Underappreciated benefits of playing sports at a young age (part 1)

Posted on June 13, 2016

(Last Updated On: June 13, 2016)

I was surprised at the amount of positive feedback on my Rethinking youth activity series. That said, there’s no doubt the series can come across as putting sports in a negative light. I wanted to share some ways sports can be very beneficial. Benefits which consist of more than “teamwork.” I’m going to split this into parts as well, starting with four but maybe adding over time.

  • Pain tolerance (but of a different kind)
  • A forcing function of choice
  • We are not all equal (and that’s ok)
  • Coordination sticks with you

Pain tolerance

We’ll ignore the chicken vs egg debate. Whether those who play sports have an increased pain tolerance to begin with, or if playing sports can increase it. Suffice to say, it’s both.

-> Similar to the Rethinking youth activity series, I’m not going to make this a literature review. Though there is research out there showing things like those who exercise have increased pain tolerance.

This typically means physical pain, such as injury, resiliency against burning muscles, etc. Now later in life, that can certainly be helpful.

I’ve randomly gotten into a good amount of nature shows lately, like Planet Earth. One thing which is clear when watching these shows is for most animals for a good deal of the time, life is a pain in the ass.

You’re constantly searching for water, if you’re a male you’re always on the lookout for potentially having to fight another male (two giraffes beating the hell out of one another), you might be endangered, you might have to move thousands of miles every year to keep up with the seasons, you’re either running from being eaten or running to eat something, you have to watch out for your kids being eaten as many predators go after them, if you’re small the big animals pick on you, if you’re big it’s harder to keep up with your caloric needs, lose a fight and you could be exiled. Nature is an intense place.

We continually attempt to get rid of all this in developed society. Particularly when raising children. Sports are our only analogue left for it.

For example, in football / hockey / MMA / basketball-

  • the moment you get a break you’re searching for water,
  • you’re always on the lookout for someone trying to take your head off,
  • you have to move around a ton to stay in shape,
  • you’re either running from someone or running after someone,
  • you largely shield your kids from these things until they’re developed enough,
  • if you’re small you’re getting picked on; if you’re large you’re getting tired more easily
  • perform badly enough and you get cut (exiled)

Pain is relative. What’s painful to you is not painful to them is worthy of an emergency room visit for someone else. The accountant who has never seen a gym breaks their leg and they go to the ER, while the weekend warrior business executive breaks their leg and just tries to walk it off for a few days, eventually needing to see the doctor, while Tim Tebow breaks his leg and keeps playing football.

When you’re playing sports like this, it becomes clear sports are largely a pain in the ass. You expect to be sore often, to not want to be running all over the place but have to, to only really enjoy things sporadically (when you win and play well), to have injuries / setbacks, to always be worried about the next person trying to take your spot, to look down and go “What the hell is that?”

Because of this, the volume as to what’s painful for a lot of things gets turned down. Personal training wise, I can pretty much always spot the former athletes. Being sore after a workout doesn’t bother them. They don’t think “Let me take a week off if my wrist is achey.” They don’t go to the doctor if they strain something. They don’t shy away the moment the workout gets hard. Instead you can see the intensity in their eyes increases. Rather than ask me “Why is this hard?” they say to me “Why don’t other people understand it’s supposed to be hard?”

If anything, I need to hold them back some and say “Hey, we’re not worried about a game. If something hurts, let’s move on to something else.” They understand feeling perfect is not the goal. Nature is an intense place with constant ups and downs in how your body feels. So is life. Where the former athletes can be more relaxed about the invariable vagaries of the human condition.

-> As I hit on in the original series, this can be a fine line. Athletes are notorious for pushing too much and not listening to their body as they should, which has its own consequences down the line.

But of a different kind

The physical aspect can certainly be good, but what about the mental?

I recently learned about the following documentary, where in this race after “25 years, only 10 people have finished.”

The race is analgous to climbing Mount Everest.


Half the race is during the day; half is at night. Nobody knows how long it actually is because they attempt to make the course harder every year and don’t tell the runners the new distance. The director says it’s 100 miles, all the runners say it’s more like 130. You know how a treadmill has a max incline of 15%? The course has an average of 22%. No phones allowed, no GPS. You don’t know what time the race starts until an hour before. You don’t know the course until maybe the day before, and there are no markers to keep you on course. (Again, half the race is at night!) Sweat and blood are guaranteed; crying is likely.

I looked up one of the participants who is focused on in the documentary, Brett Maune. He happens to be based in California (where I live). Little did I know how many insane mountain type things there are to do here of this nature. He’s also done the three highest peaks in Southern California.

In the same day.

One thing I found particularly interesting is most of those who have finished had a background in science or engineering, and all but one have an advanced degree. In the bonus features the director of the documentary and the director of the race talk a fair amount about how accomplished and intelligent those who do well in the race are. From what I can gather, Maune is a physicist from Cal Tech currently working on nanotechnology.

It got me thinking about intelligence, these types of physical challenges, and where humans come from. The common thought process when it comes to our intellect seems to always revert back to our ability to make tools and such. Where perhaps a good deal of our intellect came from / benefitted us when it comes to being able to plan, think on the fly, navigate, all while being able to push yourself mentally for extended periods of time.

As was gone over in the first part of the activity series, parents want the best for their kids, obviously. Meaning career wise you’re going to want to encourage your kids to look (not force) into the STEM world, as those have many of the highest paying jobs. (Based on probability one endeavor you wouldn’t encourage much, if at all, would be professional sports.)

I do think many in the STEM world have an ability to push their mind to a place others don’t want to go. This is likely true of accomplished people in any field, but STEM is what I know most. I have a degree in Exercise Science and a minor in Mathematics. My brother just completed his Physics degree, is one semester from his Computer Science, and will either finish a Math minor or major in the process (all in four years). We’ve talked about this some as we’ve been around a good amount of these types. He is the first to tell you he doesn’t believe he has any special intellect. He just works harder at the problems. You know that point where you’re reading something and your brain literally starts to ache some? Some people back off and turn on Netflix. Others get pissed off and start reading more intensely. My experience around many STEM oriented people is they are often the latter.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have an innate ability others don’t. Their ability to push through pain -to work harder at the problem- could very well be partially innate. But could this be trained some too? Of course it can. We see this with sports. The ability to push through pain can increase with training. The ability to push through lactic acid, to focus while fatigued, to increase how long it is until you get fatigued, we can improve all this. A lot.

It’s not a coincidence in a race that’s been going 25 years these are the type of people who have finished. It’s not a race of physical giftedness (though you better be in shape). You have 60 hours to complete ~115 miles. About a two mile per hour pace. You don’t need to be a Kenyan to do this. You need to be able to slog it out. As you watch the documentary you see people not finish almost always because they quit. It’s not because they ran out of time, it’s because they said “I’m done.” Some will say their blisters are so bad or something, but the people who finished had plenty of blisters too. One finisher was draining his before the final loop. They pushed past them.

In one example a guy could have gone and rested for like seven hours and still been able to do the next loop. He still said no. Multiple people within hours after quitting are doing fine. They’re walking around, joking with others. Their body is fine. Their mind wasn’t. The guy who has the all-time record at the Barkley describes himself as “Definitely not a runner.” Many, many, ultra marathoners have done this race. People who are very likely to be physically prepared. Yet a guy who had never done a legit race and doesn’t even think he’s a runner owns what is likely the hardest ultra marathon record.

In many physical endeavors physical preparation will dictate mental preparation. Getting the body right will get your mind right, not the opposite way. But things can get to a point where the body becomes secondary. The Barkley race is prescreened to try and select people who have a chance of finishing e.g. people who are physically prepped. Yet here is Jared Campbell, the only three time finisher of the race, describing it:

“It is much less a running race and more a psychological and social experiment.”


“The only way anyone is every going to get to the end (5-laps) is if they mentally commit up-front.  Most people (especially Barkley virgins) start pretty intimidated and thus not committed.  It’s not a race you see how you feel and play it by ear.  It is guaranteed to hurt and likley absolutely suck for the last 20-30 hrs, you have to be ready for it and almost embrace that aspect of it.  I suppose that is the main advice I can give.  :)”


Sounds like every person I ever took a math class with. Thousands of years in and we’re still trying to figure out how to make math fun. Math is like Barkley. It is guaranteed to hurt, and a large portion of it is going to suck. You need to be able to slog it out.

Upwards of 60% of those who enter a STEM degree will drop out. Not physically drop out; mentally.

-> By the way, this is apparently more true at more selective schools. Berkeley has a 13% higher STEM major change rate than a lesser selective Cal State. Meaning, on average, the smarter kids at the schools with more resources are dropping STEM majors at a greater rate.

A good way to get a kid to be able to push themselves mentally past certain barriers is likely not only intense studying, but certain physical endeavors as well. It’s no more mandatory than studying organic chemistry is for being good at a sport, but we know we want kids to be active, so it makes sense to pick activities which can potentially augment their mental work, of which their future job will almost assuredly depend on. That is, kids of today will be primarily getting careers out of what they can do with their mental prowess, not their physical.

Furthermore, physical challenges bring a level of threat to the body things like studying can’t. Remember the idea of the volume of everything else gets turned down? Here is Campbell again,

“One thing I love about getting ready for really challenging events is that it forces you to shift your mindset regarding situations that would normally be looked at as unpleasant or unfavorable …] Preparing for Barkley would intensify this mental shift.

Prior to this shift, for example, I might have been bummed with day after day of terrible winter weather.  However, given that I was training for something that would likely involve terrible weather, I now looked forward to running in the worst weather possible as it was an opportunity for some great training.  I watched the forecast and prayed for wet cold-fronts to roll in.  I even had Ryan excited to join me for a good battle up Grandeur in full-on blizzard conditions in full body wet-suits.

The same optimistic twist could also be applied to getting lost, running out of food, getting dehydrated, being torn up by scrub oak, bloodied by manzanita bushes, stabbed by yucca plants, having severe chaffage, being stung by insects, a stinging nettle rash, being in zero visibility conditions, gale force winds, or post-holing in snow for hours on end.  It doesn’t seem to matter, it all just becomes “good training” and should be embraced.  With this mental shift, what would normally be a cause for frustration could be spun into something positive and constructive.  This would prove to be key as finishing 5 laps at Barkley is largely mental and it was guaranteed that something would be fairly sub-optimal in the latter stages of the event.  Also, applying this mentality to other aspects of life can quickly turn just about any undesirable situations into something good.  I call this conditioned optimism.”


It’s going to be tough to generate that kind of volume mitigation only looking in a textbook. When you go through something like the above it’s not hard to fathom Calculus doesn’t seem like much of a big deal anymore. Especially for well off kids, growing up tends to not throw the challenges that life will throw at you. Why my fellow Millenials refer to post college life as “The Real World.” Certain sports are going to throw challenges at you though.

For pain tolerance of the physical kind, pretty much all sports are going to work. For the mental kind, it’s different. Some sports which could fit here but still avoid partaking in the brutality of nature too much (e.g. football),

  • Certain track and field events
  • Cross country
  • Tennis
  • Cross country skiing
  • Basketball
  • Certain swimming events
  • Cycling
  • Triathlon
  • Soccer
  • Rowing
  • Golf

Baseball would be an example where this wouldn’t really fit. We’re looking for sustained mental effort. A basketball game you’re having to keep up with things for multiple hours. In baseball, you pay attention when you’re in the field, but then you get an extended break, other than your brief at bat. Pitching and catching are possible exceptions. In other words, we’re looking for sports where mental breakdowns / failures happen routinely. (Whether this be during the event or in preparation for it.)

Cross country requires a good deal of strategy, pacing, knowing your opponent, all with no break. Plus, it’s guaranteed to suck at some point.

Compared to shot putting where you only concentrate for a few seconds for a few throws.

I graduated high school with a kid who never got below an A in any class. 18 years old. Nothing below an A. That’s not possible in sports, or in life. I played against guys in high school who made it to the NFL. They had games they not only messed up in, but games they got their ass kicked in. Failure is a type of pain worth knowing how to come back from.

When Warren Buffet gives new graduates advice he holds up a stack of 500 pages and says “Read this everyday. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” That’s mental pain right there. Elon Musk can focus so much on something he was assessed for being deaf as a kid because he tuned everything else out so well. When a good friend describes Musk,

“I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

From Ashlee Vance’s book

He wasn’t talking about physical.

Best quote of the documentary?

“Most people would be better off with more pain in their lives.”


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