Don’t Always Choose Academics! Why Sports Participation May Be Just as Important

by Kathleen Casper

Year after year, educators debate whether parents should be “wasting their time” taking their children to afterschool sports activities. Some argue that children who are tested show very little academic improvement, if any, from participation in sports. Some say that the social and task commitment skills learned in sports positively impact children’s development. And others argue it is good for children to be active for physical health reasons. But very few acknowledge that some children excel in sports because sports is their gifted talent area and that nurturing this interest will bring about success equal to or perhaps even greater than what they could ever achieve in academics.

I know this all too well. If we listened to teachers and the advice of professionals during our son Nikolai’s early education years, we may have completely changed the course of his life and never given him the opportunity to excel in the one thing he was likely meant to do. For years educators humored our excuses about why he was not performing at the very top of his classes, and some even stared at us like we were crazy when we said he was missing school to travel for a soccer game or that he was up too late at soccer practice to make it to school on time the next morning. Some didn’t seem to understand that for our son, even to our own chagrin, soccer was much more important than academics and would provide him with much more than many “serious students” would ever receive.

For years we tried to talk him out of playing that expensive and time-consuming sport and pushed educational opportunities instead. He was in gifted education classes and was able to perform well, but still probably could have done better on some of his projects had he had unlimited time in the evenings. I’m now sorry to say we sometimes punished him for not doing his best in his classes by making him stay home and finish homework before going to his games. We threatened to take him off teams and prioritized educational experiences over buying new cleats or paying for special sports camps. And now, in reflection, we realize that we had a truly gifted child who not only will always be capable of academics, but also has a very highly developed talent in soccer. By taking soccer from him we may also have taken away thousands of dollars in scholarship money, the character building that comes from succeeding at something that not many are able to do, or the physical satisfaction of running the ball down the field at a level of play that few of us could ever even imagine.

Our son is, like other children around the world, highly gifted and talented in athletics– a talent area not always valued in the elementary and middle school education system (and often stereotyped or frowned on in high school and college education systems as well).

From the time Nikolai was about two years old, he was asking to play soccer. I think even before he could talk, he was thinking about that game because, as a brand new baby, all he wanted to do was look at round shapes and kick things. His first word was “Ball.” When he started begging to play soccer, we had no idea where he’d ever even heard the word. Neither my husband nor I were interested in the game or knew anything about it. We put him in preschool and encouraged him to be interested in books, but unless the books had something to do with soccer, he had no interest. We tried exposing him to different sports, just in case he really just needed to run around and be active, but he always came back to asking about soccer and wanting to play it every chance that came up.

Eventually he was on the varsity high school team and was playing on several teams–high school, another indoor soccer league, and then as a player chosen to be on one of just a few “Academy” teams of the US Soccer Federation. He played soccer five out of seven days a week, and on his off days he played it on his video game console. At school he wrote about soccer in every essay, finding ways to include it no matter what the question was about. He watched MLS and EPL games from around the world whenever he wasn’t on a field somewhere, studying the patterns and learning the plays. He could explain what was going to happen on the field several minutes later, based on the way the players were standing and moving the ball.

A few highlights of the value of our son’s soccer experience are the world travel experiences that came about from his soccer from traveling the country and even to foreign countries to train and play; the team building and networking skills he received that other kids who have studied hard their whole lives may never obtain; educational bonuses such as when he received a scholarship to a university to play soccer and attend classes; and exciting events such as when he was added to his high school’s “Hall of Fame” for his soccer accomplishments, and when he played as a forward on his college team in the NCAA Tournament and was awarded a position on the 2011 Southern Conference Men’s Soccer All-Freshman Team.

It is well accepted in the gifted education community that there may be multiple ways for children to be gifted and talented. One of the categories of giftedness that is often mentioned in this context is that of sports and athleticism. However, educators still often believe that academics should always come first. With our son, soccer comes first because, if he put it second, he could never be at the level he is at right now. Yes, we encourage him to continue to achieve academically, and are glad it is a requirement for sports participation on his college team (and was also a requirement on his Academy and high school teams as well.) We know he could be injured and need to find a “real” job later, or that he may eventually hit a ceiling and never make it to the professional level. We know that in many areas of life, a college degree is well-respected and expected. But we cannot in good faith say that academic development should be a higher priority for him than developing his super talent in soccer.

Of course, not all players are going to succeed at the highest levels. But the odds are always against everyone to succeed at the top levels in any field, even in traditional academics, such as a child who is interested in becoming a molecular biologist or a famous author. The dream and the focus are what are important in the beginning years. Teachers and parents of kids with high sports potential should not be too quick to dismiss athletic extracurricular activities. If you take sports practice away from them, you may be wasting much more than time.

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SENG Director L. Kathleen Casper, Esq. is a Highly Capable Program educator in the Tacoma School District and a part time family law attorney with a practice focusing on children and families. She recently worked for several years at a gifted magnet school in Pinellas County, Florida where she specialized in teaching writing among other subjects. Ms. Casper is a freelance writer of articles in national and international magazines, many about gifted children. Ms. Casper has received many awards for her teaching including two Florida Governor’s Awards and a semifinalist award for Pinellas County Outstanding Educator.

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