A positive introduction to sports at a young age can set the tone for a healthy life. According to findings presented at the Renata Adler Memorial Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection Conference, hosted in Israel by Tel Aviv University, boys who play sports see improvements in self-control and discipline. The 24-week study included 649 children, in grades 3–6, from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Half the students participated in a sports-based afterschool program, the other half in a nonsports afterschool program. The former group engaged in activities like soccer or basketball three times per week and martial arts–oriented activities such as judo or karate twice per week. Both groups completed questionnaires and evaluations prior to the study and at its completion.

When the data from the questionnaire and the evaluation were compared, the sports group showed improvements in self-control, self-observation, problem-solving skills, delayed gratification and decreased aggression. But this was true only for boys; the researchers noted very little change in behavior among the girls. They posited that this may be due to girls’ generally lower incidence of aggression and lower interest in sports participation.

James Lee Branham, director of performance at Annullo Sports Academy in San Diego, agrees with the data. “Kids need a place to go after school,” Branham advises. “Youth sports provide an amazing opportunity for boys to learn life skills through safe and controlled environments of physical activity. Boys can learn lessons in winning and losing, self-confidence, self-esteem, discipline, adherence to rules and good sporting behavior.”

Branham suggests the following four activities for a well-rounded youth sports experience:

Martial arts helps children develop eye-hand coordination without compromising the integrity of young joints.

Swimming increases lung capacity and body awareness by teaching children how to control and propel their bodies through water.

Gymnastics enhances full-body muscular strength through challenging movements, while improving joint integrity to reduce the potential for injury.

Soccer improves footwork through multidirectional movements and develops lower-body power endurance with intermittent cardiovascular training.

For more information on youth sports, read “Educate the Parent, Empower the Young Athlete” in the January 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.