Declining participation in high school athletics is a trend nationwide. There are several reasons for this which will vary depending on whom you talk to. Those who are pro-athletics will claim sports specialization and year round options at the club level; kids will point out that there are so many other things to do; parents will talk about how busy days have become (for both kids and adults) because of the number of activities available; and we’ll always have the opinion trolls who denounce “today’s lazy kids” or “mean coaches” or any number of wide-spread stereotypes. While any or all of those may be true, perhaps the biggest issue is that we’re not promoting the real benefits of educational based competitive athletics.
As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, we tend to get hung up focusing on wins and losses at all levels of athletics. If a coach places all of his/her efforts into promoting a win, students are likely to miss some of the other lessons that they’ve learned. I strongly believe that winning itself is a by-product of both controllable and uncontrollable conditions and should not be the ultimate target. We can, however, actively promote the other benefits of being involved in competitive athletics.
Certainly, we can point out the benefits of daily exercise. There are multiple public service announcements and publicly promoted programs hyping daily exercise. Some of the sports that we are offer are truly lifetime activities. Sports like tennis, golf, track, and swimming can be done to some extent for the majority of most people’s lives – not necessarily competitively, but as a participant. But what about those people like me who competed in sports like football, basketball, and baseball that aren’t necessarily lifetime activities? I still learned that it feels pretty good to break a sweat, and I can notice that when stop exercising for a while, my body composition changes (which, of course, could lead to multiple medical problems as I get older). Getting kids into the routine of daily exercise can literally be a life saver some years down the road.
Being a part of athletics helps to teach and promote discipline. Obviously, we can mention various team rules and the higher standard to which we hold our athletes as an example of being disciplined, but I’m referring more toward the discipline necessary within the activity itself. Especially in team based sports, one person on the field/court not doing his/her job can completely ruin the efforts of everyone else. How transferable is this to the work place? Many of us work in industries where one co-worker’s lack of attention to detail can derail entire projects. Is there a better place to teach this skill to kids than in a venue where they can make those mistakes without any real tangible consequence? Being disciplined about the little things as an athlete teaches our kids that success is most likely to follow when everyone is doing the right thing. This is also transferable to individual based sports. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a wrestler get pinned because he tried to execute a move too soon; had that wrestler been disciplined enough to wait, he would have had a much higher chance for success.
Parallel to discipline is the idea of teamwork. One of the basic principles of teamwork in high school athletics is taught through managing various roles on a team. As I mentioned above, athletes’ ability to work together is essential to the ability of a team to succeed, but there are also examples of this importance in individual based sports. While it’s easy to see that a missed block in football can lead to a loss of yardage on a play, other examples are more difficult for the average fan to see. Again I return to wrestling where I believe there are great examples of teamwork within an individual sport. Often, when facing an extremely difficult opponent, coaches will send out an athlete who is really good at not getting pinned. I’ve seen multiple duals won or lost by a handful of points that resulted in kids simply not getting pinned. There are few things that make me smile more than watching teammates congratulate a peer despite losing a bout because he was able to “save” some points for the team. Other great example occurs in track where the use of a pacer is common in distance events. One team member takes the responsibility of setting the pace for other teammates in order to promote a higher finish. This type of role instruction is also useful in the workplace as an adult.
My favorite lesson in athletics is the ability to teach kids how to deal with adversity. I enjoy watching elementary age sports where kids haven’t learned “how” to lose yet. There are usually an abundance of tears as kids begin learning that adversity is part of the process toward becoming successful. At the high school level, we still see tears from time to time, but we’re more likely to see the classic temper tantrum. Within athletics, we need to teach our athletes to accept those challenges and change what needs to be changed to get better. As a coach, whenever an athlete would give me a “My bad,” I’d almost always answer with, “Don’t apologize; just fix it.” Teaching kids how to recover from mistakes, bad choices, or just plain bad luck can provide them another life skill.
There are certainly many more lessons than those: time management, goal setting, leadership, entertainment, etc. etc. etc. As adults, we can all look at the importance of those traits in our workplace to show kids how necessary they are to being successful. Those are the ideas that we need to promote to increase participation rates again. I will freely admit that a two hour practice isn’t appealing to the average teenager who could be doing so many other things, so let’s show our kids why that practice is worth the time and effort. Within athletics, we need to ask the right questions, point out the right results, and use their personal growth as our recruiting platform.