A Sporting Chance

I have a problem.  Ok, I have lots of problems but I want to blog about this one…  You see, I want to love school sport and in fact for many years I did.  But my love light is flickering and is in danger of going out.  Before I really dive into this issue, let me share a few quick facts about me and my love.

I played school sport.

I coached countless school teams.

I have watched school sport positively change the lives of kids.

I have seen school sport re-ignite teachers’ passion for education.

Despite all the positive experiences I have had over the past 30 years, why does my taste for school sport seem to turning from sweet to bitter?  After a lot of thoughtful, pensive, pondering; a good deal of reading; hour upon hour of observation; several naps (seriously, naps are awesome); deliberate discussion with many friends and colleagues I have narrowed my reasoning down to three key issues.

#1. Participation Rates.  I spent many years coaching at the junior high (grades 7-9) level.  My last school had a population of about 400.  Because I was interested, I kept track of all the kids that played on all the teams we had.  Over the whole year, only 90 kids out of the 400 played at least one sport (many played more than one).

22.5% of the school population could access all the benefits of being part of school sport (sort of… more on this in the next issue).  But that also means that 77.5% of students had no involvement whatsoever with school sports.  Public education systems around the world are founded on the belief that a democracy requires informed and intelligent citizens.  Egerton Ryerson, one of the key advocates for public education in Canada, firmly believed that schooling should not be a class privilege and should be not only universal, but free (see – History of Public Education).

So why do we continue to commit school resources to something that can only benefit some of the students?  In the very thought provoking article The Case Against High School Sports, Amanda Ripley shares the example of Spelman College.  Spelman spent almost $1 million on athletics for 4% of the student body.  Given the fact that almost half of the incoming class in 2012 had some sort of chronic health issue that could be improved by exercise, the president made a change.  The $1 million dollars was re-directed in 2013 towards a campus wide health and fitness program to benefit all.  Intriguing.  Can we continue to justify only providing the benefits of school sport to less than 25% of our students?

#2. Elitism.  So.  You are one of the lucky ones – you make the school team.  Yay for you!  Life will now be blissful and wonderful as you develop your prowess and skills along with the other kids on your team.  Not so fast.  What I continue to see is that the best 5,6, 11, etc. kids are treated very differently than the rest.  They are given the bulk of the playing time and have the most opportunity to learn and develop in practice.  I suppose this is just an extension of the previous point.  We’ve already got rid of over 75% of the kids.  Why not winnow it down a little further?

Quite simply, we can’t afford this sort of elitism in a school sponsored “educational” sport experience (please note the very sarcastic nature of my finger quotes).  Public school is for all.  A year ago, the director of education in Canada’s largest school board wrote an editorial for the Star. In the article he argues for all the physical, psychological and social benefits to children from school sport.  I don’t disagree with these benefits, however, we must recognize that school sport misses a large number of kids. If we are going to continue to only provide sport for 25%, then at the very least, let’s stop the elitism there.  Segue to my next point.

#3. Winning first. I believe that this issue is actually at the heart of the problems with school sport (and perhaps community and club too).  School is about becoming an informed, engaged, educated citizen – now and for life.  Not about winning trophies and putting banners on the wall.  Don’t get me wrong, winning is not in itself a bad thing.  Pretty sure most of us would rather win than lose.  The problem lies in placing winning as the ultimate goal with all else, including player development and dignity, coming a distant second.

A short story and then I’ll wrap this up.  A few years ago I coached a junior high, junior basketball team.  I had 18 kids try out and 18 kids made the team.  We had a perfect season. 0-6.  Whaaaaaaaat?  The last game of the year, we lost 46-84.  My boys were jumping in the air, cheering, slapping each other on the back.  The other team was asking their coach, “Didn’t we win the game?”  Let me explain.  I had 18 grade 7 boys on my team who had never played on a basketball team before and some had never really played basketball at all.  As a team, our goals were to improve individual and team skills and essentially to be better by the end of the season.  Oh, and to grow to love the sport of basketball.

We were excited to “lose” our last game because we did not define our success individually or as a team by winning.  Here are the important stats of that final game.

  • we had our highest scoring game ever (previous record – 23 points)
  • we were not doubled by the other team
  • we kept the other team’s score below 100
  • every player scored at least one basket
  • one player who had never got on the scoresheet before not only scored a bucket – he FOULED someone!  For a kid who was scared to play defence, this was a big step!

The point is, we would have had a dismal season if we focused on winning.  Instead, we put development first and arranged our season goals around that concept.  Everyone played (line change!), everyone improved and everyone won.

So what should we do? Cut school sport all together?  Let club sports take over? Let high school sports die?

To be honest, I am not really sure what we should do.  I am, however, convinced that we need to do something different.  A re-imagining of school sport, if you will.

What if all kids received quality daily physical education that included true physical literacy foundations providing them with the foundation to pursue a variety of sport and physical activity?

What if late elementary and junior high kids ALL had opportunities to participate in sport clubs that would develop their skills and allow them to compete positively against others of the same level?

What if high school sport was a place that had opportunities for ANY student to play at the level they choose?

What if we made a commitment to place development ahead of winning at all levels of school sport?

I’m not ready to give up on school sport.  But as a society, our relationship with school sport needs to move from infatuation to love; patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not dishonorable and not self-seeking.

Let’s work together to find a way to give all kids in school a sporting chance.

(re-post of my guest post on the ParticipACTION Blog)