Should school sports favor participation in competition? What a new report says


High school sports play an important role in meeting the physical and mental health needs of students, but with less than 2 in 5 public high school students participating, the traditional model needs to be updated to serve more, according to a report released this spring by the Aspen Institute said.

The Sport for All, Play for Life high school sports report offers eight strategies to help principals and school leaders develop the social and emotional skills of their students through sport. The result of two years of research and input from more than 60 experts, the report envisions a school sports system that provides opportunities for every student. Increasing sports participation may have lifelong ramifications, given that student-athletes are more likely to be active as adults. It also comes as educators scramble to strengthen students’ social-emotional skills and reconnect them with their schools after years of pandemic-induced isolation and educational disruption.

“The current high school sports model isn’t really working for enough students,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports & Society program at the Aspen Institute. “A lot of it is based on trying to win games and scholarships, and playing for school, and that’s still incredibly valuable and important, but there are a lot of other students who are left behind.”

“We believe leaders should recognize that every student, regardless of background or ability, has the right to play sports – and we’re not just talking about the right to try out for a team,” he said. added.

Here are some steps school leaders can take to make school sports more accessible to their students:

Aligning school sports with student interests

Schools need to know what students want to participate in in order to design sports offerings that will increase participation. However, Jay Coakley, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who was one of the experts the Aspen Institute consulted during its reporting process, said today’s youth sports are “adult-oriented”.

“The developmental interests of children and the interests of children in their own movements have been ignored,” Coakley said. “It’s the adult perspectives that create the leagues and everything that goes with it – organize the practices, set the schedules – and the kids don’t have a voice and their interests are either ignored or unknown.”

“A lot of the changes that have happened have taken the game out of the hands of children and put it into the hands of adults,” he added. “I’m not against adult advice, but this decision is not good.”

Indeed, according to Coakley, adults have different definitions of fun than students. According to the Aspen Institute report, the number one reason high school students play sports is to have fun. Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed said they get involved so they can play with them and make new friends.

“Those are the first things that get eliminated in organized sports,” Coakley said.

For example, in Little League Baseball, Coakley said, a coach’s goal is to identify the team’s pitcher who will keep batters from hitting the ball, which shuts other players off the ball.

“Everyone in the stands tells them it’s a perfect game, that’s what you want. Meanwhile, the other seven players don’t line the ball up,” Coakley said.

To gauge student voice, the Aspen Institute report suggests schools conduct annual student interest surveys with a common set of questions about students’ sports preferences, their reason for participating or not, and relationships. young people / adults in the context of the sport they give to the students. These surveys should also take into account the disability status, race, ethnicity and educational level of the respondents.

Give a variety of options to play

Student-directed intramural sports and club sports can provide many of the same benefits as interscholastic competition, including exercise, teamwork skills, mental health benefits, and a sense of purpose. membership. These formats, while popular on college campuses, are often underprioritized in high schools. However, when, say, 75 students try college basketball, 15 make the team, and only 10 get meaningful playing time, these alternative opportunities to play can make a difference.

Dan Dejager, a physical education teacher at Meraki High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., keeps his students active outside of interscholastic programs by differentiating his instruction based on his students’ needs, interests, and ability levels.

For example, instead of teaching her students to line dance, Dejager has her class play Just Dance, a video game where players dance in sync with a virtual character to contemporary music.

“I think if you become more physically active and find activities that you enjoy doing that are meaningful to you, then that physical well-being, that emotional well-being, and that mental well-being will come,” said Dejager.

The Aspen Institute suggests physical education teachers and athletic directors expand course offerings or connect students to community programs such as bike clubs and yoga classes since, according to their findings, , more than one in three students are interested in strength training, 1 in 4 want to ride a bike, and 1 in 5 want to do skateboarding, yoga and dancing.

Prioritize student education over winning games

In most high schools, sports are seen as having different purposes than academics, which tends to prioritize education. Coaches often think their main job is to win championships and therefore they may focus their resources on the best athletes, sometimes to the detriment of other students who also want to play and would benefit.

Terri Drain, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, who taught for 34 years and coached field hockey in high school, said that to attract kids back to the sport, there needs to be “a whole shift in mentality”.

“We need to talk about the goal of school sports,” Drain said. “Is it to prepare kids for their college athletic careers and measure success when our students are drafted or awarded scholarships? Or should we measure success by the number of students who participate? »

As students age, more are cut or drop out of sports. On average, children stop playing sports at 11, according to a survey by the Aspen Institute and the Utah State University Family Sports Lab.

Drain envisions a school sports system in which “every child, regardless of ability level”, can play, “not just for elite kids on their way to college”.

To combat this, administrators must ensure that all athletic activities align with a school’s vision for education, according to the Aspen Institute report. This could include developing an athletic department-specific symbiotic mission statement and holding athletic staff accountable through group discussions and performance reviews.

Increase Coach Education

Coaches often play a pivotal role in shaping a student’s ideas about health and education. In fact, 1 in 3 college students said they got in sports because of “a coach who cares about me,” according to the Aspen Report. However, many coaches’ education stops after their initial certification and they lack the knowledge to make sport a healthy and positive experience for students. In surveys, nearly half of all college students say they play sports for their emotional well-being and mental health, but only six states require coaches to have training in human development, developmental psychology, and conflict management. organizations.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators has developed national standards for sports coaches, the first of which is to “develop and implement an athlete-centered coaching philosophy”. In other words, sports coaches prioritize athlete development opportunities over winning matches.

Many coaches, according to Drain, coach like they were coached as athletes. To break this cycle, schools need to provide professional development that helps physical educators teach with physical literacy in mind and with the attitude that all children have the right to learn.

The Aspen Institute asserts that athletic directors should actively support effective coaching behaviors through internal education, required external training, and coaching networking. They should also hold coaches accountable for providing a positive experience for their athletes and increasing student retention.

According to the Aspen Institute, schools can also make school sports more engaging and developmentally useful, including having administrators develop personalized activity plans with students, requiring sports coaches in schools that offer collision sports, setting sports program standards for schools and developing community partnerships. organizations.

Adam Lane, principal of Haines City High School in Polk County, Florida, said of all the strategies suggested in the report, “the most difficult” for schools is to implement the sports that interest the students the most.

“The reason is the ability to start a new program from scratch when you don’t have any of the necessary equipment or facilities for it,” Lane said.

“Something like this can’t be done in a few months,” he continued. “One because of the financial need for all the necessary equipment, but secondly you also have to find a facility or a place to play and the school might not have it, the community might not have it. There’s a lot of planning to do in there.

The Aspen Institute has not yet followed up with schools on their implementation of playbook strategies, but they plan to do so, according to Solomon. For now, the institute will continue to promote its strategies and showcase the work of those who bring the organization’s vision to life.


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