Improving Executive Function Through Athletics

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First, a belabored but critical point, executive functioning (EF) skills are the primary determinant of success in school and life. Countless psychological studies confirm this point, from Anglea Duckworth’s Grit to the Rush Neurobehavioral Center’s recent research into the impact of EF on academic performance. Organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management, the four pillars of our executive functioning skill program, give students a leg up over their peers while drawing out the potential, academic and otherwise, that lies within.

Perhaps, the most important news about all of this executive functioning skill research is that they are teachable. Yes, every student can learn and benefit from them. However, it can be tricky to figure out the best way to teach these critical skills because every student is different. Some students excel with EF skills taught through the classroom environment, heeding their teachers’ instructions without issue. Others need a more personalized approach, such as a one-on-one academic coach that works the gap between parents and peers to get the crucial points across. Still, others learn by watching the natural mentors in their lives, whether it be a teacher, parent, sibling, or coach. As long as the student learns executive functioning principles and puts them into practice, the medium doesn’t matter too much. We subscribe to the many days, many ways philosophy of learning, which states that students learn best from consistent, spaced-out exposure from various sources. We have discussed teaching executive functioning skills on vacation, at home, and in the classroom, but today, we focus on a different environment: the field.

Athletics present an exciting learning opportunity. First, studies show that students learn more when they enjoy the activity that facilitates learning. This shouldn’t be a problem unless your child is in the early years of forced tee-ball and soccer. Second, athletics allow students to get exposed to wisdom from people other than their parents. Particularly for males, coaches hold some sway over how students feel about their academic pursuits. The right coach becomes a mentor, guiding the student down the path to success on and off the field. The wrong coach becomes a bad influence, corrupting the student’s view of academics altogether. Thirdly, students often don’t know they are being mentored, especially in the realm of EF skills. Think about it. Most coaches drill organization into their athletes by demanding straight lines for drills, setting expectations for game-day routines, and insisting on order at every turn. Likewise, time management is a natural by-product of athletic achievement. Tardiness is not tolerated. Students must manage multiple tasks at once as they practice prioritization and following instructions. Learning and impression management are inevitable, too.

This opportunity for EF growth requires careful thought, though. As a parent, how can you position your student to learn executive function through athletics? How can you support this journey on the car rides home from practice and games? To accomplish these goals, we suggest you stick to these principles:

The Mentor is the Message

Some marketing gurus came up with the phrase, “the medium is the message,” in the 1950s. We’re going to tweak it a bit because calling a human a medium feels awkward. So, the mentor is the message. Great coaches have great reputations. Bad coaches have horrible reputations. Parents should put just as much thought into which team their son or daughter joins as they do about who watches the kids when they leave home. Although coaches are not primarily there to give academic advice, they often do. Choosing the right mentor increases the odds of your child getting the right advice. Students usually weigh advice based on how much they respect the person giving it. Choose wisely.

Ask. Don’t Tell.

The ride home from practice or a game is a critical time. When your child shares something profound that his or her coach said, avoid the urge to unload with encouragement and suggestions. For example, Suzy hops in the car after basketball practice and shares with her mom that coach Anderson recommends a pre-performance ritual to help them focus for a better practice. Apparently, priming the mind for an activity helps with performance. Unfortunately, her dad begins a rant about how that idea can be applied to studying, test-taking, and public speaking, too. Suzy doesn’t say anything for the rest of the drive. Telling does not work, but asking does. If dad simply said, “can you tell me more about that” Suzy probably would’ve come up with other applications and would’ve followed through on them. Ask. Don’t tell.

Use Incentives & Disincentives Cautiously

It’s no secret that children, especially teenagers, need some additional motivation on occasion. The temptation to use sports as a carrot or a stick is ever-present. However, like all other motivating tools, parents should ensure they aren’t sending mixed signals. For example, it can be confusing if you tell your child that commitments must be kept, but you don’t let them go to practice if they have a B average in a class. Incentives tend to work better than disincentives with athletics, but use them wisely.

For more info on how to use everyday events to boost your child’s executive function, please check out our other posts. If your child could benefit from one-on-one academic coaching, please reach out to us to learn more!

Evan Weinberger

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Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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