What’s the secret to childhood resilience? It’s not what you think

Reinvigorating youth sports may be the answer. It’s the ideal environment for kids to build life skills such as resilience and alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Duncan Simpson
Duncan Simpsonhttps://www.imgacademy.com/
Duncan Simpson, Ph.D., is the director of personal development at IMG Academy. Prior to joining IMG Academy, Simpson was an associate professor in the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology Program at Barry University. He is a certified consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology and conducts mental skills training with athletes and coaches from a range of sports and varying in talent and ability from beginners to professional and Olympic athletes, including NCAA D-I, II, and III student-athletes.

Today, many K-12 students are facing difficulties in school, not only with reading and math scores at their lowest levels in years, but a rise in feelings of anxiety, stress, and loneliness among kids. Loneliness, in particular, is on the rise to such a degree that it has been described as an epidemic.

Underpinning all of this is the next generation’s decreasing level of resilience—the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy or significant sources of stress.

Reinvigorating youth sports may be the answer. It’s the ideal environment for kids to build life skills such as resilience and alleviate feelings of loneliness.

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However, participation in youth sports has also declined. Studies show that the number of children aged six to 17 regularly participating in team sports decreased from 2019 to 2022 by 1.2 million. The decline in sports participation aligns with the rise in mental health struggles among kids, suggesting that many kids are missing out on more than just the love of the game, but also the mental health benefits that sports provide.

What can sports offer to make for more resilient kids?

Kids learn to face their fears and embrace mistakes

Youth sports reframe mistakes as valuable learning opportunities, helping kids develop greater adaptability. Sports and great coaches alike can teach kids to view tough moments not as adverse experiences, but as challenges they can overcome.

A good coach creates a positive, open atmosphere where errors are not sources of embarrassment, but instead, stepping stones toward growth. When we let our kids make mistakes in a positive, constructive environment, they learn how to pick themselves up and try again, which is essential for developing resilience.

Sports encourage a growth mindset

The best coaches know the game is not about winning or losing—it’s about cultivating a growth mindset. Kids in youth sports learn that practice and effort equal improvement. This mindset teaches kids to prioritize growth and view improvement as a measure of success.

Kids with fixed mindsets often become discouraged by setbacks and avoid further challenges, stunting their overall growth and limiting their resiliency. When we teach our kids that hard work leads to improvement and success in their sport, they gain the confidence to try new things. Over time, they learn that acquiring a new skill takes time, but that they are more than capable of achieving them if they are willing to do the work.

To that point, kids need to learn that where they start doesn’t determine their future success. I’ve worked with kids who initially started in the lowest tennis groups in the program, but go on to later receive D1 scholarships. Some even made it to the professional level.

The kids who eagerly embrace new challenges and are committed to learning from their mistakes are the ones who achieve significant growth that takes them to the next level, and sports is a natural learning ground for this crucial skill.

Kids build powerful, lifelong bonds through sports

A recent study of 5th-grade children found that spending more time playing sports decreased loneliness, especially for boys. Learning to work together as a team, collaborate, and set collective goals can yield life-long friendships and teach kids important social skills.

Social bonds not only decrease loneliness, they increase self-confidence and self-worth. The world’s longest study on happiness found that people with more friends are not only happier but more resilient as well.

At the end of the day, the only thing that separates an obstacle from an opportunity is our attitude toward it. Engaging in youth sports provides kids with valuable opportunities to build resilience, be less lonely, and be more successful. Let’s revitalize youth sports, especially among young children, so all are better equipped to achieve personal growth, overcome obstacles, and form meaningful connections with others.


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