How Do Sports Teach Discipline?

kids soccer
A young soccer team in action on the field. (Image: Dušan Kostić/iStock/Getty Images)

The link between positive mental attributes and sport has been part of human culture since the earliest civilizations, as evidenced in poetry and art from ancient Greece, early historical records from China and biblical texts. Discipline, for example, is often associated with the hard work of martial artists and Olympic champions. Although studies like Michael Trulson's 1980 work with disadvantaged youth support this idea, exactly how sports build discipline is more complex than you might imagine.

Coach Influence

A sports coach can have a powerful influence on a child's life, potentially more than parents and teachers, according to Trulson's study. During practice, a coach is in a position to demonstrate the value of continued focus, delayed gratification and vigorous effort even when it's hard. In competition, the student can see in real time the positive results of following coach's instructions. In his book "The Art of Empowering Children," coach and teacher John Graybeal notes that this effect is even stronger if the coach directly discusses discipline in addition to the object lesson from the sport itself.

Feedback

Unlike many other youth activities, sports can provide instant feedback about how effective a choice was. A student athlete who practices instead of playing video games will improve faster than one who makes the opposite decision. Although this is also true of studying and academic performance, the gap between decision and report card time is often too long for a child to make a meaningful connection. By contrast, hard work on Tuesday can mean scoring more points on Friday night.

Goals in Context

Discipline is one of the most effective tools people can use to reach their goals. Sports provide a vivid demonstration of how applying will and discipline during practice can help an athlete reach her goals in competition. Graybeal notes that "teaching by transference" is a valuable teaching tool. In this case, students who see discipline's roles in achieving their athletic goals are more likely to apply discipline to other goals.

Relevant Motivation

One problem with kids' performance at school work or chores is simple motivation. It's difficult to work on cleaning a room or studying for a test with discipline when a child can't see the immediate benefit of the work. Sports, again because of the vivid and often immediate rewards of pushing hard, teach the value of discipline.

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