The 2012 World Series is over, though the NFL season is well under way. But it was the 2012 London Olympics—the most-watched Olympic games in history—that got me thinking about sports and students.
In the United States, sports take center stage in prime-time television programming, and Americans of all ages tune in. As schools struggle to raise graduation rates and look for alternative ways to enrich curriculum and improve student health, they should take a moment to consider the Olympics and other competitions. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other ancient peoples knew the value of sports. Exercise is as old as humanity itself. If sports were so important among ancient cultures and continue to be in the 21st century, why don’t schools do more to incorporate them into their curricula?
The Greeks of the classical age understood the importance of physical activity and the cultivation of the mind. The Lyceum was more than just a place where the Greeks exercised—it was a place where the concept of balancing the physical with the mental evolved: “Spirit healthy, body healthy.” Thus, there has to be a strong connection between academic achievement and athletic participation. Athleticism not only motivates students to stay in school, but it also keeps them healthy. The United States has a major problem with obesity; increasing students’ dose of exercise will improve their bodies which, in turn, will improve their minds.
When I was in middle school, I joined the track team. When I was in high school, I could no longer run, so I joined the wrestling team. Unfortunately, many of my friends did not make the trials and could not play on any sport teams. Attending gym classes was mandatory, but participation was voluntary. At every school athletic event, the bleachers were packed with students who did not play any sport.
From kindergarten forward, students should learn the importance of athleticism. Through sports, students can learn about social interaction, competition, and nutrition. Participation of all students in athletics may provide them with the social platform they need to be successful.
Through sports, students can learn about social interaction, competition, and nutrition."
Growing up is difficult, but playing sports can help students channel aggression and improve their self-image. In wanting to participate and be accepted, students may also make healthy choices when it comes to eating to maintain a sporty image. The benefits of participating in sports are endless.
Motivating students to attend school is a challenge, but the greater challenge is keeping them engaged. So, what will motivate students to work each and every day? Students who are unmotivated and bored in classrooms might just be motivated by playing sports. Academics alone cannot motivate, nor can athleticism by itself ensure success, but together, they become the yin and yang, the missing piece of a puzzle,the answer to schools’ dilemma.
Many school professionals do not view sports as an integral part of students’ academic journey. The perception is that athletes are not good scholars and that scholars are not good athletes. Perhaps this bias keeps scholars from becoming athletes and vice versa. As professionals, we need to inculcate in the minds of our students that, while one of them might be excellent in understanding mathematics, another may be excellent in running 400 meters. Together, though, they balance each other.
We must teach that diversity in learning and accomplishments is what makes humans “perfect.” Shakespeare said it best in “Hamlet": “What a perfect invention a human is, how noble in his capacity to reason, how unlimited in thinking, how admirable in his shape and movement, how angelic in action, how godlike in understanding! There’s nothing more beautiful. We surpass all other animals.” So, why not invest in physical as well as intellectual capital in our nation’s schools?
Further, exercise should not be limited to students. Teachers and other school staff members can also partake, and students’ confidence and enthusiasm will likely go up when they see their teachers exercising with them. This could be accomplished in the classrooms by carving out five extra minutes during morning and afternoon homeroom periods. In middle schools, physical education classes should meet five times a week. Health and advisory periods can merge with these to allow the extra periods. Physical education teachers should require all students to participate in organized sports. Students who cannot take part for health or religious reasons can do simple exercises such as taking perimeter walks in the gym or school hallways. The idea is to keep moving and participate. High school students should organize sports activities after school hours at least once a week. At the middle and high school levels, competition is important to develop social skills and boost motivation.
How can schools, already inundated with mandates and challenges, incorporate sports into the curriculum? The answer is simple: Participating in organized sports during school hours and after-school programs will alleviate many of the challenges schools face without them. Attendance will improve; school culture will have a positive impact on students, educators and other staff members, parents, and the community; students’ engagement during class time will improve; students will have fewer conflicts among themselves; staff and students will be healthier; and students will become scholar-athletes.
I recommend that schools also provide students with a grade for participating in organized sports that would take into account a variety of factors including sportsmanship and dedication. The idea is to advocate for holistic grading that balances a student’s varied learning experience, including those in athletics. Just as the London Olympics celebrated all athletes, so can schools celebrate the diversity of their students by creating a platform where students can cultivate their physical and mental abilities through the participation of organized sports reflected through a holistic grading system.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Academics and Athletics