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Athletic Participation in Independent Schools

The reason I became a teacher was because I love basketball. No doubt about it. An interest in school sports led me to earn my degree in education. I wanted to be a teacher/coach and I thoroughly enjoyed many years doing that. As I sought professional advancement, I was fortunate to work under the guidance of a headmaster who had been long-time athletic director at a very fine school in the mid-west, Detroit Country Day. He appointed me athletic director and taught me the role of athletics in the independent school philosophy. I later went on to study the issue of athletics in my graduate work. The experiences of being a player, coach, athletics administrator, and a student of athletics has allowed me to form some views which I share with parents and colleagues at every opportunity.

The Importance of Athletics in Modern Society

It is generally recognized that adolescence is a period of life critical to the socialization process – that is, preparing children for the adult world. In pre-industrial society, the learning experiences which were structured for adolescents emphasized work. A huge percentage of children worked in agriculture and some as apprentices for skilled craftsmen. In modern times, with mandatory education laws, schools have taken on the major role in socializing children; however, some of the learning that formerly took place through practical experiences is not and cannot be replicated in classrooms.

In earlier times, children helped their families and their neighbors with planting and harvesting, other cooperative activities, and daily chores. Through these experiences they learned teamwork, self-sacrifice, and discipline – character traits that are also associated with good sportsmanship. These values cannot be learned from textbooks, but can be realized from participation in athletics. Also, the poise and confidence which comes from athletic participation – the ability to focus and apply one’s talents under pressure – is a very important life skill.

Academic Benefits of Participation

Extensive research on the relationship between extra-curricular activities and academic achievement has been conducted over the years. Holland and Andre (1987) compiled and analyzed all of the research on this issue up to that time. Their conclusions were that “athletes receive better grades and have higher educational expectations than comparable non-athletes” and “there was no evidence that activity programs in high schools diverted students from academic pursuits.”

There are variables which make it impossible to say that sports involvement improves academic success, but there is clearly a positive correlation. This correlation is evident in these statements from the U.S. Department of Education. “Students who ranked high on four related performance measures (course credits, hours of homework, test scores, and grade point averages) tended to be more involved in extra-curricular activities. In fact, the more activities students were involved in, the higher they ranked.”

Quality physical education programs are an important component in encouraging students to participate in interscholastic sports in middle and high school. PE classes should build confidence and competence so that young people will want to be a part of their schools’ teams when they
reach the grade levels at which interscholastic competitions are appropriate and available. No Pass, No Play? Some parents and school administrators are quick to pull boys and girls out of sports and other extra-curricular activities because of declining grades. A few do not allow their kids to get involved in the first place so they can devote all their time to academic pursuits. I believe this is a mistake. Considering the evidence above, a more educationally sound approach is to keep the students on the team while regulating their participation in games. For example, students who don’t complete all their homework or score well on tests would not get to travel to away games. Keeping the incentive in place and connecting it to expectations of achievement makes more sense than eliminating the incentive altogether.

No Cuts Policy

A long-time tradition of independent boarding schools is requiring students to participate in athletics. There is great logic behind this rule, although the requirement is not very common in independent day schools. On the other hand, most good independent day schools make accommodations for all students and encourage full participation in team sports. If too many players sign up for the team, add a second team. The purpose of athletics in independent schools is for all the boys and girls to benefit from the experience – to gain the lessons which can only be learned on the field or on the court. How can we in good conscience resort to the typical public school procedure of cutting the teams down to the number of uniforms available? In public schools, the athletes play the games and the bulk of the students watch. In independent schools, everyone should play the games because athletics is the vehicle for things that everyone should learn.

One argument against a no-cuts policy is that by “diluting the talent pool” the team may not win as many games. I don’t advocate that every team member plays in every game. It is counterproductive for kids to be placed in pressure situations before they are ready to handle them. Thoughtful coaches will find ways for every team member to help the team at some time during the year, but the coach should be allowed to determine who plays. Right-thinking coaches will reward the players who attend practice and give their best efforts (and the reverse of this is true, as well). I firmly believe that full participation and good coaching will result in strong athletic programs which will win more than their share of championships while achieving the higher purposes of athletic participation in the educational setting.

A True Story

Finally, let me tell you the story of Doug. He was small, even for middle school, and had not developed many basketball skills. Nonetheless, my school had a no-cuts policy and Doug was one of the seventeen players on my middle school basketball team. Doug steadily progressed during practices and about halfway through the season he was seeing a few minutes of action each game as a reserve guard. A rather incredible event happened in the fourth quarter of a game in which Doug had been pressed into duty due to foul trouble of several players. He hit two consecutive shots which gave us the victory – the first points he had ever scored in a league game. Doug continued to work hard at his game and eventually capped his high school career as the starting point guard on a state champion basketball team. Doug also went on to earn a doctorate degree in athletic training. What a wonderful outcome and tribute to a no-cuts policy!

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