Athletics Do Offer Lessons that are Missing from the Classroom
Let’s face it, in America we idolize our athletes. We pay them exorbitant salaries and elevate them to hero-like status. For our youngsters, the attention we lavish on these individuals leads America’s young people to believe that becoming a professional athlete is the surest way to live the American dream.
Often parents, in turn, perpetuate the problem. The notion that an athletic scholarship or professional career is possible if a child focuses on one specific activity and trains diligently actually comes most often from the parents and coaches of these athletes.
A Slow Loss of Perspective
At seven years old, things appear to start innocently. Parents begin signing their children up for T-Ball and Biddy Basketball at the local Y. These initial activities appear to contrast the stories of Olympic gymnasts, youngsters going through sheer torture at an incredibly young age, all for the chance to be the best in the world. But before our children are in middle school the selection process begins with an All Star or a Travel Team will compete against the better players from other communities. Soon young basketball players are practicing 3,4 and 5 hours a day, then playing a weekend tournament where the youngster might actually play 5-6 games over a two day period, all in an effort to ’round out their game’.
By the time these individuals reach high school, sports have become more than an extremely prominent part of their lives, it has become the focus of their teenage years. Of course, many experts in the child development field feel that the emphasis on sports is hindering both the mental and physical development of children. To many of the people who work with children, having youngsters focus on sports is detrimental to developing intellectual pursuits and proper lifelong work habits.
Sports Done Right
In my home state of Maine, people have been noting these concerns very seriously. A select panel of school leaders and student-athletes, working in conjunction with the University of Maine, recently released a report entitled Sports Done Right, a report that seeks to refocus the athletic experience on its initial intent.
The well written and informative document seeks to clarify the role of sports in the educational process for Maine’s children. The report firmly acknowledges the all-important role sports can play in the development of students, provided of course there is proper emphasis on the rationale for offering athletics.
Sports Done Right identifies seven basic core principles that form the basis for a sound amateur sports program. Though the focus is clearly on the middle and high school sports experience, the vast majority of the material could translate to the collegiate level as well.
These core elements start with the philosophy and values that form the basis for school sports programs, then follows those principles through the expertise of coaches to the leadership set by administration. In the most basic core principle, “Philosophy, Values and Sportsmanship,” the report focuses on the many positives of sound athletic programs, the ability to teach the important values of respect, responsibility, fairness and discipline. Most importantly, if school programs have a proper emphasis on such values, athletes learn one of the most essential of sports lessons, how to handle “success with grace” and “failure with dignity”.
In the second core principle “Sports and Learning,” the document speaks to the very heart of why schools should sponsor athletic programs for students. Building on the first core principle that seeks to teach the values of hard work and discipline, the second principle sets its sights on refocusing amateur sports towards its proper emphasis. Instead of seeing athletics as preparation for college or professional sports, schools and community members should see athletics as a preparation for life.
Though Sports Done Right places a focus on the positive approach, the report also takes note of the many “out-of-bounds” behaviors that often surround these activities. The document lists a two page summary of such behaviors and attitudes, actions that lead to an unhealthy emphasis on sports. The section is broken into various categories with discussions about the roles of parents, community members, and coaches in promoting physically and emotionally healthy opportunities for student-athletes.
Sports Offer Children Many Lessons
It is important to understand that sports can and should be a very prominent part of the growth process for children, provided adults keep the proper perspective. At the simplest level, with a focus on recreation, sports provide an outlet for kids, allowing a controlled and positive release of energy. Recreational activities help our youngsters develop healthy minds, bodies and spirits. In addition, loosely organized activities can provide enormous opportunity for socialization for children, that is if we adults refrain from over-structuring the activity.
There is no doubt that even moving to the competitive sports model, such activities have even more to teach children. The concept of teamwork, of sacrificing individual needs to work together in seeking a common goal, is one of the great teaching points of team sports. In addition, the concept of working hard for a specific goal, of putting in the necessary time to be able to do a task well, is another great lesson for children. Ultimately, sports can teach children of the need to prepare oneself for possible success, that the willingness to prepare to excel at a task is far more important than the desire to excel.
Yet, of the many lessons of sports, the greatest teaching point is the one most adults seek to have children avoid. The concept of dealing with individual failure or the loss of game is actually at the heart of what sports can teach our kids. Stepping in with encouragement and support, then maintaining a proper perspective on the ability level of the child while constantly revisiting the real purpose of athletics, we can help our youngsters develop their resiliency, a personal trait more important than even one’s self-esteem. If we can teach our youngsters to pick themselves up when the success they are seeking eludes them, if we can help them to understand the need to go to practice again and to try, try again, in spite of demonstrated lack of success, then we will be teaching them how to be successful adults. This is the essence of what sports can bring to our children.
Create a Balanced Approach
The great mistake that kids make today is to focus on the idea that sports is the only place to give such an effort, that an equivalent commitment at home doing chores and at school doing class work is somehow less worthy. The push to focus in one sport at the expense of all other activities takes the general teachings of sports to an unhealthy emphasis. This causes our children to see that one activity as the place to demonstrate commitment and hard work where as in reality we want our children to learn that such effort is the proper approach to everything in life.
The idea of hard work transcending a sport was a major point in the popular movie Coach Carter. It was so refreshing to see the coach actually lock the players out of the gym, insisting that until they manage to get their grades in order there will be no basketball. He teaches these young men a most important point: if they put in the same effort in the classroom they can succeed there just as the can succeed through hard work on the court. The movie is also very realistic, because the Coach ends up fighting with the parents, the principal and the school board, all of whom want to see the boys just be allowed to play basketball.
Sports has a very important place in the educational process for children. It need not corrupt our youngsters and it will not, provided adults maintain the proper emphasis on the teaching points in sports that translate to success in all aspects of life.