During her many years caring for children and teens, Dr. Pilar Bradshaw has realized the positive effects sports can have on kids, from increased physical activity and boosted self-esteem to teamwork and camaraderie.

Patient Mason Wegener is a perfect example. Mason stepped on the soccer field in elementary school, encouraged by parents who always instilled in him the importance of getting regular exercise.

“They’ve always been really open to any activity that I wanted to do, but they’ve always been insistent that we do something,” Mason says.

After playing soccer through his freshman year in high school, Mason decided to try something new and discovered he loved running.

“From my first race – the community behind running, as well as the sport itself – was a really big draw for me.”

Being involved in sports helps kids develop important life skills that extend well beyond the track, the field or the court, says Dr. Bradshaw. “It’s a wonderful way to teach your kids responsibility – being part of a team, showing up, being part of something bigger than yourself and plugging away by practicing.”

Engaging in sports can also boost a child’s self-confidence and improve performance in the classroom. Athletics require memorization, repetition and learning – skillsets that are directly relevant to schoolwork. In addition, it’s a natural way to loosen up and let go of stress, she says.

Mason’s mom, Helen, says participating in sports has helped her son be more focused and organized and has taught him how to follow through on tasks.

“We always thought it was important that if you committed to a team, that you saw the season out,” she says.

In addition to building skills, getting regular, physical activity in any form is important for kids, medically.

“We want kids to run around and get their heart rate up for 60 minutes or more a day. So, for kids who are really dedicated to sports, it’s a tremendous health benefit for them when they’re doing cardio while having fun,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

Playing games and attending practices, in addition to schoolwork and other family activities, requires time – a lot of time – so it’s important that parents monitor their kids’ activities so they don’t overschedule themselves at the expense of sleep.

“I call it the busy teenager and the busy parent syndrome,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Teenagers need more sleep than tweens, so the average teen really should get at least eight hours of sleep a night – nine would be optimal.”

Not every child is going to be a star athlete – and that’s OK, says Dr. Bradshaw. Kids benefit from playing sports, regardless of their skill level. And it’s a proven fact: children who are physically active are more likely to become active, healthier adults.

Mason is graduating from high school and he will continue running cross country and track when he attends Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in the fall.

His advice to younger athletes? “Always make sure you’re having a good time, and you’re doing it because you love it,” he says.