By Dimity McDowell
As your child learns to hit a backhand, throw a curve ball, or shoot a free throw, the muscle they are strengthening the most may surprise you: the brain.
Physical movement affects the brain by increasing cerebral capillary growth, blood flow, and the production of proteins (neurotrophins) and cells that impact both the nervous system and memory.
As sports improve the way the brain functions, they also produce intangible mental benefits that ripple through all areas of an athlete’s life.
Here are five reasons why your child’s brain needs physical activity:
1. Their community will be large and supportive.
Simply by being part of a team or group, sport participation protects young athletes against social isolation. Having a solid level of social support creates higher levels of resilience and a decrease in risk of hopelessness and suicide.
When your child has a village—teammates, coaches, fellow parents—behind them, they feel support on a variety of levels and learn how to engage with a range of people who share a collective goal.
2. They’ll concentrate better.
Learning to focus among distractions is an amazing benefit of sports, one that can be used during a buzzer-beating shot or during a buzzer-beating presentation.
In both direct (sheer repetition of specific skills polish the brain’s neural pathways) and indirect ways (research suggests that increased energy levels and time outside of the classroom may result in higher attention levels during school), time on the field can help develop attention to specific tasks.
3. They’ll be more creative.
Thinking outside the box is a skill that benefits youth athletes, but there’s a twist: a recent study found that the more unstructured play a child has, think pickup basketball, the more their creativity flowed as an adult. When children have to create, follow rules, and problem solve without a coach to guide them, they naturally have to be creative.
“The implications of this aren’t a complete rejection of the current sports system,” said Matt Bowers, a clinical assistant professor in health education. “We found that it’s really about balancing the time you spend in different settings. Our results suggest that you don’t have to play exclusively in unstructured settings. If you find a balance between those and other leisure activities that suggests a stronger connection to higher levels of creativity.”
4. Their confidence levels will be healthy.
Research from the Women’s Sports Foundation also confirmed that girls and young women who play sports increase their confidence, self-esteem, and are less likely to be overweight, depressed, smoke, use illegal drugs, or become pregnant as teens. For both sexes, the day-to-day skills acquired while being active (communicating, negotiating, setting goals, perseverance) lead to becoming an adaptive leader in a variety of situations.
5. They’ll spend more time in the classroom.
Several studies point to the fact that when your child plays sports, they are more likely to improve their grades as well.
High school students who are also athletes are less likely to drop out, one study found. Similarly, participation in sport is associated with completing more years of education and getting consistently higher grades in school.