On Scholastic Athletics

     In response to questions regarding his defeat in this year’s Homecoming football game a local high school head coach responded that his team had not “come ready to play” and that they were a “mediocre” bunch. Now I’m not picking specifically on this coach—for all I know he is a great motivator who is revered and respected by all on his team. What struck me about his comments, however, was how similar they were to, and what a great example they were of, the boneheaded lamentations of the many coaches that so frequently grace our newspapers following losing efforts. If these remarks merely represent poorly thought-out sound bytes so be it, but if they reflect the beliefs of these people we have a real problem here. I fear the latter.

     My experience has been that too many American high school coaches lack the creativity, imagination, patience, foresight, teaching experience, in depth knowledge of their sport, and understanding of the adolescent mind, required of the job, and thus oft resort to ranting and boorish rebukes of their teams and individual players when the chips are down. This is especially poignant and surprising when year after year the coaches are handed groups of eager, experienced and talented, if not overachieving, athletes. How refreshing it would be to just once to hear a coach respond to a loss by saying “in every game there is a losing side—my players competed valiantly but we came up a bit short today”; or “losses are always the coaches fault. I have not learned to use my team’s talents effectively. I was simply out-coached”; or even better- “winning is great but I am trying to run an inclusive and enjoyable program here that allows all athletes to participate. Sometimes we are simply going to play more kids in a game at the sacrifice of some efficiency.” 

    My mind turns to the stories of one local coaching legend. By report, he carried a roster of over forty on his basketball team. He never cut. He sought to make sure that everyone on the team saw playing time at least periodically throughout the season. He never denigrated or crticized, but instructed, taught, and nurtured. He even won the majority of his games—presumably because his kids would have walked across fire for him. Was this man a diamonds in the rough, an abberation, a freak of nature? I fear so.

     Frankly I have been in shock at, and in awe of, the rudderless ship that is scholastic athletics. I cannot detect a guiding philosophy or principle behind this juggernaut, yet we parents and taxpayers support and fund it all with nary a murmur. Well, I have a few murmers, or at least queries.

     What is the actual purpose of scholastic athletics? Is it solely for the nurture and promotion of an athletically gifted few? Is it to serve as a filter in order to distil the rare few who can participate at the professional level (i.e. is it really all about professional sports and money)? Is it for the stratification of students in a school by the sole measure of physical development? Is it for the promotion of narcissism and/ or social Darwinism? Is it for the repetitive bombastic assault on the fragile adolescent ego? Is it for the discouragement of “geeks” and “klutzes” from  participation in healthy physical activities? Is it for community and/or parental ego fulfillment? Is it for the extrication of all sense of fun from physical activity and competition?

     What do we want our kids to learn form their experience in school sports? Is it how to win games and titles at any cost? If winning is of paramount importance, should we not actively recruit star athletes from other communities, offer their parents jobs in town, fudge a little on their birth certificates and report cards?

    Does anyone truly believe that degrading, insulting, and screaming at an adolescent will inspire him or her to play harder? Will the athlete look forever back on the experience with warmth and gratitude?         .

    Who oversees the activities and behaviors of school coaches, and to what guidelines are the coaches held? How are the coaches graded? How often are they formally reviewed? What feedback is solicited from the athletes? Is there continuing education for coaches in their respective sports as well as in the handling, nurturing, and motivating of adolescents? Do they receive even a modicum of psychological training? Are they well schooled in physical conditioning, weight training, and injury avoidance? Are our coaches at all capable of cultivating greater sport-specific skills in their players?

     What behaviors of coaches (and athletes) are acceptable and what are not (I would argue, for example, that any blaming of an individual athlete for a team’s failure or any persistent use of profanity is grounds for dismissal)?

     What policies are in place to protect a system from rampant nepotism and cronyism?

     Is there an effort to include all interested children in our sports programs? In this ever increasingly overweight and sedentary society, are we actively encouraging, if not soliciting, participation in our athletic programs? Where does the concept of fun fit into the whole deal? 

     What policy should there be on “cutting”? What recourse, or opportunity for petition, has the child who has been cut or benched? What alternative athletic activities have been established for those children cut? Does any coach have enough experience and training to judge the athletic potential and future physical development of a child he or she intends to cut? Are variations in age, physical maturity, and experience, factors in the review of player performance? 

     Is there an effort to promote unity and solidarity amongst the various sports and athletes so all events are approached as team and school?

    I may be expecting a lot, but frankly scholastic coaches have a hold of our kids more hours a day than we do, or any teacher. A great coach has a positive impact on a kid’s life that can last for decades. Incompetent and mean-spirited coaches can be a true threat to a child’s development. Certainly the behavior of many of our coaches would never be tolerated in the classroom. Could you imagine a teacher profanely lambasting a student for not achieving a perfect score on a mid-term exam?

    I would like to see the athletic courts and fields indeed become an extension of the classroom. I believe that scholastic athletics are, and should be considered, an important part of the curriculum. The goals and expectations of our athletic programs and thus our coaches should be planned, reviewed, and overseen. Coaches should be held to rigorous codes of ethics and behavior and should stay current in their sports, physical conditioning, and the general health (mental and physical) of developing children. Children (especially adolescents) should be encouraged to participate. There should be an overwhelming sense of inclusiveness. The denigration of a child for his or her physical competency by another athlete or by coach should be considered intolerable. School sports should be a blast for our kids, not drudgery or worse.

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