From Gladiators to Suits

By Greg Byler 2019-12-09 12:25:32

Tackling the debate of how sports affect the physical and mental health of children

When asked to write this article, my immediate internal response was much the same as my occasional remarks to friends or clients: “sports absolutely plays a positive role in our lives! It gives us a strong physical and mental foundation, teaching us invaluable lessons that prepare us to face the many unexpected challenges that inevitably get thrown our way...” etcetera, etcetera.

For me, this continues to hold true, but not in such a simplistic way as the above statement suggests.

I was an athlete from a very young age and eventually competed in the NCAA Division I as a wrestler. After a seven-year hiatus from any organised sports or even intentional exercise, I discovered yoga, which I’ve been practising for 19 years and teaching for seven. When I first thought about the benefits that sports and fitness have brought to my life, they seemed so obvious to the point where I feared this article might be as bland as wonder bread. But after doing deeper analysis and research, I realised I would be left with more questions than answers.

From an evolutionary perspective, to question whether sports and fitness are good for children is as illogical as wondering if the ability to see is good for driving a car and is indicative of the enormous shift in how we humans in today’s world relate to nature. I think it’s safe to say that for the grand majority of our time on this planet there was never an option to be anything but an extreme athlete, because if you weren’t, you didn’t survive. Exercise was not something we scheduled into our lives to shake off the tensions of the week spent at the office; it was survival of the fittest. As a result, our DNA is programmed to be fit. The more consistently active we are, the physically stronger we become and the more alive we feel.

Unlike the past, modern life often demands the very opposite of exercise. We move our fingers a lot and, in terms of brain activity, we have the equivalent of the Olympic Games going on, but often the only thing that bumps our heart rates up is the stress of our mental marathons.

The changing parameters of the game of survival has taken a once essential physical fitness and placed it in the category of ‘optional’. Living a sedentary lifestyle, whilst earning a living wage, or even a luxurious wage, is not only available to us, it is often asked of us; unrelenting deadlines and 12 to 15-hour workdays, especially in urban areas like Shanghai, seems to be becoming the norm. With having to eat, shower and sleep, when does one find the time to climb a tree or swim in the river?

Unfortunately, removing fitness from the list of requirements for survival does not remove it from our DNA code. In the face of this reality, the illogical concept of questioning the benefits of sports and fitness on our children’s mental and physical health becomes not only very logical, but of the utmost importance!

Does ‘making a living’ or reaching high levels of economic success automatically bring happiness and contentment, even at the expense of our physical vitality? Probably not. Nor would focusing the entirety of our children’s education on skills that are, for the most part, no longer needed.

Establishing the Correlation of Physical Fitness and a Healthy Brain

In a new study, which was published last month in Scientific Reports, scientists at the University of Münster in Germany decided to look inside the skulls of a group of 1,200 young adults by scanning their brains with a specialised type of MRI that looks at the health of their brains’ white matter. White matter is the communication freeways between the grey matter sections of the brain. They found that the fitter the people in this group were, the more robust their white matter looked and the better they performed on tests of memory and thinking skills.

The researchers were dumbfounded by the strength of the associations between white-matter health and the young adults’ fitness and thinking. Their final conclusion? “Even at a young age, physical fitness has beneficial effects not just on the body”, says Dr Jonathan Repple, a psychiatrist and lead neuroscience researcher of the study, “but also on brain health and brain functioning”.

Educational Perspectives on the Benefits of Sports

Considering how relevant this subject is to education, I approached some of Shanghai’s international schools to get their perspectives on how they feel sports effect children and how school utilises them to teach life skills.

Jennifer Rizzo, athletics trainer at Concordia International School Shanghai, echoes a lot of what was discovered in the study completed University of Münster. “Movement increases brain volume, improves memory and reduces the risk of diabetes, anxiety and depression. It also enhances the creative mind by keeping the child off the screen (computer/ phone etc), allowing their circadian rhythm to work naturally, resulting in a better sleep cycle”.

For Shanghai Community Interntional School (SCIS) Pudong Athletics Director, Vic Caban, his thoughts emphasise more on the role that coaches of competitive sports teams play in their student’s lives and the responsibility they have to inspire children to have strong moral values.

“Coaches have the perfect opportunity to instil various character traits that in the classroom are often just talked about… On the sports field, when you look at things like [physical] effort and perseverance, teamwork and grit, you can actually see it in action. The goal of our SCIS Pudong Physical Education programme, and the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), should be to nurture students to be physically literate. People who can confidently speak about different sports/ activities, appreciate what physical activity has to offer, and have the basic skills and confidence to try them all”.

The societal values that continue to transform us, from a once robust tribe of athletes to almost robot-like individuals tap-tap-tapping on our computers/ smartphones day in and day out, are the very same values that shape our educational institutions. How could it be otherwise? We need to prepare our children as best we can to navigate the wild seas of the everchanging currents of this fast-paced, high-rise , ‘5G’ life. One of the most important skills that crosses over from our earlier days as hunter-gathers into our very present future is competition.

Vanessa Fung, Physical Education Teacher at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, Puxi Secondary (YCIS) puts it like this: “[Physical Education] is a real-life skill that can’t be underestimated. Children are growing into adults and should be prepared to deal with situations where they have to rise to challenges, where they have a possibility of making mistakes and where they need to put in a solid effort to get ahead”.

Few of us would disagree with these words. It is our lot in life to exert our energy to provide for ourselves and at some point, we will stand face to face with an adversary or challenge that will push us to our very limit. One of the major factors that will determine the outcome of such a moment is where we believe that limit to be.

Countless are the occasions in my adult life that while in the midst of a stressful moment, be it physical, mental or emotional, in my professional or personal life, the lessons I learned as a teenage athlete are as relevant now as they were when I first encountered them. Memories come back as vivid as though it were just yesterday that I was in the heat of my middle school basement being taken to the edge of total fatigue and physical collapse with other wrestlers and then told to get up and do it again, and again, and again. It was here where we met our most important, most dangerous and most elusive adversary - our own fear.

Our limits are a factor of our willingness to face our fears and walk through them. Once through, the fear disappears and our limits settle on a new horizon, awaiting our arrival, where we will face the same fear hidden behind a different mask. The mask may be scarier and the stakes may seem higher, but the fear is the same.

It is fundamental that we give the opportunity to our youth to learn this invaluable lesson: our limitations are self-created and they are also a choice. This will help them to mould themselves into who and what they want to be.

I’m using competitive sports as the example because of my own experience, but it’s important to recognise that many children may not be as inclined towards physical activity. Some might even find the requirement to participate in PE classes to be annoying at best and traumatic at worst.

Athletic Director, Turner Neil, at Concordia International School Shanghai, considers this understanding of student preferences to be crucial: “we strive for differentiation and offer student choice whenever possible. In special cases, our PE teachers may offer a student the option to perform an assessment or exercise one-on-one when the social or performance anxiety is extreme. Overall, we aim to balance challenge with fun, in a low-stakes environment. We strive to make PE an outlet for teens to take healthy risks without the fear of failure or judgement”.

Fear, of course, is just one of many different feelings associated with the lessons we encounter by doing sports. One could even go so far as to argue that this is one of the precise reasons as to why sports are so crucial for developing a sense of self.

Sports and Mental Wellbeing

Curious as to how an expert would define a ‘healthy mindset’, I spoke with Dr Nate Balfanz, a Senior Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with children and families, about his perspectives and how he believes sports play a role in a child’s mental health.

“Mental health to me is a lot about personal awareness... a lot of people believe having good mental health means that you’re a positive, happy person all the time; that’s just totally false as far as I’m concerned. Mental health to me is being aware of your own emotional states, what impacts your own emotional state and being able to safely and freely express your feelings, regardless if they’re happy, sad, excited, scared...whatever they may be”.

Serendipitously, Dr Balfanz himself was a NCAA Division I football (soccer) player. In response to the question on how sports mentally impact children, he says, “if there is too strong of an agenda attached to [the sport], especially in our youth, this is when issues start to occur”, relating his own experience of being a lifelong competitive athlete and his eventual training to become a professional athlete. “Three knee surgeries, a nose surgery, a wrist surgery, and a hip replacement later, I chose a different career path and became a psychologist”.

In retrospect, like with all things, sports can come with a degree of risk if played too aggressively. On the other hand, being part of a sports team offers an opportunity for children to discover comradery, trust and learning to work closely with others. This is, of course, subject to the morals being encouraged by the team leader and coach. Herein lies the fine line between whether playing a sport can have a positive impact on a child’s mental health or not. As Dr Balfanz says, we must “provide a nurturing and supportive environment for kids to be exactly who they want to be and feel exactly how they want to feel. That’s a mentally healthy child”.

In line with the views of Mr Neil and Dr Balfanz, Ms Fung sums it up by saying, “children, like adults, have interests and inclinations which should be honoured. People are allowed to enjoy certain things over others. With that said, all scientific research suggests that physical exercise is an integral part of overall health. A healthy dose of exercise regularly leads to higher productivity and cognitive function. Children who are not very active should recognise that exercise is a part of their holistic wellbeing. This is where families and communities come into play, modelling by example”.

Vanessa, I wholeheartedly agree.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, the affects that sports and fitness have on children’s physical and mental health are very well documented. I am encouraged to see the awareness and care that the contributors to this article give to this area within education and thereby offering our children a wealth of opportunities.

However, I feel it is important to consciously remember that our stadiums are no longer the coliseums of old, nor is our entertainment quite as barbaric; society has since become far more sophisticated. As such, the way in which we introduce and involve our children in sports, along with the why and for what purpose, should be our first consideration.

When I think about it, I do wonder whether the values we follow are really ours, or whether they were instilled in us when we were children... just like the ones we now so passionately educate.

How will these lessons and character traits extracted from our own PE classes, which are then instilled into our youth, reflect their decisions in the board rooms of future corporations?

Our actions reflect our agenda and these actions have real-life consequences.

I had a choice at 16 in that middle school basement when I was placed in front of what I perceived as a no-win situation. I could quit, or I could keep pushing my limits to a place I felt certain I couldn’t handle. I chose the latter and learned that certainty in my own beliefs limits my growth. Then again, when I was 19, a shoulder injury placed me in front of a newly disguised fear: who was I, if I wasn’t a wrestler? Do I get up and push my limitations and fight to maintain my self-identity? That time, I chose to quit, which was a decision that taught me that attaching a single aspect of my self-identity would also limit my growth.

As a member of this global family, a family as wonderfully unique, diverse and beautiful as the planet we cohabitate, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what I’ve been alluding to all along: the importance of a deep and honest self-reflection in regards to our values, to our assumptions and to our loyalties.

Perhaps by taking this internal debate into consideration, we as guardians of future generations have the potential to utilise sports as way of helping children recognise their own set of values.