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Helping Students Learn the Best Lessons From Organized Sports

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For many, a rite of passage from childhood is participation in neighborhood parks and recreation sports programs. Many great things come from these activities. Kids learn the value of teamwork, goal setting, and developing skills. Often they learn the fundamentals and love of a sport they continue to play through high school and beyond. Unfortunately, some participants also learn some bad habits that might hinder future academic success. As educators and parents, we must help students separate the positive things from the negative lessons they may also learn.

Just Show Up

In my years of personal affiliation with parks and rec sports, I have seen too many parents who don’t teach their children to take participation seriously. Many parents allow their children to miss practices and games without good reason. They do not help their children work on the skills learned so that kids improve in the fundamentals. They allow kids to quit before the season is over, without regard for the fact that it teaches them to give up.

Don’t get me started on “participation” trophies. Winning in sports and academics requires hard work and full effort. Handing all players trophies does not help instill a hunger for success in other areas. When students are more concerned about grades than learning, cheating becomes justifiable. We have too many students who are “paper champions” and look good from a GPA standpoint but have not learned the ethics of hard work and commitment required to succeed beyond high school.

Entitlement Rules

Because playtime is guaranteed in parks and rec sports, some kids develop a sense they are entitled to play, regardless of skill or work ethic. Parents perpetuate this idea by complaining to coaches if their child doesn’t get as much playing time as the more skilled players on the team. Eventually things will get to the point in a child’s life where opportunity is made on talent or luck or a combination of these things. Children raised thinking that everything they want should be handed to them will lament that this new world is not “fair.”

Sarah D. Sparks wrote a great article for Education Week called “Are You Enabling Academic Entitlement in Students?” She outlines research on what happens when kids transfer their entitlement mentality to school. All teachers have met these types of students. They believe that the gods of knowledge will come down from on high to bestow upon them all the necessary knowledge, and they are not personally responsible for working hard. If they don’t perform well, the teacher must not like them, or the test was unfair.

Problem Solving 101

Parks and rec sports provide rules, and all conflicts have a hierarchy of resolution that is not the participant’s responsibility. Of course sports need rules. Those rules are sometimes broken and a neutral third party, like a referee, is helpful in citing the violation. But today, more kids participate in only structured, adult-controlled activities. Fewer children experience the days of playing relatively unsupervised in the neighborhood because parents schedule everything from play dates to homework time. Kids rarely learn the art of negotiation or the critical thinking that comes from working things out on their own.

When I was a child and we played pick-up sports in the neighborhood, we had to resolve conflicts ourselves. Yes, we had the option of going home if things weren’t “fair.” But eventually we learned the valuable skill of figuring out how to settle things to keep the game going. We also made up our own activities. The creativity and critical thinking skills developed during these formative years are invaluable. Too many students want teachers or parents to give them the answers rather than figuring things out for themselves.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers can take a number of steps to reinforce the positive lessons kids can learn in sports.

  • Make students responsible for their own learning. Give students choices in their assignments, but hold them accountable for the work. Expect them to work in groups and work out differences themselves before leaning on you.
  • Encourage mastery, not grades. Make students redo work until they are proficient rather than just accept the grade first earned. Don’t give them grades on assignments, but instead provide commentary. This forces them to learn from the commentary rather than scan for a grade that is satisfactory or unsatisfactory to them.
  • Don’t entertain debate on grades. If students have a question or concern (other than a mistake on your part), have them submit an appeal in writing. Last year I had a number of AP English students who wanted to be exempt from a final project so I required them to submit their arguments in writing. It was an effective final lesson when I discussed with them their appeal was denied because their tone and argument was insulting because they failed to consider the audience.

What Parents Can Do

  • Encourage kids to work things out for themselves. Give them opportunities to plan and problem solve on their own. Let them write the menu and grocery list for a family dinner that fits within a set budget. Let them plan a family vacation to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  • Teach kids to self-advocate. Don’t swoop in when there is a conflict with a teacher or other adult, but discuss how your child can get the information she needs and stand up for herself. If your child never learns how to discuss academic issues with a teacher because you always do it for her, she will have a hard time in college when you are legally unable to do so. If you are a helicopter parent, your child never learns how to navigate bureaucracy, and adult life will be a nightmare.
  • Focus on learning, not grades. Stop asking about grades only. If you only care about how the test went, you are showing your child that the grade, not the learning, matters. Ask them to show you what they are working on in class. Have them show you how to solve a math problem or chemistry equation. Praise their learning. Not only will you possibly learn something new yourself, but it will ensure your child knows the material well and could give him more confidence on the next test.

Navigating a competitive world is a daunting task. Working together, families, teachers, and coaches can help children grow into confident, self-sufficient, critical-thinking problem solvers.

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