Recently at a music competition two of my kids were participating in, I was chatting with one of the organizers about my family’s busy Saturday going between sports activities (including two basketball games and a baseball practice for two of my boys) and music oriented items on our calendar, which involved a practice for an upcoming musical (my son and daughter are Reb Tevye and Hodel in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof) in addition to the two hours spent performing on the violin, viola, and cello for judges at this “string festival” music competition. During our conversation, as I described how much my son loves baseball and his commitment to that sport, this friend of mine (who directs a locally renowned youth orchestra) replied, “Well, sports is just something kids do that they can’t continue to do as adults.”

Several years ago when my wife and I were planning for a Saturday that involved a conflict between my young daughter’s soccer game and a recital scheduled for her violin teacher’s studio, my wife pointed out a kind of rivalry that often exists between dedicated music people and the world of sports and athletes. When my wife requested that my daughter’s order of performance (during a recital that lasted over two hours) be adjusted to accommodate her arriving late after her soccer game, the teacher used the discussion to share her opinion of sports and their inferior place of priority in life compared music. The teacher told my wife that it makes her cringe to hear the sound of soccer cleats as young musicians make their way in and out of the church gym where the recitals are held, often on Saturday mornings in the spring, right during the middle of soccer season.

My wife and I have wondered out loud whether this teacher and others intentionally schedule recitals and other performances during known peak dates and times for soccer, basketball, baseball, and football, often specifically for the purpose of forcing their students to make a choice. Music or sports? Which will it be?

Why Make Them Choose?

I don’t believe it makes any sense to make kids choose between playing sports and learning to be musicians. Especially for young kids, who are so impressionable and need exposure and experience in lots of different areas to have the best opportunities to choose who they will become, it is critical to let them be involved in both music lessons and participate on sports teams.

Here’s the reason I believe kids need both sports and music in order to achieve their full potential with regard to education and personal development. There are lessons kids learn playing sports that simply cannot be learned playing a musical instrument. On the other hand, there are lessons to be had from music that simply can’t be taught through sports.

Sports and music are highly complementary to each other when you consider the most important qualities and skills a person should be developing throughout life, including dedication, work ethic, critical thinking, learning to work synergistically with others…the list goes on and on.

While it’s true that time spent on one area of emphasis takes away time available to spend developing talent in the other, I believe that a well-rounded person has a fully developed background in both sports and music.

Benefits of Music in Children’s Education

Several studies exist that demonstrate the mental gains that come to people as they learn to sing or to play the piano, the violin, the guitar, or any of the many other musical instruments available. I have published an article here on Prosperopedia that reviews several of the key benefits of including musical instruction in the education of children. I’ll summarize those benefits here.

Music education has been demonstrated to increase a person’s overall mental capacity. It improves their language abilities, their memory, their motor skills and coordination. Learning an instrument well gives a child a sense of accomplishment and builds confidence, which is a critical aspect of a person’s emotional development.

As children spend time in an orchestra, an ensemble, or in other ways work with other musicians, they learn teamwork. As they perform in front of an audience, especially when they participate in music competitions and face judges who will critique their work, they learn to deal with and overcome imperfection and failure. They become better at setting goals, and they learn about the importance of constant improve and attention to detail.

I believe that musical training should be part of the education of every child wherever it’s feasible. I’m including below some links to prominent studies about the benefits of music education.

Can There Really Be Time for Both?

Considering all the amazing benefits children receive from music education, one might be inclined to ask, “Why would you need anything else?” It’s also natural to wonder how in the world a kid can find time to fit both music and sports into a daily routine without feeling overwhelmed.

Based on my experience, including sports and music in a child’s schedule is possible, but it can be tricky. Doing so necessitates removing activities that are not valuable from his or her schedule so that time is freed up for music education and participation in sports.

This is one of the reasons my wife and I decided to home school our children, a scenario in which they can finish the math, reading, writing, history, and other elements (including highly personalized learning) of their educations in a matter of a few hours instead of the eight or more hours spent each day traveling to school, attending all day, and traveling home.

When my daughter (the oldest child in our family) was in second grade, she began getting serious about playing the violin, which required her to practice for up to an hour a day. She was also playing soccer in a local city recreation league. Soccer wasn’t a huge time commitment, with just one hour-long practice each week and some optional running and footwork drills she was expected to do as much as she wanted at home. She was attending school, a local LDS private school that we really like.

My wife and I found that by the end of the day, when it was time to put our kids to bed and get ready for the next day, there just wasn’t enough leisure family time after a full day of school, homework, sports practice, chores, and a few other obligations. We observed a similar development with our next child, who was in kindergarten at the time, and who had already developed a love for baseball.

Recognizing the value of both sports and music participation, we decided that we didn’t want to make our kids choose between the two because their time was limited as a result of spending nearly eight hours each day in a classroom.

To remedy the situation, we decided to start homeschooling our kids, which replaces the eight hour school experience with a more efficient and effective customized education that opens up more time for learning the lessons that can only be learned through the physical activity associated with sports, and the mental development that happens with music.

What Can Be Learned from Playing Sports?

I’ve covered the plethora of reasons it’s critical to give kids exposure to a musical education as part of their schooling curriculum. Now let’s talk about sports.

With sports, there are both physical and competitive elements that simply cannot be matched with musical training, education, and even competition. Sports like wrestling, football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and others include intense physical interaction with opponents. The fact that you’re going toe to toe with someone who is intent on physically outdoing you (even in physically dominating you) in sports requires athletes to dig down to a much deeper physical level than they would have to do in music.

Likely the most important reason sports are much more popular than music and attract so many fans is the element of surprise and suspense involved in determining the outcomes of games. There simply aren’t those elements of “victory hanging in the balance” and the intense pressure in music that comes with situations in sports, where outcomes tend to be much less predictable. Participating in those situations, especially playing a critical, highly visible role allows people to deal with pressure that is much more intense than what is experienced in musical performance and even competition environments.

Although some musicians would argue that their training can be strenuous and taxing, it would be foolish to say that the physical toll on musicians is anywhere close to what athletes face. An athlete’s regular training and game time competition involve physical exertion that is unknown to the musician. When you compare the physique of the typical athlete to the physique of a musician, you usually see a major contrast. The athlete has been tested and proven physically. The musician typically has not.

My involvement in sports included wrestling and playing football, and baseball in high school as a varsity athlete, in addition to participating in basketball and other sports on a recreational level as a youth and even now as an adult. Some of the other benefits I’ve personally observed from ongoing participating in sports include:

  • Increased ability to anticipate and react to things: Most sports require participants to not only react quickly to unanticipated events (e.g. a line drive hit right back at a pitcher in baseball), but to anticipate what will happen before it takes place. This ability has proven invaluable to me, including in day-to-day activities like driving a car and using my peripheral vision to avoid an accident.
  • Improved resilience: To succeed in sports, you have to consistently overcome failure, losing, pain, and the temptation to quit. The repeated habit of overcoming this kind of opposition, including physical pain and mental intimidation, teaches a person to always get back up each time he gets knocked down. When I was serving a two-year religious mission in Canada, I observed that it was much less likely that athletes (farmers tended to fall into this group for similar reasons) would have trouble with being homesick or handling rejection (much of it mean-spirited) from people who were not interested in our message.
  • Development of motor skills and neural pathways: In a way that’s similar to music, the repetitive nature of practicing a sport in pursuit of perfection (shooting a free throw in basketball, dribbling a soccer ball, hitting a pitch in baseball, etc.) develops an athletes brain and creates a unique ability to perceive important things that are not obvious, but require special observation skills.

Lessons learned from pursuing success in sports (as long as you don’t develop a win-at-all-costs, cheating mentality but instead play with sportsmanship) translate very well into success with marriage and parenting, career, finances, and in life generally.

My Own Experience with Sports Failure and Overcoming

The last match of my entire wrestling career was an important one for me, possibly the most important one of any I’d ever wrestled.

It was the Utah state championship finals match for the 171 pound weight class in the 5A division. I remember the anxiety I had leading up to the match. My opponent and I had both easily handled our brackets leading up to our finals match. However, there was a mental block for me. I had lost to this guy the three previous times I wrestled him that season.

Just prior to the match, I remember going through my routine to get myself physically and mentally ready for the match, which I was pretty sure would be the last match I ever wrestled. I remember repeating audibly to myself, “You’ve got this. Just one more match. Put it all on the line, Rich!” trying to use my mind to convince my body to focus all the training skills and energy I needed to go out having achieved what I always had as a goal since my freshman year: to be a state champion.

I then went out lost the match embarrassingly.

My mental preparation was obviously not good enough. I went out and lazily tried a sloppy move that I already knew wouldn’t work, and the match ended with a pin in the first period. In the years following that match, I regretted that I didn’t have the mental toughness to go out there and do what needed to be done to win the state championship that I was just minutes away from.

This may seem like an extremely negative experience. In many ways it was, as you might imagine. But in the decades that have followed that experience, I have witnessed the positive effects of all the hours I put into wrestling, football, baseball, basketball, and any other competitive sports I’ve participated in.

To begin with, having to deal with and overcome losses that were delivered in such a physical and personal way has given me a type of resilience that has bolstered my business career, my marriage, and my approach to almost anything I’ve attempted since graduating from organized sports.

For instance, soon after I finished high school, I decided to go learn how to play the piano. It was an endeavor that was often grueling mentally and sometimes physically. My interest in learning the piano was coupled with a two-year religious mission during which I was in Canada, far away from my home and family. I learned to play the piano proficiently by first plinking through church hymns, and ultimately becoming the preferred pianist for missionary conferences and other church meetings. Along the way, there were many instances where I felt inclined to give up.

In one particular situation, I was accompanying a group of fifty or so missionaries when my lack of preparation for the occasion showed up in a humiliating meltdown. When I lost my place, I quit playing altogether. I felt the stares of half the people in the room and knew that they must be wondering, “Who asked this guy to play?” Instead of melting completely, I picked up playing the song again when the next verse came around, and I was able to complete the song. Although it wasn’t a masterpiece, it was also not a complete disaster, especially because I’d discovered that the “never quit” attitude I’d developed in sports carried over into my new interest in music.

The lessons I have learned from overcoming failures and defeats in sports made situations like that simply part of the improvement process instead of killing my desire to continue.

In many ways, participation in competitive sports develops positive attributes similar to playing a musical instrument, including the self discipline requires to steadily practice and improve. But, sports also adds physical attributes of personal development that simply cannot be realized through music alone. For instance, when I became serious about athletics, I knew that I had to be stronger and faster. Achieving those objectives required lifting weights, running sprints, and doing plyometrics exercises that were usually painful and and even included risk of injury. Committing to those activities requires a different (likely deeper) level of fortitude and determination. Athletes often have to overcome setbacks from injuries and other physical limitations that are not usually part of a musical education.

Taking the Best Attributes from Both Music and Sports

There are times when my wife and I (our kids too) look around us at wonder, “Who are these people we associate with?”

On the sports side, the crowd is normally made up of the stereotypical cosmetically-enhanced trophy wives accompanying their former athlete, have-been husbands trying to re-live their glory days (this may describe me more often than not) by putting all sorts of pressure on their kids to show the world that in their family they don’t settle for losing. Even in Utah (where the majority of us don’t drink alcohol and we tend to attend church on Sundays), the sports crowd can tend to be a rowdy bunch.

When we attend orchestras, we love the cultured demeanor and reverence of most of those we interact with. But there are many times when I find myself wondering, “What would happen if you threw a ball to one of these folks? Would they dodge it or even make an attempt to catch it?” The music crowd can often come across to us as being too soft and physically underutilized.

Those examples describe the far ends of either personality spectrum. There must certainly be a middle section of human existence that can be athletic, physically coordinated, and competitive while still being sophisticated, intelligent, and culturally refined.

Involving your family in both music and sports seems like a good way to find that perfect balance.