What Lessons Should Sports Teach?

Published November 1, 2003

What appears to be a growing number of incidents of violence by student-athletes, parents, and coaches directed at other athletes or officials has caused many sports organizations to develop programs that avoid the sense of extreme competition that some players, parents, and coaches bring to their games.

In the summer of 2001, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) hosted the first National Summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports, bringing together representatives from recreation agencies and school districts to devise a strategy for changing the culture of children’s sports while preserving the value of participation.

“People don’t realize how many of these incidents occur around the country,” said Fred Engh, president of NAYS. “These aren’t isolated situations.”

In addition to reducing violent situations, parents who concentrate on the positive aspects of athletics set a better example and often help their children to succeed even more in sports. NAYS cites research showing athletes of all ages improve more with positive reinforcement on skill development than with negative criticism.

Does this mean competition in sports should be de-emphasized? After all, real life does reward “winners,” something children will learn once they enter the workforce.

Basketball coach Robert Rogers believes it is possible to de-emphasize winning and losing at the younger levels but sees more benefits than drawbacks for intense athletic competition in middle and high school. Rogers has coached boys’ basketball in the Detroit area at all age levels. As the varsity head coach at Pontiac Northern High School, he has taken his squad to three consecutive Class A semifinals and two state championships.

“I don’t know why we would have to change anything at that level,” he said. “You have the opportunity for young men and women to earn college scholarships where everything is competitive anyway, including the classroom where you have tests graded on a curve.”

All students need to learn what it feels like to win and lose, said Rogers.

“You can’t shelter kids. Maybe we can put in rules in elementary school programs where kids have to play a minimum number of minutes in a sport, but I’m not sure what other options we have.”

But Marlyn Goldhammer, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, argues a good athletics program will teach boys and girls the importance of physical activity, the basics of a particular sport, and ways to improve performance, teamwork, and individual confidence. Winning, he says, is merely a by-product … but it has been taken to a level where it is seen as more important than the lessons themselves.

“Somehow or another, those of us in charge of the interscholastic program have gradually allowed the goals and objectives to focus more on winning than participation,” said Goldhammer.

“It is undisputed that interscholastic athletics and fine arts activities are vital parts of the total educational experience of students,” he said. “But we are at a point where we need to remind ourselves of the primary goals and objectives for sponsoring school sports. In that regard, we need to eliminate the over-emphasis on winning and concentrate more on character development and the values needed to become a successful person.”

Mike Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Michigan and writes frequently on education issues. His email address is [email protected].