How To Have A Healthy Relationship With Sports

There are several components to health, diet being the one most talked about.  While I consider diet to be foundational and the most important factor in health (you can’t outrun a bad diet), there is now considerable opinion and scientific evidence that the biggest factor in the obesity epidemic in the USA is not sugar or excess calories, but our inactivity.

The paradox is that Americans love sports. We have Pee-Wee football and Little League baseball. There are soccer camps everywhere you go.  We actually follow high school sports, college athletics, not to mention the professional versions. We watch everything from football to golf. ESPN has gone from a single channel to multiple options, and they’ve even started making their own documentaries and hosting an annual awards show. In fact, the Super Bowl is the biggest TV event almost every year.

So how does a country with a fanatical sports following become so inactive? How did from playing sports to just watching them? There are many answers but I’m strictly going to focus on the typical transition from things that we did as kids for fun, to the things we as adults do for fun, and the role of organized sports in it.

When we were young…

As kids, we naturally played. Tag, running around, hide and seek, swim in a pool, swim in a lake, swim in the ocean, swim in a dirty mud hole. You name it, kids will do it for fun. Pure joy and fun.

The next stage is kicking a ball, catching a ball, throwing a ball, etc. Still categorized in our kid-minds as fun, the joy is simply in the act of doing it. Kids often make up their own rules to games that are only loosely based on the sports they’ve seen.

Then, we get to the next phase: organized sports. These come with rules and, with those rules, outcomes. Specifically keeping score, which leads to winning and losing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the innate joy of we get from just running or jumping around starts to get mixed in with running and jumping the “winning” way. The goal is no longer to play (i.e. have fun), but to achieve: have a strong kick, a great swing, a smooth stroke. Eventually for some, dare I say most, the only outcome then becomes winning.

There is nothing wrong with winning. In fact, we should teach our kids (and ourselves) that we should always strive to be our best. But, at what cost? People often talk about what they learn in sports, but their actions speak much more loudly. Are you really giving it your all, teamwork, determination, grit, and excellence? Or, are you going for stats, personal glory, and winning at all costs?

Let’s look at some real-life examples to explore these notions.

The first example is a California girls’ high school basketball team that was beaten 161 to 2!  True score, true story. There was a lot of talk about this game because of how lopsided it was. The winning coach got accused of “bullying” the losing team and actually got suspended! This was even though he pulled all his starters early in the game and called off his press/trap defense. Colin Cowherd, a sports talk show host, had a great take on this:

“The kids were over it in 15 minutes.  You know who couldn’t get over it?  The parents… They want their kids to have fight and grit but are afraid of the process to get there. You know how to get there? Crying. Failure. Embarrassment…. You know how you get grit? You lose 161-2. You don’t get grit winning 161-2…. Somebody lost a basketball game. We’re uncomfortable with it. The kids aren’t.”

There are a couple of learning points from this game:

  1. The person who gains the most from an experience is typically the one that suffers the most. I doubt that the girls’ team that scored 161 points that game really was able to improve on any of their basketball skills.I’ll bet the team that scored only 2 were highly motivated to never let that happen again.
  2. What was, is, and should be the role of parents in childhood sports? A lot of people are trying to vicariously live through their own children’s lives and put an enormous amount of pressure on their kids. A certain degree of pressure helps you focus, but too much is crushing.  We’ve all seen this, and probably experienced it ourselves.

Another way that parents put undue pressure on their kids is in the hopes that they will get a scholarship or, better yet, make it into the pros. This is incredibly unlikely. Of all the kids that play high school football, only 6.5% make it onto an NCAA team. Of those that make it on a college team, only 1.6% make it to the NFL with only half of them making it to 4 years in the league.

Another controversial sports story involved a little league baseball player who had cancer. While playing in the championship game he typically batted behind the best player on their team. In a close game, the coach of the other team decided to walk the best player so that they could pitch and strike out the boy with cancer and thus win the game. As you can predict, they struck him out while tears streamed down his face. He knew they were planning to strike him out, and that if he didn’t get a hit, his team would lose the championship.

As you can imagine there was an immediate uproar about how cruel this was. Once again the opposing team’s coach was called a “bully” for picking on a boy with cancer. Many people called into sports radio shows to express their outrage. People said he should never be allowed to coach again, and yet others sided with the coach, asking “what was he supposed to do?”.

So what was the coach supposed to do? Not try and win? Tell his pitcher to “go easy” on the young boy with cancer? What message does that send to any and all involved with that game? Now think what the story would be and what the lesson would be if they pitched to the best player and he hit another home run and they lost? What about all the work and effort of their own team?  What if they walked both the best player and the boy with cancer and then tried to get the next person out? Would that really make people feel any better? How would the young boy with cancer feel about that? Well, we don’t have to guess, we actually know because the boy told us.

The most important opinion was the one that was talked about the least: the boy’s. When they asked him how he felt he said that he was going to practice hard so that next year he would be the player that they would have to pitch around! Powerful response from a little boy, powerful.

So, what can we learn from all of this?

I think the most important lesson is that sports should drive you to make yourself better. Not due to external pressures such as parents, but from within. That’s why losing isn’t so bad. You don’t learn much from winning, but you do learn very much from losing.

What if the outcome wasn’t so important? What if you could think of it as winning being nice and losing helping you to grow? It would be much easier to just enjoy and be in the moment and play. Remember how we started this blog talking about playing as a kid? If we could get back to that kind of “kid-mentality”, we’d never quit playing sports. You’d play in your old man’s basketball league every week no matter what your record was. You’d stay in your bowling league even if you were always the lowest scorer. You’d hack around the golf course as much as you could afford to.

Finally, to the best part of sports: the friends. 

This is the best part as a kid, but somehow we forget about it as adults. Even when we’re experiencing it, we often don’t realize it until we miss it. Sports are inherently social. Sports give us an excuse—better yet, a reason—to hang out with our friends. They may be your opponent that day on the court or links, but it’s still time with your friends.

There is a huge, and important individual component to sports, but probably the biggest factor really isn’t about building character, but more about building community.


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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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