On Sunday, I tweeted about an article on ESPN about a high school basketball game in which a student missed two free throws intentionally so a player from the other team could check into the game without penalizing his team. The player that wanted to check in had just lost his mother and hadn't planned on playing. After he changed his mind the referees had to give out a technical foul to his team.
I noted in my tweet that I considered this an example of the reasons we need to keep sports in school. I did make sure I made it clear I didn't think it had to be the school system that had the sports team. But I do think sports are very important for many reasons. Later that night @brojohost commented that he disagreed with my position. He gave an example where his school cut his Russian language program while funding the sports program. While I respected his opinion, I had to respond and Twitter was not the medium to do that.
Before I get into my reasons for saving sports, I want to make a few things clear. First, I understand many of the arguments for eliminating school sports. It creates superstars who everyone loves and leaves those not athletically inclined outside this group. Parents take it way to seriously, injuries occur, and yes it's expensive. I know many people can give a thousand different reasons sports should go. But here are my arguments for keeping sports.
First, sports teach life lessons. When properly coached, players on sports team learn a ton of lessons. Team work is just the beginning. Players learn to respect their opponent while trying to defeat them. They learn competition occurs not just against other teams but also within their team. They also learn the unfortunate fact that no matter how hard you work, sometimes you just don't have enough natural ability to be the best. Anyone who hasn't participated in sports who says that's a problem with sports forgets that this fact occurs in every walk in life. Great cooks generally have unbelievable taste sensitivity, being able to pick out individual flavors where the rest of us just taste the dish. Great musicians usually have a innate since for tone. The list continues, but sports also show that with hard work, you can overcome your natural deficiencies and though you may not be able to be the best, you can compete at their level.
Second, sports get our children active. We consistently decry the obesity epidemic in this country, and if we expanded our sports programs this would help solve the crisis. Kids used to go sit in a classroom and then go home and help dad and mom run the farm, clean the house, or other tasks. As we automated our lives kids stopped working at home. Getting kids out on the playing surface whether it is ice, grass, or hardwood is an important first step in keeping them fit.
Third, sports bring people together. If you don't believe me, go to a small town when the high school hockey/basketball/football team is playing. If it's anything like my hometown, the majority of the town will be at the sporting venue, regardless of whether or not their children are playing.
Finally I am going to make an argument that I know will get some of you riled up. Sports are more important to a students development than many progressive education programs. Human civilization has always had competition between individuals. Throughout history this has occurred not through the burning of energy during a basketball game but in training for war. Sports teach many of the same lessons learned in military training and these lessons are useful in all walks of life. Of course the lessons sports teach can be learned elsewhere. In fact I think one of the most under appreciated disciplines we teach in school is music. Learning to play an instrument or sing with a group of your peers teach many of the lessons I feel sports teach.
Now I'm not saying that learning Russian or other training isn't important. But many of the progressive programs that people think we should fund instead of sports are just that disciplines. Learning Russian will help you appreciate other cultures, probably help you if you want to learn another language, and may even help you in other ways. But you aren't going to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, or competition.
In my opinion this boils down the argument that should be taking place about our education system. We should stop focusing so much on teaching facts and more on teaching life lessons and how to learn. Instead of telling our students to memorize formulas, facts, and figures, we should be teaching them problem solving skills so they can solve problems they haven't encountered before. Sports do this, a coach can't teach a player how to handle every situation that will occur in a game, so players have to learn how to think on their feet. If they don't solve the problem they don't just get a lesser score on a test, they disappoint their teammates which is going to make them try that much harder. By trying harder they are more likely to succeed and the more often they succeed in unexpected situations the better they will perform in these situations overall. This includes things like math, English, and even learning Russian.
Of course I could write a whole post about the problems sports have. Competition is great, but unfortunately we see too many instances where parents, coaches, and schools take things way to seriously. Yes, players should try to win, but we need to quit putting pressure on the players. Only the coach and teammates should be doing that. On the other hand we also need to stop worrying so much about making the losers feel good. It's okay for players to be disappointed when they lose, this will only make them try harder next time and they learn from defeat.
So there is my argument for keeping sports in school. I understand there is a funding issue and if we can't educate our students with the funds we have then sports should be considered as a possible candidate for reduced funding. Shouldn't be building palaces for high school sports when we can't purchase new books for the classrooms. Maybe we shouldn't allow sponsors and donors to specify that their funds can go toward sporting events so we can use some of the money for other things. But getting rid of sports in their entirety isn't the answer either. Education shouldn't be only about math, science, and English. We need to make sure our kids are ready to succeed in a world where knowing how to calculate the area of a square or write a novel just isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. We need to focus on the basics and sports are a great way to get there.