Consider the stereotype of the dumb jock: He puts so much effort into sculpting his body that there’s no time for improving his mind.
Yet research finds that how we treat our body directly affects our mind. According to a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine, there is evidence that kids who get regular physical activity have better physical and mental health.
“Physical activity is related to lower body fat, greater muscular strength, stronger bones, and improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as to improvements in mental health by reducing and preventing conditions such as anxiety and depression and enhancing self-esteem,” says the report.
Another study from the University of Kansas found that high school students who participated in sports did much better in all subjects, and were more likely to finish school, than their non-athletic peers.
Researchers said it wasn’t because the athletes were smarter, just that they were more motivated—a result of the life lessons learned on the field.
Lesson 1: Having Dedication and Commitment
Playing sports helps you discover what it means to do your best—both for yourself and your team, according to U.S. Olympian-turned-author Alexandra Allred.
“You’re committed to yourself because you want to see how good you can get. And you care about performing well for your team so that you can all go to the next level,” she said.
Allred became the first female U.S. bobsled champion and was named Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1994, while she was more than four months pregnant. She went on to become a fourth-degree black belt and was featured in Sports Illustrated magazine for her performance in women’s professional football.
Allred is a big advocate of physical fitness—she teaches kickboxing, martial arts, self-defense, Pilates, and more at a local gym and community college outside Dallas, Texas. But when it comes to competition, fitness is just a side benefit. The most important lesson competition teaches is dedication, she says.
“If you’ve got a teammate that gives it everything they have and still fall short, that’s okay, even if they came in last,” she said. “The team only gets mad at you when they know you could have done more, but you gave up.”
Dedication to physical improvement can build self-esteem, confidence, and sense of independence, even if your body is far from perfect, Allred says.
“I train with one woman who has half a lung. I have another client who has cancer. I tell them all the time, ‘This is exactly the place you need to be when you’re sad and blue,'” she said. “It’s a place full of people who have very good intentions, a lot drive, and a lot of hope.”
Lesson 2: Overcoming the Odds
Robert Herbst was once a skinny teen with scoliosis so severe that his doctors warned him never to lift anything heavy. He didn’t listen. He went on to become an 18-time world champion and a 32-time national champion in powerlifting.
Today, Herbst, 59, is a New York attorney, but he still trains hard and competes. “I’m not as good as I once was, but I still like to test myself,” he said. “I still have the fire in the belly.”
For Herbst, sports offer valuable lessons that extend far beyond the gym. “That same thoroughness, drive, and preparation you learn carries over into the rest of your life,” he said.
For example, in sports and in life, facing a strong competitor forces you to push yourself and improve. Your opponent may have the upper hand—better players, coaches, and training—but there’s always a chance to beat the odds when you give it all you’ve got.
Compare this lesson with the one kids get from a participation award. The intention behind participation awards is good—as they ensure that no one is left out—but they set up an expectation that you don’t typically find in real life.
“It teaches that you don’t really have to try that hard and you’re going to get something anyway,” Allred said.
Lesson 3: Showing Good Sportsmanship
Competition can motivate us to do our best, but things can turn ugly when winning becomes more important than playing well.
Last summer, Herbst supervised drug testing at the Rio Olympics. When athletes stop playing by the rules, sport loses its core value and substance, he says.
“People want to win because of money or glory, but these are symptoms of the pressure of winning. When the passion gets to this extreme, you’re past the realm of sport. It’s no longer a safe, sane way of expressing our rivalry,” he said.
The desire to win can become so strong that it can cloud our judgment, says Vassilis Dalakas, professor of sports marketing at California State University–San Marcos. One of his studies found that fans would insist a product was better when associated with their favorite team and worse when attached to a rival, even when the brand and quality of the products were identical.
In extreme cases, hatred for the opposing team can result in aggression and violence. Thankfully, most fans aren’t this crazy, but Dalakas fears that normal fans can also take it too far. In one of Dalakas’s studies, he found that fans were significantly less willing to give money to a person in need when the person wore a t-shirt with a rival team’s logo on it.
“One could argue that this is not really that harmful and it’s a normal part of sports,” said Dalakas. “But at what point does that cross a line and make us less human?”
Lesson 4: Coping with Loss
It hurts to lose, especially when you’ve worked hard. But NFL fan researcher and little league coach Rhett Grametbauer says sport provides us with a testing ground for facing failure and moving on.
“It forces you to live those life lessons without actually experiencing any significant consequences other than losing a game,” he said.
No one wants to lose, but we can gain from the experience. Losing makes us look at what we need to change or improve so that we can do better next time. It can also reveal who we can count on when times get tough.
In 2013, Grametbauer visited every NFL stadium in the United States and talked to fans to find out what their team meant to them. He discovered that some of the strongest fan loyalty was found in cities where the home team usually fell short.
“It’s the camaraderie of losing in those hard times that bonds people together,” Grametbauer said.
Lesson 5: Winning at Life
It’s exhilarating to win, but the glory of a game is fleeting. NFL defensive lineman-turned-minister Joe Ehrmann calls on high school coaches to rethink their purpose and focus on teaching kids how to win at life.
In his 2013 TEDx talk titled “Be A Man,” Ehrmann identifies the toxic machismo that poisons the minds of boys in modern culture. They grow up believing that masculinity equals athletic ability, number of sexual conquests, and economic success.
“These three lies are embedded in almost every advertisement that’s connected to sports that’s directed at men,” he said. “Based on that cultural definition, you’ll never have a long enough athletic career, you’ll never sleep with enough women or make enough money to ever feel fulfilled and satisfied.”
Ehrmann’s solution is to change this narrow definition of manhood and refocus on character: A man’s worth is not measured by awards, applause, or possessions, but by the quality of his relationships and sense of purpose, he says.
For Ehrmann, playing sports is the ideal way to learn these principles in action.
“Every team has a common purpose, a set of performance goals and objectives. There is some kind of mutually accountable work ethic. But every team is always built around the trust, respect, integrity, and dignity of every team member,” he said.
If sports can help us prepare for the challenges of life, Ehmann urges us drop the win-at-all-costs mentality and set the bar higher.