Wendy Díaz portrays a familiar scenario that parents may face if their child or children are balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities. When children’s grades take a nosedive, the instinct of many parents is to stop all extracurriculars so they can focus solely on their academics. Depending on certain factors, however, that reaction could be detrimental to their physical and mental well-being.

Ammar is a 6th-grade student in Jefferson Middle School with a passion for sports, especially soccer and martial arts. Along with his middle school workload, he practises soccer after school twice a week and has regular games on Saturdays. When he is not playing soccer, he is training in karate at a local martial arts school. Ammar’s parents receive a copy of his second-quarter progress report and are shocked to learn his grades have dropped significantly. Immediately, they pull Ammar from martial arts and soccer, and tell him he must concentrate on raising his grades. Ammar is devastated but afraid to tell his parents the real reason his grades have plummeted is that he is having trouble adjusting to his new school. Not only will Ammar continue to do poorly in school, but he will lose the valuable relationships and lessons he was able to gain through sports.

Ammar’s story is a fictional account of a familiar scenario that parents may face if their child or children are balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities. When children’s grades take a nosedive, the instinct of many parents is to stop all extracurriculars so they can focus solely on their academics. Depending on certain factors, however, that reaction could be detrimental to their physical and mental well-being.

Extracurricular activities can take many forms like clubs, student government, art, and community service, but for this article, we will focus on the importance of movement-based activities and how they can help rather than hinder a child’s academic performance.

MOVEMENT AND MOTIVATION

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and adolescents aged 6 through 17 years of age should engage in 60 minutes/1 hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, including aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening conditioning. Additionally, the CDC affirms there is a correlation between increased physical activity and school performance. On their website, they state “students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviours (e.g., on-task behaviour).” Perhaps, it is not their extracurricular activities that are causing the downfall of their grades, but instead, these activities are the only thing keeping them afloat.

Muhib Rahman, founder and programme director of Aqabah Karate in College Park, Maryland, has been teaching Korean Tang Soo Do karate to school-age students for over two decades. He said, “Two or three hours of martial arts training per week is not even meeting the bare minimum requirement of the CDC recommendations. That is why it is not a wise decision to remove sports from a child’s life in order to improve failing grades.”

Instead, he recommends parents evaluate how much time their children are spending on other, less useful activities like playing video games. Rahman also said instead of keeping children from training, parents should consider more physical activity, “I actually tell parents that their children could do better in school by improving their martial arts class attendance.” He argues that adding a fun, healthy activity to their schedule is better for their overall performance.

If you have an active child who is an athlete like Ammar, consider it a blessing. While it is our goal that our children learn as much as they can at school, Rahman stresses that it is equally important that they be encouraged to participate in sports and activities that promote movement. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:

“The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, although both are good.” (Muslim)

Rather than punishing students for low grades by taking away their outlets to relieve stress, build relationships, increase strength, and expend energy, parents should consider other avenues like tutoring, counselling, and providing positive reinforcement to improve school performance. Moreover, both parents and educators can implement some of the strategies taught in team sports and martial arts at home and in the classroom to stimulate learning.

VALUABLE LESSONS FROM TEAM SPORTS

The principles in team sports can promote the discipline students need to triumph in the classroom. Child athletes learn valuable lessons that can help them achieve their academic goals, such as:

1. Commitment

Learning to stay committed to an objective is a huge milestone for children. Many coaches will advise their athletes to never give up or that failure is not an option. When a child enters a sport like martial arts, they are making a commitment to follow directions, stay focused, and be respectful. The difference between being on a team or participating in any sport and going to school is that a child more than likely chooses to be there and stay there. The child is doing so because it is something that interests them, and something they enjoy. To be able to commit time and effort to something by choice is a valuable experience that will help them make good decisions in the future.

2. Focus

Extracurricular activities like sports are usually managed by an adult and run like a classroom. There is an authority figure like a coach or instructor, rules, and a student body. No matter the setting, if a child can focus and follow instructions on the field, on a mat, or in the gym, he can do the same in school. Sports require critical thinking skills, coordination, balance and self-motivation. All these tools are needed when tackling schoolwork.

In addition, martial arts and other sports boost confidence, helping students persevere despite any hardships or bullying they may face at school. Athletes learn that it is pointless to spend time and energy on dealing with negativity. Their “eyes are on the prize,” knowing that there is always a greater reward at the end of each round or game they play.

3. Teamwork

“Teamwork makes the dream work!”

This is a popular saying with a lot of truth behind it. Student athletes learn to work together and build comradery as a team to achieve their goals. In martial arts, they train and spar together while learning about boundaries and maintaining control. In sports like soccer or basketball, children learn to pass the ball and trust their teammates. Everyone feels a sense of importance because they are equals on the playing field. There is little room for antagonising behaviour between the athletes because they are all considered an integral part of the team. 

Similarly, in school, students may be asked to cooperate on a project or assignment. Those who participate in sports on a regular basis will know that each student has a role to play, and collaboration is necessary to successfully complete the assigned task. Teamwork is also vital to fostering leadership skills in students, and they can bring that expertise to the classroom.

4. Relationship-building

The benefit of forming part of a team is that children build strong bonds with their coaches and teammates. It is easy for children to develop meaningful relationships with their peers in this setting because they share the same interests. In school, they may find it harder to find people with whom they can connect. In the case of a child like Ammar who is adjusting to middle school and having trouble making new friends, having an outlet like a soccer team or a martial arts class may help him cope. He may feel like an outsider at school while he is adjusting, but he can rely on the friends he has made outside of school.

5. Mental and Spiritual Fortitude

Sports can be transformative for both body and soul. There are components that are focused on ethical behaviour and mental strength. Students must earn and maintain their right to train by displaying good character and respecting themselves, their coaches and their teammates. While movement is crucial to athletics, discipline is fundamental no matter what sport is being practised. Aspects like time-management skills, patience, determination, good sportsmanship, resilience, and accountability – are characteristics of a strong believer. It is easy to understand the relationship between sports and spirituality while witnessing how Muslim soccer players pray during the 2022 World Cup games. There is a certain reliance on the higher source of power in Allah to reach success. Caregivers can help their children make that connection by teaching them to be mindful of Allah as they play.

Rahman recommends any kind of beneficial physical activity to help children overcome the challenges of school, however, he believes martial arts is an exceptional way that students can learn to be mentally tough and focused. Rahman said, “Regular training in martial arts improves a child’s fitness, organisational skills, and confidence. These traits easily carry over to school life and help to improve academic performance.”

The youth, who are especially vulnerable to negative external influences, benefit greatly through the discipline, mental focus, confidence building and improved motor skills found in sports. Skills and techniques are built on “muscle memory,” which is repetition until movement becomes second nature. Likewise, the attitude and fortitude of athletes are built over time through mindfulness. These skills can cross over to their academics if nurtured properly through consistency and encouragement. Next time your child is struggling in school, instead of eliminating sports or hobbies, consider seeking advice from their coaches to see how they can improve their grades while continuing to do what they love most. [soundvision.com]

[Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organisation that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland.]

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