Ever see Dallas Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin slam into a receiver? It's brutal. Makes you wince. But to understand his drive, he says, you'd have had to watch him as a tot-which would've been hard to do, because he barely stayed still. "Running around my backyard set the stage for it all," he says. "It led me to learn how to move, improved my coordination, and taught me that being active is fun."
Hamlin learned more than that: Experts say an active childhood leads to a healthy lifestyle later, and builds the foundation for the social, psychological, and mental skills needed to succeed as an adult. So encourage your kids to hit the pavement. Here's how.
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1. Give Them Control
Hamlin's parents didn't push him toward a specific activity, so he thought of sports as something fun he'd found on his own. He played a little of everything: Basketball, baseball, soccer-before discovering football.
"To love being active, children need to spend time in environments of their choice," says youth fitness expert and FitSchools Foundation advisor Jim Liston, C.S.C.S. Encourage your kids to play and switch sports, and don't be judgmental about what they pick. If they settle on something by themselves, they'll be more dedicated to it.
2. Promote Teamwork
"I looked forward to individual success, but fun with teammates was what kept me coming back," says Hamlin. As your child joins teams, encourage him or her to befriend teammates and join them in celebrating successes—with a trip to a go-kart track, for example. Team sports improve psychological health and teach interaction skills, Liston says.
"The best opportunity for children to develop trust and conversation skills is by building those attributes at a young age," Liston says. Encourage your entire clan to stay active and healthy with this fun fit family activity plan.
3. Encourage, Don't Criticize
Hamlin, who was voted one of the Cowboys' defensive captains last season, says he learned leadership from his parents and early coaches. They all did the same thing: let him develop at his own pace. "My improvement came from nonstop support, so I try to do the same for teammates now," he says. When your child makes a mistake during a game, show support and encouragement, not criticism-and make sure everyone around you is doing the same. "Children need a space free from berating and humiliation," says Liston.
4. Connect the Dots
In high school, Hamlin was a National Honor Society member and president of his senior class. "When you do well in sports, you want to match that performance in everything you do," he says. Harvard researchers agree. They found that success on physical-education assessments led to better math and English scores. "The more children exercise, the more they increase brain activity," says Liston. So encourage your kids to think of sports as a part of their lives. Reward them equally for great games and great grades, and they'll want to achieve both.
For every tackle he makes this season, Hamlin will donate $100 to the Men's Health FitSchools Foundation, a program to improve physical education and fight childhood obesity in schools. For more information, visit childrenshealthmag.com/fit-schools/.