these development systems. Drawing from a blend of quantitative, qualitative, and historical methodologies, his research focuses on leveraging this understanding of settings to influence the design and implementation of sport programs and policies that promote both elite performance and mass participation throughout the lifespan. 

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