Sunday, July 18, 2010

Media Monday: Sports and Social Skills

I'm sure we've all heard the tired line that having your child participate in a team sport will help "socialization" and build character, teamwork skills, and sportsmanship. While I personally have some doubts about those assertions, I think they bring up an important question: What about watching team sports?

The fact is that a sports team is an hierarchical social environment, and how well the players are able to cope with the social rules of the hierarchy has a lot to do with how well the team will perform. Watching teams play with an eye for how they play can be an excellent exercise for teaching social skills to those who are less than adept.

Like real life, most games provide opportunities for good or bad sportsmanship and effective or ineffective team interaction. Unlike real life, it is incredibly obvious to the observer which is occurring when. Better yet, in many organized sports, the consequences for bad sportsmanship or other unacceptable behavior are immediate and blatant. For example, my husband and I recently watched the soccer World Cup matches. Whenever one player tripped another or otherwise broke a rule, it was immediately called by the referee (using a yellow card, red card system in which each card has real implications for when that player can play next) and the offending play was immediately replayed for viewers--in slow motion or with artificial highlighting if necessary. For the slightly more observant, differences in playing style were pretty apparent, and the cohesiveness of a team related directly to that team's ability to win.

In baseball, the opportunities for poor sportsmanship are more limited, but even more glaring to those who watch the game. And the social consequences for misbehaving players are severe.

In football, while players are definitely more rowdy with each other than in many other games and tempers can sometimes be ignited, a lot of time is spent deciding whether this or that behavior was legal. And a misbehaving team member can lose his team points. (Although watching football is something I recommend with extreme caution, giving the advertising and fan behavior that often surrounds it, and parents with concerns about teaching appropriateness in sexuality may have objections to the viewing of modern professional cheerleaders)

How a golf pro reacts to a misplaced stroke can tell you a lot about that players character, and there are no other team members to draw attention away from a prima donna's tantrum.

Even when players (in any sport) seem to behave badly without consequence, their bad behavior is apparent--a ripe opportunity for a parent and child to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Moreover, sports are almost always a safe and appropriate topic of conversation, especially in the context of small talk.

I really recommend finding a way to view televised professional sporting events with your child. The home environment is less overwhelming and more conducive to productive conversation about the game than attending a live game (which can also be fun!). Better yet, dvr the game so you can do "instant replays" as you see fit or fast forward through boring parts of the game or distracting advertising. Ask your child to watch how the players interact and what happens when they break rules. Point out instances that your child misses. Discuss how that relates to real life. Perhaps poor sportsmanship relates to a recent experience with a classmate or is a metaphor for how the child reacts when he doesn't get his way. These are important life lessons, and a clear visual aide can really help drive the point home.

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