Kids Who Play Sports May Be More Successful Adults (Study)

Kids who play sports develop “grit,” which helps them succeed as adults, according to recent research. Learn more about this fascinating study below. Then keep reading for tips on helping your kids develop grit even if they’re not interested in sports.

A recent study found that kids who play sports may grow up to become more successful adults thanks to the "grit" that they develop. Read on to learn more!

Kids Who Play Sports May Be More Successful as Adults, Study Shows

Do your kids play sports? If not, you may want to consider getting them involved in one! Researchers at Ohio State University discovered that participating in organized sports helps kids develop “grit.”

What, exactly, is grit (I mean, aside from dusty dirt, of course)? Short version: it’s defined as “courage and resolve; strength of character.” The longer version (and the one that OSU researchers used), it’s a “combination of passion and perseverance that helps people achieve their long-term goals.” When you look at those two definitions, it’s easy to see how “grit” can be incredibly helpful later in life!

As a subjective term, “grit” isn’t really something that’s easy to measure. However, OSU researchers managed to come up with a way to do just that. They asked all 3,993 adult study participants to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 on non-sport-related things like “I never give up” and “I am a hard worker.” The higher the score, the more “grit” that person has.

According to the results of the survey, “34% of those who played sports as a youth scored high on the grit scale, compared to only 23% of those who didn’t play sports.” On the flip side, “25% of those who never played sports scored low on the grit scale, compared to just 17% of those who did play sports.”

It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”
It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Kids who play sports learn how to persevere and bounce back from disappointment

One of the biggest reasons that sports had such a long-lasting effect on “grit” has to do not with learning how to win, but rather with learning how to deal with losses. “Kids who participate in sports learn what it is like to struggle as they learn new skills, overcome challenges and bounce back from failure to try again,” said Emily Nothnagle.

If you think about it like that, it really does make sense. Say your child plays tennis (I use that as an example because my son is passionate about it). Before they can even play against others, they have to actually develop the ability to hold and swing a racket, right? So right off the bat, they’re learning that it takes time, patience, and perseverance just to even begin a sport.

When they’re ready to start playing against others, they have to learn how to accept losses with dignity and wins with grace. Those are incredibly hard lessons for young children to learn, as anyone who has ever played Candyland with a toddler can tell you!

Nothnagle said that the results of the study suggest that these lessons follow our kids into adulthood and continue to have a positive impact. My son is only a middle-schooler, and already I can see evidence of that. Tennis has helped him just as mentally and emotionally as it has physically.

But what if your kids just plain don’t like sports? Are they out of luck in the grit department? Let’s discuss.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”
“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

How can kids learn grit without playing sports?

First, let me just say one thing. DO NOT take all of this as a reason to force your kids to join the baseball team or take up tennis. Also, don’t take it as a reason to force them to keep playing something that they absolutely hate. Not only will that make them miserable, but in my opinion, it’ll completely backfire in terms of building grit.

Remember, “grit” – at least as it’s defined by the study- isn’t just about persevering, it’s also about passion. Without that passion, chances are your kids will do just enough to get by (and maybe even not that much, since if they aren’t good enough to play, they can ride out their time on the bench).

The key is to find something that your kids are passionate about and encourage them to keep taking that passion to the next level. For example, perhaps your child really loves hiking. Now, that’s definitely something that requires perseverance and dedication. It also requires building up skill before you can take longer treks.

Their passion doesn’t even have to be physical activity, though. Anything that requires dedication and perseverance can build grit. Take a child who loves art, for example. As someone who can barely draw proportionate stick figures (and by “barely,” I mean “not at all”), I can definitely say that requires skill. Learning how to take a passion for art to the next level absolutely requires commitment, too.

Of course, as I mentioned above, “grit” isn’t just about learning how to succeed, it’s also about learning to deal with losses and disappointments. Honestly, any time you’re passionate about something there’s the potential for disappointment. Every loss, no matter how seemingly minor it may be to someone who doesn’t understand that passion, matters. Every one of them teaches us something. Every single loss also gives us a chance to see what we’re made of, to decide if we’re going to throw in the towel or renew our dedication to improving. The bottom line is that if your kids can find ONE thing that they’re truly passionate about, they can develop grit that will help them later in life.

“It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you came from. If you have dreams and goals, that’s all that matters.”
“It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you came from. If you have dreams and goals, that’s all that matters.”

Grit is great, but balance is more important

Before we say goodbye for today, I think now is a good time to point out a few flaws with the study, for the sake of balance. While it’s fascinating and definitely a good reason to feel good about letting your kids play sports, it’s not without its issues.

First, the participants weren’t very diverse. While they came from all 50 states, they were “disproportionately female, white and Midwestern.” That said, because of this the researchers “weighted” the results to reflect the overall US population. Second, none of the participants were asked whether they continue to play sports as an adult. So we have no way of knowing whether they still regularly challenge themselves physically.

Third, since participants were asked to rate themselves on totally subjective questions, we do kind of have to take the entire study with a grain of salt. Even the very thing that researchers were studying (grit) is a subjective concept and not really something that’s easily defined or measured.

Last, and perhaps most important, Nothnagle was quick to point out that grit isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. “There can be issues if you use grit without some limits. An overemphasis on applying grit in sports activities can lead some people to overtrain and injure themselves, for example,” she said.

So, while it’s great to help your kids build grit, just make sure they’re living balanced lives. This is something I’m trying to teach my son right now. He wants to do online school and dedicate more time to his tennis training. As happy as I am that he’s found something that he can be so passionate about, I also want him to just spend time being a kid. After all, our kids don’t stay little for long.

Given the choice between building grit and enjoying their fleeting childhood, I’ll pick the latter every time. Grit isn’t a “one-time only” offer. You can develop it at any point in your life. Childhood, on the other hand, only happens once. When it’s over, it’s over. Just remember that.

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