sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Are youth sports to blame for slide in U.S. education?

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My favorite magazine, The Atlantic, ran a piece this month connecting the U.S. school sports obsession with our lagging academic performance compared to other countries. While the causality in Amanda Ripley’s “The Case Against High-School Sports” isn’t airtight, her argument raises provocative points about our education priorities.

I’m torn about youth sports. On one hand, I love them. I love my participation as a coach, and I enjoy watching the kids I coach improve their coordination and teamwork and learn those lessons of success and failure that appear so starkly in sports. With my own children, I even enjoy just watching them practice – they’re happy, churning their little bodies through space, trying so hard.

Yet the obsessiveness that takes over on the parts of adults can spoil things quickly — and often does. Ripley’s question is this: Just how bad are the results of this hyperfocus on sports?

She looks at schools around the world, saying, “Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else.” In pointing out how other countries do not “staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams,” she asks a surprisingly obvious question: “…well, why would they?”

If we’re worried about educational quality, maybe we should stop choking our kids with tests and re-think the way we present and depict the educational experience. If that experience should focus on academics in earnest way, then I suppose we would have to de-emphasize sports. Engaging in that type of dialogue would open up good conversation about our values and how our application of those values affects our schools. (Warning: In my experience, human beings loathe this kind of self-reflection.) For instance, Ripley said an analysis of one school revealed that it spent $328 per student for math and $1,348 for each cheerleader.

I think the concept of sports for the individual has become badly muddled with sports as collective. The individual running along a darkened road, pushing to be better, is still to me a beautiful image/concept. But once we’ve clustered those individuals into teams and organizations, the goal of winning ends up having little to do with what athletics really are about (see New York Yankees). It has to do with money, drugs, cheating – anything to get something in the W column.

This leaves youth coaches in particular – a group of which I’m proud to be a part – in a weird place. You have to hit the right balance between restraint and encouragement, helping the people you are working with get better, find something in themselves, without crossing over into making the whole endeavor into a machine. Rabid fans, especially those with $100 bills hanging out of their pockets, don’t help.

We end up replacing the goal of achievement with the goal of winning. If you see me carrying on like a poor man’s John McEnroe on the tennis courts one weekend, you’ll realize how personally invested I am with winning my own events — all of them — but I am a different creature when I’m coaching a nine-year-old wrestler or soccer player. I remember a conversation with a friend I coached with. Our team was getting trounced, again, and I said, “You know, we’re not trying to win.” He looked shocked, almost offended, but I said, “If we’re really trying to win” and then I pointed out to the field “that kid and that kid and that kid never play. And we would never do that to them.”

Especially in our culture now, with the problems of obesity and the inviting lethargy of screens, sports seems like a vital part of education. But if you want your team to be #1, human nature will lead you to a path that has been well-trod by big-time football programs around the country (see this amazingly predictable beat-down of Oklahoma State’s football program in Sports Illustrated) and big-time athletic organizations around the world.

While the numbers demonstrating that many countries are exceeding the U.S. in key educational measures are subject to their own questioning (I’m always wary of these broad-brush educational assessments), our educational attention and dollars are not directed to academics the way they might be. This seems obvious, and people have known this: Ripley quotes an athletic director in Texas from 1927: “Football cannot be defended in the high school unless it is subordinated, controlled, and made to contribute something definite in the cause of education.”

Ripley’s article doesn’t provide all the answers, but she cites another Texas school that cut most of its athletics and then saw a significant rise in academic achievement (and character!). Could you imagine standing up at a school board meeting and saying, “I think we should dump all our sports and put all the money into the English department?” People might laugh. They might ignore you. Some might want to beat you up. And maybe cutting sports isn’t the real answer, but your question could get people asking a few healthy questions of their own.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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9 Responses to “Are youth sports to blame for slide in U.S. education?”

  1. Sports were supposed to be an addition to education — a way to teach kids lessons they could carry back into the classroom and beyond. They have become a function within themselves, sadly. The connection of sports to school is lost, except as a bragging right, as you point out by mentioning the emphasis on winning. It is a shame. Many of us learned some of our best lessons on the field. I wonder if our kids will be able to say the same in the future. When newspapers cover high school sports, something is wrong. Who cares who wins a high school football game? We do, apparently. Why, I don’t know. Have you ever watched a high school football game? Ho-freaking-hum.

  2. Chris said: “Many of us learned some of our best lessons on the field. I wonder if our kids will be able to say the same in the future.”

    No, because our information/technology culture is vastly more instant, graphic and ubiquitous than we who are over 40 could have imagined. Younger people aren’t given the time anymore to work through and process events and experiences. Everything is in the moment, everything is imaged, Tweeted, You Tubed, Facebooked and it’s here and gone in an instant.

    So the kids, the parents, the coaches and the schools are so concerned about the instant result and the media of our times that nothing is permanent. Everything is shoved into the immediate outcome so that there is no time to learn, to discuss, no time for the celebrations or the tears. We live and die in the moment.

  3. I don’t think we have to choose between sports and academic subjects. Sports are wonderful and participating in them (whether individually, or on a team, whether in school our out) is one of the wonderful aspects of being a human being. Sports can be absolutely glorious. At their best, they are as edifying as religious experiences (and, interestingly, the descriptions many athletes give of the experience of being “in the zone” are actually almost identical to the descriptions religious mystics give of their experiences).

    The problem is not with sports. It’s with our culture. It’s with our fervent anti-intellectualism and with a competitiveness that is so intense it has crossed over into the pathological. Schools should have strong academic programs that teach young people how glorious it is to be a rational animal and what a joy it is to be able to grasp, to understand the phenomena of human experience, but they should also have strong athletics programs, programs where young people learn how glorious it is to have a body and to learn to master it and teach it to reach new heights.

    There’s nothing wrong with sports, what’s “wrong” with this culture runs much deeper than that.

  4. I think everyone should have the opportunity to experience “the thrill of Victory” whether it be on the field, in a gym, outside or inside a classroom. It is good for the soul to strive or set goals for even if it isn’t achieved every time. Losing and not giving up, learning our lessons from experiences we encounter are very educational. When I was in high school my township Board of Education had to make budget cuts. Back then the four years I was in high school they chose to do away with all the GIRLS interscholastic sports….didn’t touch the boys programs (1962 through 1965). Being the girl jock that I was (still am) I was very disheartened. It could have made a difference of me wanting to go on to college like my brothers because of basketball and baseball. I have witnessed first hand many years later the education I missed, the fun, the incentive, the lessons that being part
    of a team teaches from driving our high school teams to their away games on my schoolbus. I saw many different coaches and heard them inter act with their teams and most of them seemed earnestly there to teach and guide them in their sport; they out numbered the ones that talked “win, win, win”.
    Sports and academics should go “hand in hand” not one against the other.

  5. “Rabid fans, especially those with $100 bills hanging out of their pockets, don’t help.” Change the word “fans” to “parents”. This pains me to no end. I have personally heard parents – and you know who you are – yelling to THEIR child the encouragement of dollars-for-goals.
    NO teamwork
    NO great effort
    me, me, me, me. MY child is THE BEST because he/she scored ALL the goals this week.
    Sad parents that didn’t succeed in their own sporting life now living through their child of destiny. Why its SO obvious that my little Buster (name changed to protect ME) is an 8 year old prodigy of such skill that he really should just skip right to his college scholarship!
    By-the-by, I’m not claiming to be perfect, but I was fortunate enough to have a horrible experience with parents early on in my coaching “career”, followed by some good old fashioned craziness while president of baseball/softball.
    I had some success athletically, but I am most proud of my kid’s academic successes. For them, and 99.9% of the children we know, this is their future. I’ll let you know when I see one of those 0.1%ers

  6. Great article and very true on so many levels. I loved the comment about about how we live and die by the moment. This technology, while great is going to kill us all!! I just wanted to share a great, true story I heard tonight.

    Our high school has this awesome homecoming tradition where the whole class comes together and works together for a full week on designing an entire float out of tissue paper, a full skit by the entire class, plus spirit week etc. We started all the festivities tonight. The high school boys soccer teams all had away games and pretty far away so none of them were able to come tonight. It dawned on me at the end of the night that the President of our class who is also a soccer player was at homecoming the entire time I asked him about it and he said he told his coach (he plays JV) that he is the president of his class and it was very important for him to be at homecoming because it was the first night. I was shocked and inquired how the coach took the news. The JV coach was okay with it but this boy received a text from the Varsity coach asking where he was with a few choice words.

    Again, I was very shocked that he made this decision to stay with the class instead of playing his sport. He pointed to his head and said “I will get money for this, not for playing a sport”!! WOW, pretty shocking in todays world where every parent thinks their child is going to get big money for playing sports in college. I applaud this boy’s parents for allowing him to make the decision and not forcing him to go to his game. Now, will there be any repercussions? He said he will probably have to sit out the next game. Now that is pretty sad!

  7. Wonderful article Scott.
    My solution to this problem, stop tradional grading system of A-F, Make it Win, Tie, Fail. It would be wonderful to hear a parent say my kid won in English class or even better bring out an air-horn and blow it when their kids get good grades.

    I am very happy I know longer have to deal with this crazy culture directly. Indirectly, we are all paying for it. What are we supplying our future with?

  8. Scott, Yes. It’s a two-sided coin; Mens sana in corpore sano–a healthy mind in a healthy body. Of course, my varsity sport was Latin Scrabble–we were county champions all three years I was on the team. Still, a friend of mine persuaded me in spring semester in 9th grade to run, continuously, very slowly, all period every day in gym class instead of being the despised spazz on one of the teams (baseball, soccer, volleyball, whatever) that various kids were choosing to play. At first, the other kids laughed at us, but after a few weeks they lost interest, and I would run–lope, really–on my own along the creek for years afterwards. I stopped when a traffic accident broke my kneecap and tibia, but I still do the occasional wind sprint to catch the bus–and I’m not even winded!

  9. Last weekend, my daughter’s U12 soccer team beat an opponent 9-1. Her coach didn’t respect the rather complex mercy rules of the Friendship League and coached his team as if they were actually down 5-0 right to the final seconds. Kids are just going to do what their coaches and parents say and the players had little idea what would happen next: at least 5 girls on the opposing team were reduced to tears. The decifit was absurd. The coach gloated afterwards about his team management prowess. I wanted to punch him in his throat. I thought all week about this and I’ve decided to discuss it with him and let him why I thought what he did was more about his needs than his team’s needs. Sports are great. Team sports are great. I want to see them thrive. But, I really think parents have a responsibility to intercede when these types of things happen because if we don’t we are complicit in the phenomenon you’ve accurately described in this piece. I probably won’t punch his throat.

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