Do Youth Sports Teach Kids to See Exercise as Punishment?

If you’re an NFL football fan at all, you now know that Peyton Manning will become the next quarterback for the Denver Broncos, replacing Tim Tebow (who’s now headed to the New York Jets). The news about Manning was expected after all the speculation in the media these last couple weeks. Of course once it happened, it gave me another reason to talk about the game. And it got me thinking of the days when my own son strapped on shoulder pads and a helmet.

Oh yes, I love football … but I will admit that you won’t see me wearing an orange Broncos jersey with the No. 18 on the back. (I prefer my favorite Detroit Lions Honolulu blue jersey instead.) But in all honesty, if I was granted one “football wish” it would be to view my son out on that varsity football field once again. Green and gold jerseys fill a section of his closet that only collects dust now. It’s sad to see but it still has a way to bring a smile when I go back to those days.

So it was only natural for us to talk about the latest football headlines, but that was when the conversation turned just a bit.

What Message?

I should explain that my son is very focused on physical fitness. He knows that he has only one body to last his entire lifetime and he takes great care of it — something this mom is extremely thrilled about. When the topic of football came up, my son, for some reason, remembered something from his younger days playing the game.

When he was only 8 years old he was on the football team that allowed anyone to play what our school calls “rocket football” — no matter what your physical size or level of football knowledge, you played. That was great, of course. But what I have not forgotten was that if a specific team member — or even the entire team — did something wrong, the punishment was… exercise.

I think it’s great to get kids moving more; getting plenty of exercise is key for a healthy lifestyle. But what I don’t think is so wonderful is the message that this is sending to our kids, that exercise = punishment.

“Drop and Give Me 20”

Think about it. In gym class at any age level it’s typical to have a child or two who acts up and creates trouble for the instructor. How many times can you remember a teacher or coach telling a child to “run extra laps around the gym” or to “get down on all fours and give me 20 pushups!” Class instructors know that many of these kids just need to release some excess energy and it’s not hurting the child at all. But when we’re young and impressionable, we hear these words over and over as they are used only for punishment for the misbehaving classmate.

Now I want you to think of what young children are given when they do not misbehave: treats. Candy, cookies, ice cream, cupcakes, pop… basically sugary, high-calorie goodies are used as rewards. I’m assuming that you have memories of being told, “Since you were so well behaved, I’m going to allow you to have a treat today!” Sounds familiar right? Hey, I said it to my kids a long time ago, too.

Wow. Just think of the messages that those words were creating in their subconscious minds:

Rewards = Treats

Punishment = Exercise

It is time to stop using exercise as punishment and allow our youth to realize that exercise is very rewarding. I’m sure Peyton Manning would agree with me… exercise truly enhances your life!

Photo by Theurer Photography

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  1. I never saw exercise itself as the punishment, but the EXTRA exercise and the “public shame” embarrassment of being singled out as being the punishment. Whether it was in gym class or any other extra-curricular activity, the exercise itself was usually not punishment in and of itself and I still enjoyed exercising at times (although I rarely went out on my own to exercise)

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