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How sports can help build resilience in children: Physiotherapist John Gloster

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Renowned physiotherapist and the man who ‘physically shaped’ Indian cricket, John Gloster, explains how parents can use sports to raise resilient children and prepare them for a great life ahead

How sports can help build resilience in children: Physiotherapist John Gloster

Seven-year-old Amanda is running around with excitement on the racetrack while her mom, Jacqueline, is going about her morning walk. Suddenly, the little girl trips, tumbles and falls. She bruises her knees and palm and starts to cry. Her mom rushes towards her, frantically lifts her up, and starts to fuss over her. There is a sense of panic and angst as the worried mom tries to ‘soothe’ her ‘injured and crying’ daughter, saying, “Oh My God! Look at all the cuts and blood on your knees and hand. We better take care of it right away. You shouldn’t be running like this on the racetrack. You will fall and get hurt again.” 

For most parents, Jacqueline’s reaction might seem harmless. But, wait a minute! Is the ‘overprotective’ mother ‘harming’ her child more than the little bruises ever could? Will Amanda be ready to face the bigger hurdles as she grows up? Will Amanda turn resilient in the face of adverse situations that life may have to offer? Your guess is as good as mine.

There’s no doubt our lives are filled with persistent ups and downs, and we are thrown a curveball ever so often. This doesn’t happen only through adulthood. Our children too are faced with their fair share of hurdles, be it in school, at the playground, or even at home.

So, how do we help them prepare for life and its challenges? What can we, as parents, do to teach them to cope with everyday hits and misses? Well, it’s all about the one word - resilience.

First up, what does the term resilience even mean? And how is it going to help our children deal with tough situations?

What is resilience?

Resilience can be defined as one’s capacity to cope with difficulties and, more importantly, recover from them. To me, resilience is all about being prepared – just like the old Boy Scout motto – whether it’s being prepared for life, for sport, or even just day-to-day situations - be it physical, mental or emotional. It’s about what we do in that situation and how we can deal with it.

In sport, we use the term ‘durability’, meaning to be durable in any situation and to be able to overcome obstacles – whatever they might be.

It is absolutely important to understand that pain and failure are normal things for a child to experience. And, if they are not allowed to experience these, they will never know how to cope when they are faced with tough circumstances, especially when they leave our protection as teens and early adults. If they are not prepared, they will have zero coping mechanisms in life, simply because they have no tools in their ‘toolbox’.

Where does resilience come from?

Resilience does not appear overnight. You build it over time and through past experiences. In order to make our children resilient and durable, it is absolutely imperative that we expose them to experiences.

Now, what are these past experiences and what do they entail? Well, believe it or not, it’s a failure! Yes, failure is the number one ingredient to build resilience. It is an important part of growing up because it provides you with the tools to cope.

Unfortunately, most children today are not to allowed to fail. And so, when they are faced with difficult situations in life, they do not know how to cope. This is a major reason for teenage suicides. Failure is just not acceptable for the majority of individuals today. Failure is, however, an essential part of growing up and building resilience – because resilience comes from learning through the experiences of failure.

Urban parents the world over are either permissive - they ‘cotton wool’ their children, or are strict taskmasters who over-parent their children. Children are either wrapped up, over-protected, over-shielded and unexposed to situations of failure. At the other extreme - they are pressured, pushed, stifled, and undermined. Both parenting strategies are bound to fail when it comes to children learning to become resilient.

Parents need to realize that everything in life is neither rosy nor a bed of thorns; children must be exposed to failure and pain at an early age, since that’s where real learning happens. Over-protective parents do not allow their young children to take a knock. As a result, these children never get to know the difference between ‘good’ pain and ‘bad’ pain and don’t build resilience.

Allow them to fall, feel pain and get back up

I have often been asked these questions – why is it that Australians are so successful in the sport? Why are they so mentally tough? Why are they so durable? Let me tell you that one of the main reasons is that they allow their kids to fail! Yes, we allow them to fall and find their own way to get up again.

A simple example to explain this is that when a child falls in a playground, there isn’t anyone there to pick him up; he just has to get up on his own.

Another reason is that in Australia, children grow up playing contact sport from a very young age. This involves a lot of physical body contact where they are exposed to pain; they get knocked down and have to get back up on their own. And, this is what builds resilience. Tolerating pain is another form of resilience. Children must be allowed to feel pain – it’s absolutely okay. So, if a child falls in the playground, don’t over-react – this way, the child doesn’t think anything of it either. But when you over-react, your child thinks he must react in a similar way, and this certainly does not foster a quality like resilience.

The connection between failure and potential

Shane Warne, the legendary Australian leg-spinner and one of the greatest cricketers of all time, often speaks about failure and its positive outcomes. He says that if you want to be a successful person, then you must never fear failure. Young kids never know what their limits and capabilities are until they fail.

Warne explains it as ‘going to the edge of a cliff and falling off’. He explains that until you go to the edge of that cliff and fall off, you never know where the edge is – you never know where your limits are and where your abilities lie. So, kids must be encouraged to go to the edge of a cliff and fall off – fail either physically or mentally. But, importantly, you can fall off only if there is somebody there to catch you. And, this happens when you are surrounded by a good team or support network – who will catch you when you fall off that cliff and throw you back up onto that edge so that you can get back up and start again. You then know where your limits lie!

This is extremely crucial because otherwise, they are never operating at their full potential; instead, it’s always submaximal potential. And, most kids never know what their full potential is because they never experience failure.

Building mental resilience through sports

Movement and physical activity at a young age, being involved in a team sport, and good nutrition and a healthy diet, are three key ingredients that lead to cognitive growth and therefore, mental resilience.

Physical resilience

Physical resilience starts with a good physical education system that is part of the school curriculum. A poor, unstructured, unengaging physical education system in school does nothing to develop resilience. On the other hand, a robust, structured, engaging, fun sports curriculum is absolutely imperative as it helps provide physical experiences, that help foster resilience.

Health problems in later life, particularly osteoporosis, bone injury, tendon injury and poor cognitive function arise from not having good physical resilience as a child. Core physical resilience markers are carried into adulthood, which reduce health risks later in life.

Physical resilience, for me, revolves around two key factors: physical literacy and motor competence. While both must be fostered in children from a very young age, there is a finite time frame for children to learn them. A child has to acquire these skills before the age of 12.  It is, therefore, important to expose young children to movement and physical activity as these are significant factors that contribute to cognitive growth and development.

Mental resilience

In order to be mentally resilient, sound mental and emotional well-being is necessary. Here are other vital factors children need in order to be mentally resilient:

  • Life lessons
  • Social environments and inclusions
  • Proper decision-making skills
  • Ability to understand and ask oneself what is the right thing to do

Young children are naturally exposed to these kinds of experiences when they are involved in any sports activity, particularly, team sports. They begin to learn these qualities as young children – and the more they do, the more resilient they grow. They understand and acquire coping mechanisms that can help them cope if and when a tragedy strikes later on in life. This is because they are equipped to do so. Also, if they have a good support mechanism around them, it enables them to bounce back from setbacks.

The ‘sporting’ blocks of resilience 

Here are a few ways to build resilience in your child through sports activities:

Expose them to team sports: By exposing your children to team sports at a young age, you are helping them learn about the importance of a support network – that there are people around them whom they can turn to later on in life when they need to. Children will also know how to access these people and how to communicate with them. Children learn all these in their physical-social environment.

Select a school that provides good physical education: Physical experiences through physical education are imperative because lessons from the playground and lessons from the sports field are all resilience-building tools; they are life lessons. Besides, as most children spend up to eight hours a day in a school, the environment becomes a key player in developing resilience strategies. Therefore, a well-structured physical education at school is vital.

Ensure proper nutrition and exercise:  A good nutritious diet, healthy lifestyle and exercise routine helps build physical resilience. This means you are less susceptible to illness and disease. Else, you are less durable. Besides, the more physically resilient you are, the more mentally resilient you are likely to be.

Allow failure: Children today aren’t resilient because they haven’t been exposed to failure in life – be it in academics, sport, or any facet of life. So, allow them to fail, fall, get hurt, and get up. Not being over-protective of them definitely breeds resilience. You need to allow failure but allow it to happen in a system that encourages it, as this eventually breeds success.

So, allow your child to be a child! Remember that it’s only normal for him to fall down or bang into things. Let him explore, discover, ask questions and, most importantly, fail. I know what it takes to be an elite-level sportsperson – it takes resilience. In fact, having lived the journey myself, I can proudly say that I am more durable than some of my colleagues, and it’s because I’ve been exposed to those all-important experiences!

Finally, go ahead and allow your child to acquire as many tools as he can for his ‘toolbox’, and he is sure to be resilient for life.

In a nutshell

  • Resilience is one’s ability to bounce back from setbacks and failures. It is an extremely important attitude for success in life
  • Resilience comes from past experiences and the key to resilience is dealing with failure
  • Physical and mental resilience go hand in hand
  • Being involved in sports and physical activities are a great way to help your child build resilience early in life
  • Adopt a well-structured physical education for your child early in life

What you could do right away

  • Ensure that your child takes up one physical activity or sport on a regular basis
  • If your young one takes a fall in the playground, don’t over-react and mollycoddle him
  • The next time your child fails at something, ask him what he learned from the experience and what he would do differently the next time
  • Make sports and fitness a way of life in your family

John Gloster has over 25 years of experience working with elite sportspersons at the highest level. He spent about 15 years in the Indian subcontinent with cricket teams in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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