Improve Executive Functions with Team Sports

Did you know that team sports can be a great tool to enhance your child’s learning, attention, and executive functions? There have been dozens of studies over the past decade demonstrating that exercise can lead to improvements in school performance and executive control. While much of the research relies upon exercise such as running, swimming, and weight training, there is also evidence that team sports that encourage vigorous exercise and movement can also improve executive-functioning skills. So sign your kid up and watch them improve their executive functions with team sports

Beyond the improvement of executive function skills that results directly from exercise-induced brain chemistry, participation in team sports requires the use of many executive functions to be successful. For example, the cooperation necessary in team sports often requires improvement in self-awareness skills, while the competition in team sports that can lead to frustration when losing or exhilaration when winning necessitates the use of self-control skills. Team sports require communication skills and the capacity to be flexible and adapt to the skills of teammates and the conditions of the game. The capacity for focus may be the most basic and important executive function required in sports, as sustained attention, persistence, and effort are often the keys to being successful in team sports.

In order to improve executive functions with team sports, coaches need to help children recognize when they are practicing executive skills and how these skills are connected to success in the games. Essentially, adults need to be good coaches. Coaching to improve executive functions requires a series of five steps. These same five coaching steps can be applied not only to team sports but also to individual sports and a variety of other activities that practice and challenge executive-functioning skills. These steps include:

Observing – Coaches do this by watching and making supportive and encouraging comments.

Questioning – Rather than challenging mistakes or confronting decisions, using open-ended questions such as, “How did you make that decision?” can help children to be reflective and improve executive functions while playing team sports.

Listening – Children can benefit from attending to both verbal and nonverbal cues and paying attention to the decisions that are made within team sports. Listening also encourages them to talk about their decision making in team sports, which helps them to use a metacognitive and thoughtful process in their decision making.

Providing feedback – Feedback after extensive periods of listening and observing can be helpful because then coaches have facts from which they can discuss what they have seen. Feedback can encourage persistence in the face of mistakes and support effective handling of adversity.

Agreeing – During this step coaches attempt to help children recognize where they can make some improvement in their performance or their approach to the team sport. By the time they have reached this stage and gone through listening and observing, they may be more amenable to recommendations about how to improve themselves.

To learn how a specific team sport can improve executive functions, see our article on basketball and executive function skills.

Featured image: Flickr user Keith Miner

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