Do youth sports really build character? What kids gain from sports depends on adults

In the absence of evidence, there are theories and testimonials posited by philosophers, child development experts, and ordinary adults who insist that athletics sculpted their lives.

“My high school sports experiences shaped me into a functioning adult,” Maggie Lynch, now twenty-four, explained in an email.

Aidan Connly, a recent college graduate who played high school football and lacrosse, said, “I learned to never quit and to ignore the noise.”

Jacqui Young, twenty-seven, said playing volleyball, softball, and basketball as a teenager taught her how to work with others, to appreciate her responsibility to the collective. (Group projects in the classroom resonated in a different way: “They made me feel more put-upon than anything,” she said.)

Memories may not be controlled experiments, but the volume and intensity of such reports is striking. Indeed, it seems that every adult who played sports growing up can instantly resurrect a story from the playing field or team bus that had an impact.

Kids can grow from sports in other ways, too. Competitive athletic environments compel them to engage with their own and others’ powerful feelings. Before long, they learn to manage the anger, sadness, embarrassment, and joy that playing evokes. If the sports environment is healthy, kids can also learn how to control their aggression. In games, after all, one team or individual is pitted against another, and during that competition the goal is to defeat the other—aggressively, if need be. But once the contest is over, everyone reverts back to human beings again, maybe even friends, and the aggression has to be shut down. “It’s hard to imagine a more powerful deterrent to violating another human being,” Weissbourd wrote, “than recognizing that our hostile feelings toward another person are a kind of fiction, manufactured by a game, and have nothing to do with him or her at all — that we irrationally invent enemies.”

With the right leadership, sports also can invite other moral virtues, including appreciation for an opponent’s skill, toleration for a weaker player’s mistakes, and respect for an imperfect referee. This kind of “demanding morality,” Weissbourd wrote, builds empathy: children learn that their emotions, no matter how passionate, are not paramount—that others’ feelings and experiences are equally valid.

Philosophy professor Drew Hyland argues that serious engagement in sports also can trigger two profound interior developments: “the experience of deep, passionate commitment and self-knowledge.” Hyland drew on his own time playing basketball to share how deeply it had affected him. “There was no experience in my scholastic or college education that led me to more self-knowledge than my basketball experience, no course or classroom in which I learned more about my capacities, my limitations, where I was willing to compromise, and where I would take my stand.”

One of the most lucid illustrations of self-knowledge gleaned through sports comes from Mark Edmundson, an English professor at UVA and former high school football player. In his 2012 essay on sports and character for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Edmundson explores how playing football drove the kind of moral growth that warrior communities value.

Physically unimpressive — “I was buttery soft around the waist, near-sighted, not especially fast, and not agile at all” — Edmundson nonetheless had the will to stick with the sport, despite the grueling double practices during summer’s dog days and regular beatdowns by the coaches. Flouting the expectations of all, he outlasted more talented athletes and earned a measure of self-respect. “I became a tougher, more daring person,” he wrote.

He also vanquished the self-consciousness that had haunted him and learned to evaluate himself by his own interior standards rather than those imposed from others. It was the regular practices, the hard drills day after day after day, that forced this lasting transition, he wrote. And the resilience and persistence he absorbed during football guided him through the long slog of graduate school and the job search that followed.

But there were rotten lessons, too. The daily orchestrated violence made him more brutal. Given the hierarchical nature of sports, he became more interested in power and reigning over others. He realized that he’d grown accustomed to thinking in terms of physical domination and that this mindset would be hard to let go: “Once the punch in the mouth is part of your repertoire—once you’ve done it a few times as an adult — it never really goes away.” And he could see how the culture he inhabited was aggressively homophobic, obsessed with physical supremacy, and consequently hostile to the value of kindness.

A handful of studies corroborate Edmundson’s experience. Kids who wrestle and play football are 40 percent more likely to be violent outside of sports than their nonathletic peers. “Players are encouraged to be violent outside the sport because they are rewarded for being violent inside it,” said Derek Kreager, who conducted the research. A study involving sixteen hundred male high school athletes found that football and basketball players were two times as likely to abuse their female dating partners as athletes in other sports. Most research on alcohol use among high school athletes shows a positive relationship between the two, though it’s not clear that one “causes” the other. The link is especially strong in higher-income areas.

We ferry our kids to the field for the same reason our parents did: because we believe sports build character. But the evidence is lacking, and the milieu in which kids now play is inclined to do the opposite. Coakley believes that the way youth sports have changed over the past twenty years undermines character development. “Sports have gotten more cutthroat and competitive among kids and parents,” he said.

“Some kids survive the system because they’ve joined other activities,” he added. “They’ve made it in spite of sports and become a pretty good twenty-three-year-old.”

To the extent that there’s consensus on sport’s contribution to character, then, it appears to be this: what kids glean from athletics depends entirely on a shifting and tangled array of variables. Community values, parental attitudes toward sports, the coaches’ manner and methods, the child’s own temperament and training, and countless other intangibles determine what kids learn from athletics. Sports themselves are empty vessels, imbued with the meanings we attach to them.

Author Linda Flanagan
The writer Linda Flanagan (USA), New York, New York, March 21, 2022. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

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