Lessons From A Childhood in Sports

Sports participation has been on a decline for the past 10 years. My experiences in sports reflect why that needs to change.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Delia Qiu

First, it was tennis. Then swimming. Then track, a brief stunt with ballet, and finally, volleyball. In the past 16 years, I can’t recall a time when my schedule wasn’t punctuated by sports practices, workouts, or tryouts. At seven years old, I’d rush from tennis practice at the park to swimming class at the local YMCA, turning my high ponytail into a tight bun. During the summer, when most of my peers attended sleepaway camps, I always found ways to attend tennis lessons three times a week—even in rural Belarus. And as a 16-year-old, I’ve learned that volleyball practice takes precedence over birthday celebrations, club meetings, and grueling amounts of homework.

Having a schedule that consists of school, sports, and little else has helped me recognize how fortunate I am to play a sport in the first place. Across the country, thousands of youths are deprived of these opportunities. For instance, children from low-income families are half as likely as their middle class counterparts to participate in team sports, and are three times more likely to be physically inactive—an alarming trend that can be largely attributed to a lack of funding for sports programs in low-income school districts. Parallel to the opportunity gap is an underlying decrease in children’s sports participation across the country. From 2008 to 2018, childhood sports team participation declined by seven percent. While physical activity levels have decreased, youth obesity rates have skyrocketed: as of 2019, one in five children suffer from childhood obesity.

Aside from fighting obesity, participation in sports leads to developing early emotional maturity, as children learn the values of teamwork, conflict-resolution, and leadership. It builds character and simulates conditions that individual players may experience outside of the court, field, or pool. I can confidently say that learning the aforementioned lessons from my years of sports participation has helped me develop many crucial aspects of my personality—aspects that I otherwise might not have developed to the same extent.

One such lesson that I learned from participation in sports was the importance of self-advocacy. Following years of attending all-girls group swimming lessons and competitions within my YMCA, I was encouraged to attend supplementary co-ed practices once a week. At the time, I was only in the seventh grade, and practices with high school freshman boys were meant to challenge me, the only girl in the co-ed group.

The boys I practiced with were not the best athletes and certainly not the best teammates. They mostly kept to themselves, but occasionally teased me and shot me dirty looks each time I passed one of them in the swimming lane. At first, I naively didn’t take issue with their behavior. After all, “boys will be boys,” as my coach told me with a smile after noticing a couple of remarks thrown my way. A few weeks later, however, the older boys were no longer entertained by simply making comments about my body or my bathing suit. Instead, they held my legs together while I swam, kicked me underwater, and splashed stinging, chlorinated pool water into my eyes each time I adjusted my goggles. I told them to stop, but refrained from involving my coach or telling my parents.

The boys, however, did not stop their torment. After two more practices that ended in my eyes burning from chlorine and my throat tasting of pool water, the desire to drop the extra practice would not leave my mind. The boys seemed intimidating and powerful, which discouraged me from complaining for fear of the repercussions.

But, halfway through the next supplemental practice, my patience snapped. With a sharp tone and an angry scowl on my face, I displayed my first signs of resistance, promptly reporting the abuse I suffered to our coach, the administration, and my parents. No longer would I let immature boys dictate my success as an athlete. In fact, I now felt embarrassed over how long it took me to act upon this mistreatment in the first place.

The experience I had with this swimming team sheds light onto the imperfect world of childhood sports. But it also serves the greater purpose of highlighting the importance of self-advocacy. In the day-to-day world of team sports, my experience serves as an extreme example of a lesson children learn from their first day on the court: how to ask for what you want. In sports, advocating for oneself encompasses anything from requesting to play a particular position to speaking with a coach about a personal conflict. Though it may seem simple, self-advocacy has been referred to as one of the most crucial skills a child must learn in order to succeed: promotions, bonuses, and initial employment are directly tied to this ability. In short, self-advocacy is mastered through participation in team-sports—without it, I believe I would be much more docile and lack a crucial element of what makes me who I am today.

Beyond teaching me how to stand up for myself, growing up as an athlete has built my self-confidence. In particular, playing tennis for nearly nine years while consistently practicing with better, often older players has shaped my understanding of what I am capable of and has diminished my anxiety over new experiences.

As a sixth grader, I didn’t expect to practice with girls in the eighth grade, nor did I imagine that I would consistently compete with players who seemed better than me in every way: their serves were stronger, their groundstrokes were faster, and their confidence was far greater than my own. Unsurprisingly, my uncomfortable and intimidated fifth-grade self had a difficult time catching up to the skill level I felt I lacked. Though there wasn’t one distinct moment that changed my perception of my abilities, after several months of practicing with better players, I began to see tangible results. I began winning sets, then matches, and ultimately developed mental stamina to recover from my mistakes. Despite not becoming the best player in my group, I gained confidence in both myself and my skill, accepting the notion that I belonged in the challenging environment.

The newfound trust I had in myself and my abilities reflected a growth in self-confidence that often accompanies sports participation. At the core of self-confidence is the ability to see past initial challenges and overcome a sense of intimidation—lessons children learn from being surrounded by both competition and role models. Ultimately, childhood participation in sports develops skills that are crucial to mental maturation and teaches lessons that are essential to later success.

As for myself, I view my experiences in the sports I’ve played as a direct cause of my ambition, hardworking nature, and sense of self. Reflecting on how self-fulfilling my involvement in sports has been has led me to firmly advocate for an increase in youth sport participation. As students, we can reverse the steady decline in sports participation by donating old sports equipment, encouraging our younger siblings to engage in physical activity, or volunteering for sports-related charities such as the Global Sports Foundation and Fresh Air Fund. As active members of society, we can continue to support efforts against child inactivity by starting corporate partnerships with similar nonprofit organizations or by making financial contributions to local youth leagues. Most importantly, we can introduce youths in our communities to a variety of physical activities and support their athletic ventures. Sports participation may fight the rising rate of childhood obesity, but its true impact lies in the developmental effect it has on our society’s youngest members.