When discussing benefits to playing sports, most of the discussion centers around physicals: what muscles are targeted, cardio and heart rates, etc.

However, I believe the most important skills that sports develop are mental and emotional. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or swimming, track & field or table tennis, so long as there’s competition. I speak through my own experience as a person who has found enormous self-improvement through competitive sports.

I was very overweight during my middle school years -- to the point that a lot of regular movement was overly taxing. It came about as a result of bad eating habits and a lack of exercise. I didn’t do any sports, nor anything else on my own time. Furthermore, my mentality about it was terrible — I didn’t believe I could live healthily, nor did I believe I could change my habits.

The summer before eighth grade, my mother persuaded me to try rowing. The Rochester Rowing Club was hosting a “Learn to Row” program. I had quit soccer and swimming in the years before, so this was a last-ditch effort by her to get me off my butt. I went for a few days, found I enjoyed it, and stuck around.

It took one year for me to fully commit. By then, I'd made friends and had loads of fun in the shells. High schoolers could join the varsity team, and I knew I wanted to be on the top boat. I worked my heart out. I cut out unhealthy foods from my diet and went to every single practice. I committed long hours and tons of energy and met my goals.

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The most important thing, however, was that my mentality changed. I started to believe I could be healthy, that I could improve. It changed my outlook on my personal growth — I learned that I could change for the better in any way if I worked at it. There was nothing quite like that wonderful feeling of victory when I took a good stroke or made a smooth turn.

This combination hooked me. Personally, it was a lot more fun than simple jogging or cardio. The organization and commitment created by the club kept me going. I had an obligation to my team to improve as well as my obligation to myself.

The same thing applies for basically any other competitive sport. The goals one has might be different -- you might want to improve your hand-eye coordination, your teamwork, your reaction time -- but the process is the same. Repetition into improvement through interesting and competitive activity. There are definitely parts of the experience that may not always meet the “fun” requirement (some physical training comes to mind) but the innate hook through competition and self-improvement is enough to carry you through.

I think everyone should do sports if given the opportunity. The benefits from building yourself up through physical activity can’t be found anywhere else.

Daniel Ma will be a senior at Century High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters, jpieters@postbulletin.com.