This One’s For the Kids: 5 Ways Sports Make Us Better Learners

You’ve probably heard this before: “if you put half the time into practicing [insert a subject you don’t like] that you do in playing [insert a sport or extracurricular you like], you’d be in good shape.  It’s true– if you approached your studies in the same way you do your training, you’d improve. Think about your favorite sport, video game, or extracurricular activity. There are a few things happening during the learning process when you’re engaged in something you really like:  you want to improve, so you are motivated to set goals, measure your progress, and you are willing to work on your weaknesses.  You love to practice because your activity is fun and you socialize with friends while you take part. In turn, the practicing improves your performance.  The improvement gives you a sense of real accomplishment, so you keep practicing and setting new goals.  You basically become addicted to improvement. Here’s a short example: one of my young female athletes wrote a blog about setting goals at CrossFit. She wrote, “I love pushing myself to do better, get stronger, move faster, jump higher, and keep going when I think I can’t. I love everything about it.” She sets goals independently and keeps a daily log of her efforts.  Her experiences made me think about goal-setting in the classroom and how sports and extra-curricular activities train that process naturally.  Sports can teach us a great deal about how we learn.  Here are 5 lessons that we can apply to our every day lives:

Lesson #1: You can improve your performance with visualization

In sports, we’re taught to visualize a successful performance. Whether it be executing a flawless gymnastics routine, scoring goals, or completing the perfect line drive, rehearsing a successful experience in order to help you achieve that outcome in real-life is a trick that many professional athletes use to improve their performances.  For example, U.S. Air force Colonel, George Hall was a pilot during the Vietnam war.  He was captured and spent 7 ½ years in a prisoner of war camp. Because he enjoyed golfing, he would visualize himself playing golf to pass the time every day.  He replayed old games in his head and invented new golf courses in his mind to challenge himself.  When he was rescued seven years later he played better than he ever had before!1

Visualization can be applied to all areas in which we want to achieve success. Visualizing giving a presentation or writing an exam will help prepare you for the event. Not only will doing so help you ensure that you have everything covered, but it will also help calm your nerves on the day of the event. Actors and actresses use the same strategy when preparing for their performances.



Lesson #2: If you want to learn, play

You learn a tremendous amount about basketball during a game of scrimmage– you learn different strategies, rules, and tricks  without even thinking twice.  Your coach watches you and gives you aspects of the game to work on in order to improve your performance. You’re not learning about basketball by reading about it in a book, you’re playing– and because you’re fully immersed in the game, you’re not likely to forget what you learned either.

When you lose track of time because you’ve been “in the zone”, you know you’re immersed in a task. This indicates that you’re doing something that you really enjoy and the best part is, you’re learning without even trying. The best projects at school involve a great deal of creativity and thinking “outside the box.”  More often than not, these activities require team work, and are done in multiple stages so you are required to set goals, revise and reflect on your work, and even change direction a few times.  Because we’re used to collaborating with teammates and working through mistakes in sports, we’re more prepared to do so in the classroom.

Lesson #3: You’re not always going to like everything

As in all aspects of sports, you’re not going to like every school task. I haven’t heard many people say they like the beep test (a 20m shuttle run test, where athletes are expected to keep up with a timed beep). But does that mean that you should ignore the elements you don’t like? If you did this as an athlete, your overall performance would surely suffer.  In fact, athletes love finding their own weaknesses—it’s where new goals are born. The feeling of conquering something actually drives their training.

In school, even if you don’t love the subject or task, look at it as a challenge to overcome.  Find a new way to look at the topic to make it more interesting to you.  Another option is to work with a friend who likes the subject and to find out what makes it interesting for your friend.  Sometimes hearing about their passion for the subject can be contagious!

Lesson #4: You’re going to have to do the work 

Have you ever heard of great athletes who don’t practice their sports?  On days when they feel lazy, would they just ask their coaches to do the work for them?  That would be an interesting approach.  Learning new skills takes practice and concentration.

Some tasks are more enjoyable than others, I have to admit.  For me, practicing handstand walking is light years ahead of practicing geometry. For others, it could be just the opposite.  That being said, not everything requires mastery.  You don’t have to be great at everything, but if you have a goal (in sports, school, or life in general), you have to figure out what you need to do to get there, and do the work.

The difference between those who change their behaviour and those who don’t is a compelling sense of purpose. – Steven Covey

Lesson #5: There’s always room for improvement

In sports, we know that failure is part of the process. Failure demonstrates that we have finally reached our upper limit. But, we don’t “call it a day” and say, “I guess that’s that. I’m not meant to play hockey if I can’t score a goal.” You practice. Everything you know how to do, you learned somewhere. If you don’t know something yet, you can learn it.  This is the growth mindset. Developing this attitude takes a while. If you fail, you learn something and then try a new approach. You may have heard the expression, “you may have lost the battle, but the war isn’t over.”  There will always be other opportunities and more to learn. You can always be stronger, faster, and more coordinated in every sport. When you reach a goal, you immediately want a new one. This is why games are so addictive. The endorphins from mastering something new keep you coming back.

It’s the same in sports. Our performance may never be perfect, and that’s all right.  The key is to become addicted to striving to improve, to care enough to measure your progress, and to challenge yourself to master new things.  Set the bar for yourself (and then jump over it)!

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