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Thinking on Your Own – Part 5: Youth Sports (Activities to Build Reasoning, Problem Solving and Critical Thinking Skills)

This is the fifth of a five part blog series in which we're reviewing educational activities that should be introduced (and strongly emphasized) for paradigm shifting increases in reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking skills. We covered Chess and Complex Board Games in part one. We covered Speech and Debate in part two. We covered Coding - Learning to Code and Studying Computer Science in part three. We covered Building Toys to Makerspaces in part four. Today we're covering the benefits of Youth Sports. But let's set the stage for why we're pursuing this blog series in the first place.

We live in the most abundant period of human history. But that doesn’t mean our problems are all solved or that everything is easy. Every day we face a flood of information, misinformation and disinformation. And with even a moderate level of perspective we should be grateful for what we have, yet realize how much is uncertain - or simply not known. Skills that aid in navigating these waters are paramount.

Education is classically described as “learning how to learn,” or that a great education “prepares you for a lifetime of learning.” Being able to “think” or to “think on your own” has never been more important. Three core components of thought are reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking skills. So let's dive in to how this works with Youth Sports.

Youth Sports

Development of social skills and the health benefits of physical activity are usually the first two benefits associated with Youth Sports, but Youth Sports can strongly foster the development of reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Here are some thoughts on Youth Sports related to Reasoning, Problem Solving and Critical Thinking skills:


The results of a recent two year study of school children in Finland (PANIC - Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children) were published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. This sub-study examined the effects of a two-year diet and physical activity intervention on cognition among 397 Finnish elementary school children. The associations of dietary factors, physical activity, and sedentary behavior with cognition over two years were also studied.

Here are some of the findings: Children who spent more time in reading and organized sports showed better reasoning skills than their peers. On the other hand, excessive time spent on a computer and unsupervised leisure-time physical activity were associated with poorer reasoning skills. Screen time, active school transportation, recess physical activity, and physical activity intensity were not associated with reasoning skills.

Dr Eero Haapala points out “In the lives of growing children, diet and physical activity intervention is just one factor influencing lifestyle and reasoning skills. Based on our study, investing in a healthy diet and encouraging children to read are beneficial for the development of reasoning skills among children. Additionally, engaging in organized sports appears to support reasoning skills.”

Problem Solving

Problem solving takes many forms. It can be something literal, like solving a problem written on a white board. But problem solving is also involved in and developed with interpersonal relationships and other activities, like youth sports. It's not much of a stretch to realize that all these experiences can be complimentary. Participating in youth sports can help children develop problem solving skills that they can use in other aspects of their lives.

Foremost in the development is avoiding having parents and coaches swooping in to immediately find a solution to the problem of the moment. The key to development is to let the kids think through and reason for themselves. It can be as simple as:

  1. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly to calm yourself.
  2. Identify the problem - what went wrong?
  3. Identify a couple of possible solutions along with their pros/cons and likelihood of outcomes.
  4. Try the best option.
  5. Did it work?
  6. If not: take another deep breath and try these steps again.

It is important that parents and coaches model these skills to the best standard possible. Sports should be a safe space to develop, practice and learn problem solving and other skills - it is important to fail and then figure out how to improve. Performance problems in a game or practice should lead to problem solving regarding the focus for the next practice. For example, "how can we work on improving pass completion at our next practice?"

Critical Thinking

Great athletes are strong critical thinkers - doing things well (and at the right time) is based on an understanding of how things interact and what actions are most important. Critical thinking involves a deep understanding of the world, testing ideas and self-correcting.

Great athletes didn't start out as experienced, strong critical thinkers. Over time they developed a skill set that helped them become strong critical thinkers.

So what kind of framework helps an athlete develop strong critical thinking? Here are five elements:

  1. Develop a deep understanding of the rules of the game.
  2. Practice often and with strong focus.
  3. Self-monitor, evaluate, adjust, and improve.
  4. Acknowledge incremental improvement - just 1% change every day adds up to phenomenal improvement over time.
  5. The game is never over - there is always room to improve.

You can see where this suggested athlete's critical thinking framework would directly apply to everyday life.

Here’s your takeaway:

Youth sports are about far more than just getting a healthy amount of physical activity. They are an important part of developing strong cognitive and social skills. Parents and coaches need to get out of the way of the learning objectives - instead of swooping in with a solution, they should focus on modeling skills for developing reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking. Youth sports should always be a safe space for learning and developing skills: expecting setbacks and loss, while focusing on incremental improvement and the long game.

Guest Blogger:

Bill Franklin, the CEO of Internet4Classrooms, is our guest blogger this month. He has been on the faculty at The George Washington University, has years of platform instructional experience, was a career Army Special Operations officer and also has decades of experience as a youth sports coach.



Internet4classrooms is a collaborative effort by Susan Brooks and Bill Byles.




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