Executive Functions? These MUST be able to get better, right?

A Play Diet that includes team sports can be helpful in developing many executive-functioning skills

Executive functions, the brain-based skills that are crucial to school and future success, can get better, right? These capacities were seen as fixed and immutable in the mid 1900’s, when executive-functioning theories were being developed. However, the neuroscience revolution of the last two decades has helped us to see how the brain can be changed. Discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity now indicate that many cognitive skills, including executive functions, can get better. While some of the research suggests that specific brain-training techniques can be helpful, there are also many old fashioned methods that can practice and improve executive functions. When parents and educators add a little strategy to using common activities to improve executive functions, they have kids who want to get better.

Our team at LearningWorks for Kids is among the thought leaders in using video games and other screen-based technologies to improve executive functions in children with ADHD, autism, anxiety, and depression. However, because we also strongly support kids having a healthy and balanced “Play Diet” that include other activities, we are always examining methods to leverage kids’ fun into opportunities for learning executive functions.

One of our favorite strategies is to use team sports to improve executive functions by practicing, developing, and building executive-functioning skills because they require communication, attention, awareness of others and oneself, and persistence. Competition can bring out the best in people but can also challenge self-control skills. Coaches who understand how to use strong executive-functioning skills to set team goals, support and encourage teammates, and create a culture of hard work and persistence often see their teams building a sense of team and exceeding their talent level. Parents and coaches can take the executive-functioning skills required in team sports and leverage them into skills that can help children outside of the game.

Team sports can be helpful in developing many executive-functioning skills, including:

Focus – The executive-functioning skill of focus requires sustained attention to tasks.  Kids who are focused can model this trait for their teammates and demonstrate how attention to detail helps others improve their skills. Focus also involves the skill of task persistence, and children who want to improve in their sport can see the direct connection between effort and improvement. Coaches can also instill a growth mindset in their team .

Self-Awareness – The skill of self-awareness involves understanding one’s areas of strength and weakness as well as those of teammates. For example, children who have self-awareness might let others take a shot at the end of a close basketball game because they realize they are not the best shooters.

Self-Control – Self-control is very important in using one’s competitive spirit in a positive manner. It helps with handling the frustration of losing or getting a bad call from a referee or umpire. Self-control also assists with recognizing when to be more (or less) aggressive in one’s play. Knowing how much energy to expend at the beginning of a race as opposed to the end could be the difference between winning or not finishing in a team sport such as cross country. Displaying self-control through not arguing but accepting a referee or umpire’s call is a vital executive-functioning skill for kids and their parents!

Team sports are great for getting kids who struggle with executive functions to practice these skills. Whether it be the regularity and consistency of practice, the need to remember one’s uniform and equipment, or the obligation to learn how to deal with teammates, sports provide a fantastic, real-world opportunity to practice these skills. With a little guidance from coaches and parents, kids can learn to identify when they are using their executive-functioning skills and how to reflect on how they help make them better teammates.


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