Raising Fit Video Gamers
Raising Fit Gamers
Last week, I started to tackle the most frequently asked question I get when I speak to parents about children and video games. Many parents feel that video games are an obstacle to their children’s health. Because there is a strong correlation between spending a lot of time in front of screens and childhood obesity, their position is perfectly understandable. But if you believe it’s a problem and you still let your kids play games - how does that help? Fortunately, recent studies demonstrate that nutrition has a much larger impact on childhood obesity than screen time. Video games don’t have to be a source of conflict. I also shared some resources that can help. The rest of that article can be found here.
While it’s good to know we can help our kids be healthier (and thinner) with better nutrition, that doesn’t fully address the issue. What about fitness?
Why Don’t You Want to Play Outside?
Parental concerns about video games are not just about obesity. There is another concern that grows from our children’s lack of activity for physical exercise in favor of playing games. This is hard on athletic parents (especially dads) who want to see their children playing outside.
This is where it gets interesting, I think.
The definition of “go play outside” has changed radically in the last 20 years, and that is part of the problem.
My first company GameTruck was founded at the intersection of several macro trends. One of those trends was the rise of concerns for child safety. Specifically, the confusion between risk and danger. For example, the American Standard Testing Methods[i] (ASTM) and Consumer Product Safety Commission[ii](CPSC) guidelines still permit merry-go-rounds at playgrounds. But you don’t see them. Cities and schools have pulled them out despite no evidence of increased danger or any filing of litigation. In a similar way, pictures of missing children on milk cartons scared a generation of parents into needing to know where their kids are at all times.[iii]
And it’s not just Americans who think American parents are worried about childhood safety. In a recent New York Times article,[iv] parents from around the world want to tell American parents to “chill”. Children in other parts of the world experience a wider array of freedoms than their US cohorts.
I was brought up in the “Street Light Era”. I was kicked out of the house and only came back in time for dinner, or when the streetlights came on. Even then, I remember my Dad asking me, “You in for the night?” “Nope, just getting a flashlight.” “Okay,” came his answer.
While my friends and I roamed the streets of suburban Detroit, we self-organized, we played, and we learned from each other. We developed social and emotional systems as we played games that included everyone. Yes, feelings got hurt, friendships were tested, but for the most part, we worked it out. They were chaotic, unplanned hours where we did nothing important but grow up.
Exactly the kind of frittering away of time that causes most adults extreme stress.
Now to be fair, I never trusted my own kids to play like that. My wife and I did what everyone else did. We enrolled them in organized sports. We told ourselves that made us more involved and more caring (and it does). Their experience was also significantly more structured. However, we were blessed to have children talented enough to play. Not every parent has that experience.
I spoke to the founder of an international aid organization Outreach for World Hope[v]. Randy Tewes told me, “Americans hate to wait. They just can’t stand around. They need to be doing something, being productive.” Randy’s team consequently does an amazing job of preparing for missionaries so they can hit the ground running. “It’s very important to the volunteers that they help as many people as possible,” he said. And OWH does an amazing job. However it is one more sign of adult anathema for unstructured uses of time.
Since children cannot be left alone, they are now almost exclusively supervised by adults. This also means that the adult need to feel productive permeates virtually all of children’s group play activities. More often than not, when parents talk to me about play, they mean team sports.
The trouble is, we have become blind to the idea that there are other ways to play.
When a parent asks me, “what’s wrong with wanting my child to play sports?” My response is, “Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting your child to play sports”. However, a better question might be, “are team sports best for your child?”
Organized sports are not for everyone and for good reason. Most team sports have two things that can give kids anxiety. First, they have ONE ball or puck. This means very few kids are actively engaged in playing at any moment. Second, they have a bench. Not only can a player not be playing with the one ball, they might not even be on the field! Team sports frequently focus the attention on a few players at any given moment. This narrowing of who gets to play is a core issue that can violate a child’s sense of fairness.
It turns out mammals are wired to stop playing games they perceive as unwinnable.
The Morality of Play
According to work done by Dr. Jaak Panskeep[vi] and commented on widely by Dr. Jordan Peterson[vii], Dr. Panskeep identified the neurological play circuitry in rats. Yes, play his hardwired into mammalian brains. What´s more, rats demonstrate a moral code in their rough and tumble play. When two rats are put together and one is physically larger than the other (by say 10%) the bigger rat can win a wrestling match 100% of the time. There’s something curious about this, however. It is the subordinate rat that invites the dominant rat to play. And if the dominant rat does not let the subordinate rat win a “reasonable” amount of time, the subordinate rat stops inviting the bigger rat to play - and the dominant rat suffers.
What’s interesting is that Dr. Panskeep measured how often the little rat needs to win to stay in the game. The percentage? Between 30% and 40% of the time.
Now if you think humans are very different than rats, I encourage you to open your newspaper (if you still have such a thing) or Google search for the standings of your favorite professional sports team. Next look at the bottom teams. What is their win percentage? As of today, when I am writing this, Baltimore Orioles are in last place in the American League East with a win percentage of 31.8 percent.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell[viii] points out the high number of professional athletes that share the same birth month. Being larger at a young age has a major impact on the athleticism of kids. Bigger kids tend to play more, succeed more, are encouraged more, and are selected for all-star teams more often. As a result, they get more coaching and their advantages compound.
I personally have seen an increasingly high level of pressure put on athletes to compete younger and younger. I have heard it said that if you are not great by 8 you don’t get to play. You might make the team, but play? We had 144 players go out for our middle school junior varsity baseball team. Only 14 players were selected. 5 sat on the bench pretty much the entire season. Kids are intensely aware of fairness.
But what can be done about it?
Many parents for lack of information have trapped themselves into thinking that team sports are the only viable physical activity for our kids, especially boys. The truth is there is a myriad of activities that children can do to improve their fitness that is not centered around team sports.
When we were developing Bravous Youth Esports, we explored the idea of including physical activities as part of our program. When kids ran the obstacle course 100% participated without hesitation. When we tossed out a football the group almost immediately split into three subgroups. The bigger kids took the ball and passed it to their bigger more athletic friends. That group dominated the competition. Another group stayed to play, hoping to get in on the game, but about a third of the kids just quit playing altogether. They dropped out.
Dr. Panskeep’s research popped into my head. With no chance to win, they opted not to play. Now, the other interesting thing about this is that I learned early on in coaching the single most effective thing you can do to discipline a player is not, yell at them, or make them run. You make them sit out. Isolation is devastating, especially to young kids. Now here was a group of kids that self-isolated.
I went over to this group and challenged them to do something. They did not have to play football, but they had to do something, anything, they just needed to be active. To my surprise, they selected jumping jacks without hesitation. They would exercise. They wanted to exercise. Later, I learned that having control over the exercise mattered more than I could have imagined. What’s important here is the kids wanted to do something they could participate in as individuals.
I have spoken with a number of parents whose children do not wish to play team sports and often focus on video games. For these children, parents have found success in keeping their kids active in the following ways.
Individual Fitness Activities:
Gyms that focus on the obstacle course style of fitness (like American Ninja).
I want to give a shout out to Girls On The Run. This is a tremendous organization that focuses on esteem and values for girls. (Is there one for boys? I’m sure they could benefit too. How awesome would that be!)
There are undoubtedly more choices than I have listed here. I am not saying anyone of these is easy to do. And if you are a single parent, some may be out of your reach due to time and budget constraints. You may have noticed that physically active video games are not on this list. That is because according to multiple clinical studies “Exergaming” has not produced the benefit many had hoped.[ix]
However, it is my experience that once people start looking at problems differently, they see new solutions. Solutions they didn’t even know existed. The main idea is to be open to the possibility that team sports may not support your child the way your child needs support. With that in mind, you can begin to find other avenues to help your child remain active. It is also interesting that professional esport teams are starting to head in this direction, hiring fitness trainers for their athletes.[x] It turns out, to be a great video game competitor, you need to be a healthy competitor.
The main purpose of this article is to highlight the reasons many healthy children reject organized team sports. The good news, is that there are alternatives activities that can help your child remain healthy and fit, the key is to identify ones that focus on individual effort and progress and maximize engagement.