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Monday, July 21, 2014

High School Sports Obsession: Give Kids a Place to Fail

I love sports, and, like most other Americans, I can speak of the many benefits of high school sports: exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit, and just plain fun. But lately, I fear the obsession with high school sports has reached a crazy, frenetic state -- for schools, for fans, and for participants.  

In many schools, sports are so entrenched that no one -- not even the people in charge -- realizes their actual cost in terms of dollars, time, and human impact.

Let me give you some examples that support my belief that high school sports obsession hurts American education:

*  Many school boards show a disregard for the emotional well being of kids by ignoring the importance of family time and the simple need for "a break" from sports. Any practices offered by coaches will be "voluntary" in name only, as no athlete will risk disappointing a coach and no coach will risk allowing the competition to get an advantage. Thus, practices are often mandatory even over holidays and in the off-season.

Sports can be quite time-consuming for a child, interfering with homework, dinner, getting together with friends and spending time with the family.

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Sports can be quite time-consuming for a child, interfering with homework, dinner, getting together with friends and spending time with the family. All participants will feel significant added pressures of being on a high school team.

Ask anyone who understands high school sports and the increased emphasis on pruning athletes for one sport, and they will tell you that playing a single sport involves a full-year commitment. Gone are the days of athletes passing one ball off for another and participating with ease in three sports a year.

Sport “specialization” at an early age that limits children’s ability to learn to play a variety of sports and excludes, at a young age, those who are not “good enough” to compete.

There's no legitimate reason why teams need more practice, but there is plenty of evidence that coaches aren't wise enough or secure enough to know when to take a break. Grades and family relationships aren’t as important as practices and competition.

* High school sports can be very costly. For example, football at Premont Independent School District in Texas (the state that inspired Friday Night Lights and the focus on social importance of high school football in small Texas towns) cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student.

For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, but this option never occurred to anyone.

So, in the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down the district for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Premont did the unthinkable -- the school suspended all sports -- including football. By suspending sports, the district saved $150,000 in one year.

The fall of 2012 at Premont, the first without football, was quiet. But there was an upside to the quiet. “The first 12 weeks of school were the most peaceful beginning weeks I’ve ever witnessed at a high school,” Superintendent Ernest Singleton said. “It was calm. There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after-school tutoring. I saw such a difference.”

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars.

Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” claimed Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

Suspending sports was only part of the equation, but Singleton believes it was crucial. He used the savings to give teachers raises. Meanwhile, communities throughout Texas, alarmed by the cancellation of football, raised $400,000 for Premont via fund-raisers and donations—money that Singleton put toward renovating the science labs.

No one knew whether the state would make good on its threat to shut the district down. But for the first time in many years, Premont had a healthy operating balance and no debt. This spring of 2013, the school brought back baseball, track, and tennis, with the caveat that the teams could participate in just one travel tournament a season. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” coach and history teacher Richard Russell said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

The State of Texas announced in May, 2013, that the Premont Independent School District could stay open. 

(Amanda Ripley. "The Case Against High-School Sports." The Atlantic. September 18, 2013)

* During the earlier days of American high school sports, the thinking went, participation would both protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. warned that cities were being overrun with “stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth.” Muscular Christianity, fashionable during the Victorian era, prescribed sports as a sort of moral vaccine against the tumult of rapid economic growth. And, of course, athletics focused on helping youth become physically fit.

Boy, somewhere along the line, the perspective of the worth of organized sports changed. Once sports become so important to the school, they start colliding with academics. Now, so many high schools are judged more by the success of their sports programs than by the quality of their scholastics.

Mark Hyman, Baltimore writer who covers sports business for Business Week and author of Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids, says, "Parents with visions of scholarships and professional riches have turned youth sports into a high pressure, big-money enterprise at the expense of their children." Adults give youth the impression that organized sports is sports and anything else isn't valuable. What about riding bikes around the neighborhood, playing pickup and sandlot games, or swimming with friends?

What results when organized sports become king? Too many kids view sports not so much as fun but more of a pre-professional curriculum, and they often burn out at young ages. Hyman says, from research, we know that 75 percent of kids 13 and under drop out of sports. Attrition is to be expected, but we also know almost all youngsters want to be athletes, so 75 percent is a startling factor.

When asked why, the answers are what you'd expect. The youth say, "The games are too competitive; they didn't have fun; the adults take it too seriously. Hyman believes the answer to this is evident: "Reigning in our own adult behavior is what it comes down to."

Hyman explains ...

"In the '60s and '70s, there was not this gold rush mentality with scholarships and playing professionally. Now parents pay big money for private coaching, travel teams and medical bills, all with the idea of the kid getting into the college of their parents' choice, preferably with a scholarship... 

"The odds of a high school kid playing one minute in college are dismal. Just five percent of high school athletes play in college. If you're looking for a free ride to college through an athletic scholarship, it doesn't happen.

"Most of these kids are on partial scholarships that account for just a small amount of the tuition equation. Plus, parents are spending a lot of money to put kids in the position to get that partial scholarship.

"Parents are looking for some kind of return on investment. The more you're putting into an enterprise, even your child's sports career, the more you expect in return."

(Pete Williams. "Is America's Obsession with Youth Sports Hurting Kids?" Exos. June 26, 2009)
* Aren't high school sports supposed to be fun activities? By focusing too heavily on winning, coaches, parents, and athletes fail to realize what is important in competition, and, even worse, the obsession with winning refutes what is important. Sports cease to be vehicles for learning when adults skew proper goals. Sadly, some adults even attempt to live out their own athletic dreams through their children.

Of course, wanting to win is human. It feels great to win. But adults should not merely teach kids to do what feels best, but rather adults should help equip them for independence in life. The proper perspective of sports is seen by examining the long-term gains rather than by considering the expedient successes. Playing sports gives youth confidence that their own effort, preparation and focus is essential, and not that short-term outcomes and winning are foremost.

Soccer mom and writer Lisa Endlich Heffernan believes between the very permanent record created by social media and the Internet to the hyper competitive college process, kids have few places they can safely fail. Heffernan thinks athletics plays an important role as that place.

Think about what Heffernan is proposing. The playing field provides a place for kids to experience heated competition, losing, regrouping and beginning again, without consequence. Heffernan says, "As parents stand on the sidelines baying for conquest, they give weight to something that, realistically, has little meaning and removes this golden chance to learn from loss."

She would argue that athletic competitions offer one of the very best venues for learning some of life’s most important lessons.  But these lessons don’t require victories, and in fact many, like some of the following, are best taught in defeat:

  • There is always someone better than you, at everything.
  • Those who enforce the rules can be mistaken or even biased and conditions under which you have to operate are often bad.
  • You can do your very best and still not succeed. This isn’t unfair, it just is.
  • People will cheat and you will lose because someone is not honest.  
  • It is important, in fact essential, to continue trying hard long after success is no longer a possibility.
  • You must never let down those who have invested it you--teachers, coaches, parents and later bosses--even though your motivation has long since dissipated.
  • It is as important to learn how to be a gracious loser as it is to be a humble winner.
  • A team is about something much larger than any one person.
  • Individuals do not succeed, teams do.
  • Playing your role, whatever that role, is an honorable thing to do.
  • Intense physical activity is good for almost everything that ails us.
  • Kids feeling the endorphin-laced thrill of exertion will habituate into adopting a healthy lifestyle.
  • Sharing a goal is not the same as sharing success. The camaraderie of a team comes from the former not the latter.
  • One small mistake in an otherwise flawless performance can be the difference between winning and losing.
  • Practicing anything will make you better, more confident and, perhaps at some point, lead to success.  But you practice to become better and more confident.
  • Outcome cannot be controlled, only processes and effort.
  • Failing to win is not failing.  Teams improve, players improve and that is success.  You can play a great game and someone else can just play better.  Failing to win can just be bad luck.
(Lisa Endlich Heffernan. "Parents Ruin Sports for Their Kids by Obsessing About Winning."  
The Atlantic. October 10, 2013)

My Two Cents

High school is just high school and that should define the importance of a high school sports program. It's community foremost, and a small segment of one community at that. All good people herald the high school team as the most "important factor" in competition; however, inflatable egos housed in coaches, parents, fans, and young participants seem to push a personal obsession that would be better quelled. The gap between professional sports (even college sport) and high school sports is as wide as it ever has been despite the huge investments now given to succeeding.

I believe the fun I had playing sports in high school resulted because I had free will to join and compete. My parents never pressured me and seldom advised me of how to play or even if I should play. During high school, I had plenty of time to pursue other interests and to participate in family activities. Playing sports was something I chose to do, and I did it as an extension, not as a definition, of whom I was at the time.

I love my high school. I wore the purple and gold in many games to represent the district. Looking back on playing games that occurred over 45 years ago, I can honestly tell you participating made me less of a sports fanatic and more of an appreciative person who learned from both victories and defeats. The "profit" in high school sports to this individual is largely the memories of great enjoyment.

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