Young athletes commit to a sport and learn life lessons

September 11, 2019 — by Anna Novoselov

When senior Anika Prasad was just 9, she committed herself to playing basketball, spending countless hours each week dribbling, shooting and running plays with her teammates. 

But despite her love for basketball, Prasad said that there have been moments when she wanted to quit. 

“Sometimes it was just me getting in my head and thinking ‘Oh, I’m not good enough to play,’ but it’s just something that you have to get over,” said Prasad, who is now one of the starting guards for the varsity team.

Starting the sport at a young age gave Prasad an advantage in her basketball career, but the most valuable benefits came in the form of life lessons and developmental impacts. She said that basketball helped her become more assertive and forced her to learn to manage her time better.

“Basketball definitely made me a stronger, more confident person and also helped me become a leader,” Prasad said. “It’s shaped who I am.”

Countless studies cite the physical and social-emotional benefits of playing sports at a young age. According to USA Today Classified, sports help children develop a team player mentality, increase their confidence, build discipline, develop communication skills, improve motivation and learn the importance of exercise. 

"Parents think that the organized way you participate in sports — the leadership and fellowship — is actually preparing people not only for the next game but for much broader roles in life," Harvard professor and health policy analyst Robert Blendon told NPR.

Sports also help children learn the importance of contributing to team efforts and remaining dedicated by teaching them that reaching goals requires making sacrifices.

For example, when Prasad started playing competitively in seventh grade on a club team, she gave up swimming and dance. While it was a difficult decision, she said there was a point where she had to choose among these commitments.

“It was sad, but I knew I made the right decision because later on I never regretted the choice,” she said.

 Currently, she spends two hours most schools days practicing with the team and another couple hours weightlifting and training on her own. While she prioritizes basketball over hanging out, Prasad tries to complete her school work early, so she still has time left over for family, friends and other extracurricular activities.

Prasad said she enjoys basketball because it’s a strategy game that allows her to work with other people and grow as a team.

“If I score, it could be because someone saw me open or someone set the perfect screen or someone got the steal on defense to give us a chance to score in transition,” she said. “You learn to appreciate the smallest things that everyone contributes to make you a better player and a successful team.”

In contrast to the strong team values of basketball, the individual nature of tennis drew senior Monica Stratakos to the sport.

“I like that you really have to think for yourself, fight for yourself and get out of your own battles,” she said.

Stratakos began playing tennis at age 3. Like Prasad, she also tried out numerous other sports before narrowing it down to swimming, tennis and soccer at 10 years old. As she got older, she chose to solely focus on tennis as it was her best sport and she felt like she could succeed in it.

Stratakos practices three hours per day during the school year and five hours per day over the summer. Besides that, she frequently travels for in-state and out-of-state tournaments; in fact, tennis has brought her to half of the states in the U.S. For instance, she has played at the Clay Courts Tournament in South Carolina, the Winter National Tournament in Florida and the Hard Court Nationals Tournament in San Diego. 

Her intense practice schedule and passion for tennis helped her become the school varsity team’s #1 singles player.

Although Stratakos loves the sport and wants to play in college, she also admits that she has had to make many sacrifices in order to play competitively. She misses a lot of school due to competitions and sometimes has to cancel plans with friends because of tennis. 

But, Stratakos believes that all the time she has spent on tennis has paid off as she has seen significant improvements from putting in time on the court and has built many meaningful relationships and life skills.

“The majority of my life is tennis, but I don’t get tired of it. I love it,” she said. “I definitely think it’s worth it. It was a great experience for me growing up, and I’ve been able to learn a lot.”

Junior Dylan Li also had a tough dilemma in terms of deciding on sports. Ultimately he quit playing baseball, a sport he participated in for 10 years, to focus on volleyball, which he began playing in only during freshman year. Because the two sports’ seasons overlap and he had a lot of success in volleyball in his club team, Mountain View Volleyball Club, right before the high school season started, he dropped baseball.

“I got enough out of baseball,” he said. “I met a lot of new people, and I don’t think I would have played baseball for much longer even without volleyball.”

Li began playing baseball when his parents signed him up for Little League. While it was his parent’s choice, Li liked it more than the other sports he later tried. 

Starting young allowed him to form long-lasting relationships with teammates and advance to a high skill level, since a significant portion of his life was centered around baseball.

“I learned a lot of basic skills really early on so I got to learn more advanced techniques and strategies that someone who started playing later wouldn’t have got to learn,” Li said.

While starting kids early on in sports can aid their development, the commitment can also put undue stress on them, as they compare themselves to competitors and may experience anxiety due to personal or outside expectations.

“When you play at a higher level than just your recreational  league, everyone is going to private coaches and getting better and better,” Li said. “You feel the need to keep up so you have to go out and work just as hard as them.”

This trend is partly due to the increased organization and competitiveness of youth sports. Parents may push children into a sport in hopes of attracting college recruitment or winning awards, rather than for the health and developmental benefits. As a result, children may experience burnout and drop out of the sport or exacerbate the stress in their lives by continuing to play.

However, this tendency did not apply to Li. Although he quit playing baseball, he doesn't believe that the two-three hours per day four-five times a week he spent on it were wasted. It didn’t take away from other activities he was interested in and also taught him several valuable life skills. 

“It was a great experience and I learned a lot about more than just playing baseball,” Li said. “I learned about sports in general, teamwork and forming relationships with coaches and other players.”

Prasad is thankful that she had the resources and opportunities to explore sports at a young age and acknowledges that basketball has become more serious for her, as she plays for fun and hopes to achieve her goal of playing in college. Now, she has to commit more time and energy toward improvement. 

“That’s a choice I’ve had to make,” Prasad said. “It’s the price you pay for the life you choose. That’s what my coach always says.”