Student Well-Being

Should School Sports Prioritize Participation Over Competition? What a New Report Says

By Ariel Gans — May 02, 2022 8 min read
Permian High School players run drills at the start of the school's evening team football practice Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Odessa, Texas.
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High school sports play an important role in addressing students’ physical and mental health needs, but with fewer than 2 in 5 public high school students participating, the traditional model needs to be updated to serve more of them, a report this spring from the Aspen Institute says.

The Sport for All, Play for Life high school sports report proposes eight strategies to help principals and school leaders develop their students’ social and emotional skills through sports. A product of two years of research and input from more than 60 experts, the report envisions a school sports system with opportunities for every student. Increasing participation in sports can have lifelong ramifications, given that student athletes are more likely to be active as adults. It also comes as educators scramble to boost students’ socioemotional skills and reconnect them with their schools after years of pandemic-driven isolation and educational disruption.

“The current high school sports model doesn’t really work for enough students,” Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, said. “It’s largely based on trying to win games and scholarships, and playing for the school, and that’s still incredibly valuable and important, but there are many other students who are being left behind.”

“We believe that leaders should recognize that every student, regardless of their background or ability, has a right to play sports — and we don’t just mean a right to try out for a team,” he added.

Here are some steps school leaders can take to make school sports more accessible to their students:

Align school sports with student interests

Schools need to know what students want to participate in in order to design sport offerings that will raise participation. However, Jay Coakley, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who was one of the experts the Aspen Institute consulted during its reporting process, said youth sports today are “adult-oriented.”

“The developmental interests of children and the interests of children in their own movements have been ignored,” Coakley said. “It’s adult perspectives that create the leagues and all of the things that go along with it—run the practices, set the schedules—and children have no voice and their interests are either ignored or unknown.”

“A lot of the changes that have occurred have taken the act of playing out of the hands of kids and put it into the hands of adults,” he added. “I’m not against adult guidance, but that move is not good.”

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This is because, according to Coakley, adults have different definitions of fun than students do. The number one reason high school students play sports is to have fun, according to the Aspen Institute report. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed students said they engage so they can play with and make new friends.

“Those are the first things that are eliminated in organized sports,” Coakley said.

For instance, in Little League baseball, Coakley said, a coach’s goal is to identify the pitcher on the team who will prevent batters from hitting the ball, which excludes the other players from fielding the ball.

“Everybody in the stands is telling them this is a perfect game, this is what you want. Meanwhile, the other seven players don’t field the ball,” Coakley said.

To gauge student voices, the Aspen Institute report suggests schools conduct annual student interest surveys with a common set of questions on students’ sport preferences, their rationale for participating or not, and youth/adult relationships in the context of sport that they give students. These surveys should also take note of respondents’ disability status, race, ethnicity, and grade level.

Give a variety of options for play

Intramural sports and club sports led by students can offer many of the same benefits as interscholastic competition including exercise, teamwork skills, mental health benefits, and a sense of belonging. These formats, while popular on college campuses, are often under-prioritized in high schools. However, when, for example, 75 students try out for varsity basketball, 15 make the team, and only 10 get significant playing time, these alternative opportunities to play can make a difference.

One way Dan Dejager, a physical education teacher at Meraki High school in Fair Oaks, Calif., keeps his students active outside of interscholastic programs is by differentiating his instruction based on his students’ needs, interests, and ability levels.

For example, instead of teaching his students how to line dance, Dejager has his class play Just Dance, a video game where players dance in sync with a virtual character to contemporary music.

“I think if you become more physically active, and you find activities that you enjoy doing that are meaningful to you, then that physical well-being, that emotional well-being, and mental well-being will come,” Dejager said.

The Aspen Institute suggests physical education teachers and athletic directors expand course offerings or connect students to community-based programs such as bike clubs and yoga classes given that, according to their findings, more than 1 in 3 students are interested in strength training, 1 in 4 want biking, and 1 in 5 want skateboarding, yoga, and dance.

Prioritize educating students over winning games

In most high schools, sports are seen as having different goals than academics, which tend to prioritize education. Coaches often think their main job is to win championships and therefore, they can focus resources on the best athletes, sometimes at the expense of other students who also want to play and would benefit from doing so.

Terri Drain, the president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, who taught for 34 years and coached high school field hockey, said that in order to attract kids back to sports, there needs to be “quite a mind shift.”

“We need to talk about what the goal of school sports is,” Drain said. “Is it to prepare kids for their university sporting career and measure success when our students get drafted or scholarships? Or should how we measure success be by the number of students that participate?”

As students get older, more are cut from or drop out of sports. On average, kids quit playing sports by age 11, according to a survey by the Aspen Institute and the Utah State University Families in Sports Lab.

Drain envisions a school sports system in which “every child, no matter what their ability level,” can play, “not just for the elite children on the college path.”

To combat this, administrators should ensure that all sports activities map to a school’s vision of education, according to the Aspen Institute report. This could include crafting a symbiotic mission statement specific to the athletic department and holding sports personnel accountable to it through group discussions and performance reviews.

Increase education for coaches

Coaches often play a pivotal role in shaping a student’s ideas about health and education. In fact, 1 in 3 students said they play sports because of “a coach who cares about me,” according to the Aspen Report. However, many coaches’ training stops after their initial certification, and they lack the knowledge to make sports a healthy and positive experience for students. In surveys, nearly half of all students say they play sports for their emotional well-being and mental health, yet only six states require coaches to train in human development, development psychology and organization management.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators has developed national standards for sport coaches, the first of which is to “develop and enact an athlete-centered coaching philosophy.” In other words, sport coaches prioritize opportunities for athletes’ development over winning games.

Many coaches, according to Drain, coach the way they were coached as athletes. To break that cycle, schools need to provide professional development that helps physical educators teach with physical literacy in mind and with the attitude that all children have a right to learn.

The Aspen Institute says athletic directors should actively support effective behaviors of coaches through in-house teaching, required outside trainings, and coach networking. They should also hold coaches accountable to providing a positive experience for their athletes and growing the student retention rate.

Other ways the Aspen Institute said schools can make school sports more appealing and developmentally useful include having administrators craft personalized activity plans with students, requiring athletic trainers in schools that offer collision sports, defining athletic program standards for schools, and developing partnerships with community-based organizations.

Adam Lane, the principal at Haines City High School in Polk County, Fla., said that of all the report’s suggested strategies, “the most challenging” for schools is implementing the sports that most interest students.

“The reason is the feasibility of starting up a new program from the ground up when you don’t have any of the equipment or the facilities needed for it,” Lane said.

“Something like that cannot be done in a couple months,” he continued. “One because of the financial needs of all the equipment that is needed, but two, you also have to find a facility or a place to play and the school might not have it, the community not might not have it. There’s a lot of planning that goes into that.”

The Aspen Institute has yet to follow up with schools on their implementation of the playbook’s strategies, but they plan to, according to Solomon. For now, the institute will continue to promote its strategies and highlight the work of those that are bringing the organization’s vision to life.

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