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School Sports Matter. How to Make Them Matter More (Opinion)

In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and we will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us. Given the arrival of March Madness, it seemed like a good time to talk about youth sports.

Rick

Jal: This winter, I spent my evenings coaching three middle school basketball teams for my kids: two local teams and one travel team. It was a great chance to get out from behind the computer and unleash my deeper learning theories on unsuspecting children! I’ve been at this a few years. I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned that might have broader relevance for education.

As I’ve stressed before, I think that activities like sports and the arts are very well-suited to powerful learning. There is a clear collective purpose that motivates the action. Learning is by doing. There is a nice balance between direct instruction and the freedom and creativity that playing basketball necessarily entails. Identity and culture build over the course of a season: Players start out looking mostly for their own shot and covering their own man, but as the season progresses, they learn to trust their teammates on both ends of the floor—and that playing together is the key to success.

Basketball also has a very nice rhythm for learning. For our travel team, we had two practices a week, with games on the weekend. Each Tuesday after a game, we would gather in a circle on the floor and talk about what went well, what did not, and what we wanted to work on. Playing games generates demand for learning. Once you’ve spent a weekend being throttled by a 1-3-1 zone, you are really motivated to learn how to play a pace and space offense. In addition, learning layers over time: What begins as simple basketball movements gradually becomes formations and offensive and defensive principles. Direct instruction and modeling by coaches gradually shifts toward more peer learning as kids tell each other how they need to move and where they need to be.

At the same time, coaching reveals how mysterious and long the learning process really is. You teach something, the kids practice it, and then the game comes on Sunday—and it turns out they haven’t really learned it the way that you thought they had! You try again: You break it into pieces and have players practice it individually but see no real change. And yet, if you look at it in longer arcs—watching over the course of the season or over several seasons—their progress is evident: Fifth graders who could barely reach the rim become 7th graders who can make 3-pointers; kids who started the season with very little confidence find their roles and become more sure of themselves. It reminds me a little of doctoral students: You can’t necessarily be sure of the impact of any particular class, but after five or six years of academic immersion, they have a certain level of maturity, command of research literature, and, most of all, the ability to organize their own research.

Rick, you’ve done the soccer parent thing, and you’ve also written before about what we can learn from good coaches. What do you think?

Rick: It’s a great topic, thanks for raising it. My take is pretty straightforward: Sports are good, especially for kids. They’re good for fine motor skills, self-discipline, and gumption. Coaches can serve as crucial role models and mentors. Teams can be invaluable sources of friendship. There are, of course, terrible coaches and toxic teams. But, on the whole, team sports are the single best thing I can think of for the healthy development of kids. As a parent, sports are a chance to see your kid hustle, succeed, fail, and improve. It’s an opportunity to play and practice together, to share experiences and impart lessons. Kids get to see the payoff from practice and make friends. And, of special import today, sports offer an array of practices, games, and experiences that are decidedly offline.

So, like I said, sports are good. Yet, I fear that we can get this wrong, in two ways.

My biggest concerns is that too many well-meaning educators have forgotten just how valuable sports are. I fear that distaste for “competition” and a therapeutic approach to social and emotional health has created headwinds. I’m struck by SEL advocates who rattle off classroom interventions but grow hesitant when it comes to the value of school sports and by academics who deride sports as a cultural backwater. A few years ago, bestselling author Amanda Ripley wrote “The Case Against High-School Sports” in The Atlantic, while Brookings Institution scholar Michael Hansen has argued that sports are “distracting us from our schools’ main goals.” School officials have retired a host of playground sports, grown nervous about letting kids play in rainy weather, and often seemed more concerned about litigation than exercise.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a huge increase in travel leagues and other “here’s-how-you-get-a-college-scholarship” programs. The same dynamics that have prompted Type A parents to turn adolescence into an overscheduled grind have fueled year-round swim teams and pricey travel leagues that require single-minded commitment and a ludicrous amount of time in transit. There’s pressure on kids to “pick a lane” and commit to a sport year-round—rather than just get exercise, have fun, and learn how to be a reliable part of a team.

It feels like we’re hollowing out the middle—the place where kids play hard, find beloved coaches, and do it with their friends and classmates. The skills that sports aspire to teach—perseverance, self-discipline, leadership, and teamwork—are the very ones that help produce successful graduates and responsible citizens. And I worry that we risk losing too much of this.

Jal: I think you are onto something on the hollowed-out middle. My 7th grade son aspires to be well-rounded but is increasingly finding that all of his activities—basketball, soccer, violin, robotics—are asking for substantially more commitment this year than in previous years. But he doesn’t want to be a professional soccer player or professional robotics engineer—he just wants to do a variety of things that he enjoys. The winner-take-all phenomenon, where kids are pushed early to play one sport all year so that they can compete in that sport in high school or college, seems to me an unambiguously bad development. Most kids are not going to play college sports, so we should let kids be kids and enjoy the variety of activities the world has to offer.

The antidote to that, other than simply making wise parental choices, is continuing to offer extracurriculars at many different levels. My local public high school has a thriving intramural basketball program, where kids can play in leagues, with referees, which creates opportunities for kids to get the fun of playing competitive basketball without restricting it to the 12 kids in a 1,500-person school who can make the varsity team. Coaches should also resist the temptation to ask for more, more, more and, instead, take a more holistic view of kids’ lives. While it may be good for their team to up the level of athletic commitment, when viewed across kids’ whole lives, such a demand creates an unsustainable grind.

A related point is that I think many coaches are missing opportunities to build the kind of relationships among kids that can make sports so special. My kids have been on some teams that were so focused on the game play that they barely knew the kids they were playing with. It’s fine for the ’78 Red Sox to have one team and 25 taxi cabs, but that shouldn’t be the case in youth sports. My son Alex was on one basketball team, and he came home saying he made a friend. “Great,” I said. “What is he into? Does he have any siblings?” “I don’t know any of that,” Alex said. “I just know that now I have someone to warm up with.”

Conversely, I was lucky this year to coach a team where kids went to the same school and played with their friends. I’m pretty sure they enjoyed the practices more than the games. They loved the chance to play with—and one-up—each other and to use the breaks to discuss their budding 7th grade romances. That’s the kind of thing that we have too little of in today’s society, and it shows what sports can be at their best.

Rick: I like the way you’ve framed this. The power of sports is in exactly the kinds of things you put your finger on: Exploration. Friendships. Connections. Mentoring. There’s way too little time for that today, especially when we know how many hours tweens and teens spend online. That makes sports invaluable.

But taking advantage of that requires working hard to fill in the middle that’s getting gradually hollowed out. Not only is that work not getting done, I fear it’s rarely even on the radar. Outside of glamour teams in sports powerhouses, I’d venture to say that sports have become a bottom-tier concern for school leaders and superintendents focused on learning loss, chronic absenteeism, fiscal worries, discipline issues, and culture clashes. While I get it, I think that’s shortsighted—given that sports can be a powerful way to attract, engage, and support students, which can help address some of these other concerns.

There’s a screaming opportunity here to pursue the “more things at more levels” approach you suggest. And this has the virtue of being a whole lot cheaper and easier than expanding, say, travel programs—which are both costly and all-consuming. Schools and communities should work to expand after-school offerings, weekend sports, intramural offerings, and more. A lot of sports programming got shut down or atrophied during the pandemic. Rejuvenating it hasn’t been a priority. But it should be.

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