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How Watching Sports With Your Kids Can Build Social-Emotional Skills

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Sports are a big part of many of our lives, and we know that there is a lot of value in them from physical health and fitness to socializing with friends to the professional athletes who serve as our children’s role models. But did you know that just watching sports can also benefit your kids? Yes, watching sports can build social-emotional competencies. And helping children learn to watch sports with a critical eye can strengthen their social-emotional (SEL) skills and reinforce the practical benefits of any SEL lessons they may be learning at school. Here are ten skills you can help your kids build while enjoying sports as a family.

  1. Focus

    Start off by helping your child notice some of the many details that are happening. Ask, ‘Why are they doing that?’ Discuss why players talking at the pitchers’ mound put their gloves over their mouths? Why does the catcher give more complicated signals to the pitcher when there is a runner on second base? Why does a quarterback move players around right before the ball is snapped? Small things matter a lot in all areas of life! You can bridge from this to asking your children to start to notice how their classmates and the people around them are feeling.

  2. Preparation and Practice

    Help children notice what happens before games begin. Baseball players have batting and fielding practice. Basketball players do layup drills and practice shooting. Tennis players warm up against their opponents. Consider showing videos of superstars’ preparation routines, like Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Ask, “Why do they do this?” These are top of the world professionals- why do they have to practice? This helps kids see that any person, famous or not, can benefit from preparation. Encourage your kids to ask themselves, “What’s going to happen today? Tomorrow? Have I thought about it in advance? Do I have what I need? Am I mentally and physically ready?”

  3. Emotion Regulation

    Watch what happens at the most important moments in games. Watch what pitchers do, what soccer goalies do, what batters do, what players do at the free throw line. They take a deep breath and they have rituals that help them calm down. Different players do things in slightly different ways, and it’s worth noticing their variations. From this, you can eventually ask your children to think about what they can learn to do to regulate their emotions in stressful situations.

  4. Goal Setting

    At any given point in a game- baseball, soccer, football, whatever—ask the question, “What do the players want to do now? (i.e. what are their goals in the situation?)” When teams call time out, or a coach talks to the players, they are setting goals for what will happen next. The lesson? We need to think about what we want to happen next so we start problem solving how to make it happen. Eventually, you can ask, “Who helps coach you as you set goals for yourself?”

  5. Problem Solving

    Once you’ve understood the players’ goals, ask your child, “how are they going to do it? What are their options? What would you do? What play would you call? What pitch would you suggest? What shot would you take?” This helps set kids up to learn to think quickly and solve problems in their everyday lives.

  6. Planning and Anticipating

    It’s not enough to set a goal and know how you want to get there. Planning is necessary. Watch how all the soccer players move on the attack and still maintain defense. Watch how all the football players’ movements are coordinated on a given play. Watch where fielders are positioned in baseball and how many people move when the ball is hit. All of this is planned in advance. Ask, “How do you think the players and coaches planned that play” and, “How could planning help you be more successful in things you do every day?”

  7. Teamwork and Cooperation

    Who has to work together for a successful outcome? Who is working together on the field, on the sidelines, and elsewhere? Who helps tennis players get ready, and fit to play (many people!)? Watch how soccer players pass the ball to one another. Notice how baseball players cooperate to complete a double play, or how basketball players set screens for and pass to one-another.

  8. Resilience and Responding to Obstacles

    How do players react when things don’t go their way? Notice their actions. Do they regroup? Do they use their self-calming routines? Do they visibly start to lose their cool? Do they seem to have a plan for bouncing back? Notice the athletes who seem to do even better, focus even more, and try even harder when things don’t go their way, and the athletes that don’t. Eventually, you can reflect aloud, “I wonder what we can learn from this?”

  9. Use Feedback

    This is a little harder to see, but help your children notice who remembers what worked and what does not work, and respond accordingly. Pitchers and catchers remember what pitches batters do and do not hit in certain situations. Football coaches- and great quarterbacks and defensive captains- analyze players’ actions and use it in their planning of plays. Basketball players know how opponents responds to a ball-fake, a crossover dribble, and a pick and roll. Tennis players learn to hit to their opponents’ weakest shots and positions. They gather data from past games, study the feedback, and use it in future situations.

  10. Recognize Success

    It’s a lot of fun to watch how players respond when things go well. What do soccer players do when they- or one of their teammates- score a goal? How about a walkoff hit in baseball? A game-winning basket at the buzzer? Winning match point in tennis? Getting a first down early in a football game, or making a score-saving tackle, and doing the same at the very end of the game?

We don’t want to build a generation of couch potatoes, but as long as we happen to be sitting and watching, we may as well provide some lasting benefits—in addition to rooting for our favorites to win, of course!

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