How Sports & Activities Build Resilience in Kids

Teens playing soccer after school

So, your child wants to join a scout troop. And you’re thrilled! Because you grew up in the scouts and want your child to love it, too. Or your child wants to play lacrosse. Which is fun for you because you’re competitive, and you can’t wait to watch your child win. Or your teen loves gymnastics, and they’re really good at it! But their whole identity revolves around being a gymnast.

Many benefits come with kids and teens participating in sports and activities. But as grown-ups, how can we support kids and cheer them on without adding more pressure? How can we help them find balance with other activities? How can we encourage them to get involved without losing their identity? Read on to learn how to help kids grow and build resilience through sports and activities.

Kids and teens can experience many benefits from participating in sports and activities, including:

  • Improving their health and well-being. Participating in sports and activities can have a positive impact on physical and mental health, including improved physical fitness, better sleep, reduced stress, higher self-esteem and confidence, and increased focus.
  • Learning how to tolerate failure and disappointment. Navigating the ups and downs of sports and other extracurricular activities can lay a foundation for navigating the ups and downs of life in the future. When kids learn that it’s OK to fail and normal to feel disappointed, they’re better able to cope. Learning how to tolerate losing a game now can help prepare them for all kinds of inevitable disappointments they’ll face as they grow up.
  • Developing social skills and practicing teamwork and collaboration. Kids who participate in activities often feel more socially connected, and knowing how to work with others is a skill we all need throughout our entire lives. Having to collaborate with different personalities during an activity when they’re young can prepare them for future relationships and negotiating with peers and colleagues as they get older.
  • Building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. If kids can learn early on that many things in life require thought, problem solving, hard work and practice, they’ll have the skills to persist through tough situations as they grow.

Our words matter. If we only talk about wins and losses, that’s all kids and teens will focus on, too. We can take off the pressure and help them enjoy all that a sport or activity has to offer by:

  • Talking about what they’re gaining. “Are you learning a new skill? Making new friends? Having fun?”
  • Asking about what they’re looking forward to. “Are you excited to spend time outside? Be part of a team? Wear a cool uniform?”
  • Being a positive role model. Kids are watching and listening to what we do and say. So, it’s important to model what we want them to learn. If the grown-ups are screaming and being overly critical, kids will learn to do the same.

It’s natural to want kids and teens to succeed, but sometimes in our effort to encourage them, we may put our own hopes, desires or feelings onto them. We can make it about them by:

  • Asking open-ended questions and actively listening. Once they’re involved in a sport or activity, ask how it’s going and how they’re feeling about it.
  • Acknowledging and accepting their feelings. You may have loved playing soccer as a kid, but your child may not be as into it. That’s OK. Let them know that whatever they feel is all right and that you understand.
  • Respecting their decision. It’s normal to want our kids to follow in our footsteps, but if ultimately your child decides that a sport or activity is not for them, try to respect their decision and trust that they know what’s best for themselves. When we encourage kids to practice paying attention to what feels right for them (rather than trying to please everyone else), it can be easier for them to listen to themselves and make their own choices as they grow up.

Tip: As a family, talk in advance about how you’ll approach decisions to stop doing activities. Decide together what makes most sense. For example, some families allow kids to stop activities at any time. Others determine that their kids must complete a certain amount of time (e.g., a month, a season, etc.) before stopping.

Young kids sitting in the dugout at their baseball game

When we focus only on the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re doing something and what we’re gaining from it. We can help kids and teens learn to focus on the process and effort, rather than the outcome, by:

  • Offering praise for their effort. “You’ve worked so hard this season!”
  • Encouraging them to reflect on their experience. “What are you learning?”
  • Role modeling how we focus on effort. “I focused a lot of energy on that presentation for work. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I’m proud of myself for how much I learned. Now, I know what I want to do differently next time.”
  • Helping them define success. It’s important for kids to learn that success is not simply about winning or losing. It’s about however they define success. “Did you have a good time? Did you try your best? Did you learn something?”

If we spend too much time doing one thing, it’s natural to feel like it’s our entire identity. But the reality is, nobody is defined by one thing, and it can be dangerous for kids to think otherwise. If kids and teens feel they’re defined by something and don’t want to do it anymore, or aren’t doing it as well as they’d like, it can lead them to question who they are, which can sometimes be associated with depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts. We can help kids find balance by:

  • Talking about a range of sports, activities, hobbies and interests. If we only talk about one activity, kids may get the impression that’s all we care about. Try to talk about a range of activities to show that all are OK and acceptable choices.
  • Helping them prioritize healthy habits. No matter what activities our kids are doing, it’s critical they have enough time to prioritize healthy habits, like getting quality sleep, eating balanced meals, moving their bodies and expressing their feelings.
  • Making time for fun and connection. All kids (and grown-ups!) need time for play and connection with others. Whether it’s hanging out with friends, a family game night or free time to be creative and play, make sure kids have plenty of downtime to have fun and socialize.
  • Encouraging exploration. Some kids are drawn to particular activities, while others are unsure. Either way, encourage kids to explore a range of interests. Even if they start doing one activity, it doesn’t mean they can’t continue to explore other things.
  • Avoiding using limiting language. If we frequently refer to a child as one thing, it can be hard for them to see themselves as anything else. Instead of saying “My child is a dancer,” try saying “They're currently doing dance.” Or, instead of “My baseball players,” try saying “My kids play baseball.” That way it’s clear sports and activities are things they do, not who they are.

It can be tempting to shield kids and teens by putting them into situations where they’re unlikely to fail or be disappointed, like letting them win a family game to avoid a meltdown. But this doesn’t teach them how to tolerate those feelings; it just helps kids avoid them. Instead, we can teach kids the skills they’ll need to work through challenges, cope with disappointment and accept losing—not just now, but also as they grow up. These are all normal parts of life, so help them through it, not around it, by:

  • Helping kids name their feelings. Identifying what we’re feeling can help make those feelings more manageable. Try encouraging kids to name their feeling by using “I wonder” statements. “I saw you working hard during practice. I wonder if you were feeling frustrated when you couldn’t get it right away. What do you think?”
  • Validating and normalizing all feelings. Let kids know that there are no bad or negative feelings. Anything they feel is normal and OK. “It’s normal to feel frustrated when we’re struggling with something new. I’ve been there and completely understand!”
  • Teaching and practicing healthy coping strategies. Kids need our help learning how to cope with their emotions. Teach them a variety of coping skills they can use in different situations, like deep breathing, closing their eyes and counting to 10, grounding their body and mind, or guided imagery. Make sure to practice coping skills regularly so that they become familiar and routine.
  • Helping kids check their thoughts. It can be helpful to teach kids that not everything they think is true, and that they have power over their thoughts. Show them how to develop accurate and helpful ways of thinking. For example, instead of “I’m a failure,” try “Failing doesn’t make me a failure. We all fail sometimes.”

Participating in sports and activities can have a positive impact during childhood and well into the future. From helping kids and teens build social skills and improving their health, to teaching them about teamwork and tolerating failure, the benefits of sports and activities are significant. These experiences can help build resilience in kids so they can better handle life’s ups and downs as they grow up. Learn more about Raising Resilience in kids at every age.

Call or text 988 if you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, self-harm or any mental health crisis. You can also chat or text for support by downloading the MyGCAL app in the App Store. Any thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously.