In fact, research supports that participation in sport results in academic, social, and psychological benefits as well as positive behaviors. Physically active students experience better concentration and memory in the classroom (Strong, et al., 2005) supporting why student-athletes have, on average, higher grade point averages than their non-athlete counterparts and miss fewer days of school (Born, 2007). Students who participate in extracurricular activities are also likely to demonstrate gains in college admissions test scores (Everson & Millsap, 2005) and are less likely to drop out of school (Zaff, Moore, Papillo, & Williams, 2003). Beyond the school environment, participation in extracurricular activities provides students an opportunity to develop social skills and relationships with their peers (Darling, Caldwell, &Williams, 2005). Further, athletes report higher self-esteem, motivation, and overall psychological well-being (CDC, 2011). They are also less likely to become teen parents and use drugs (USDOE, 2002). And these social changes may last long-term. Young adults — ages 18-25 — were more likely to volunteer, vote, and watch the news if they had participated in high school sports (Lopez & Moore, 2006). So, are these benefits worth the cost?
According to a recent report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, all high school activities (including sports, music, drama, speech, etc) are supported by a slim one to three percent (or sometimes less) of the school’s overall educational budget (NFHS, 2008). That is such a small cost compared to the overall benefit of sport participation. Previous literature also demonstrates that athletes have better attendance than non-athletes. In a report conducted by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, athletes attended, on average, six more days per year than non-athletes. In many cases, schools get money through an attendance-based funding system. Therefore, athletes attending more days actually generate money for the school. In many cases, the high participation rates coupled with increased attendance would actually help a school break even on their investment in sport. For example, let’s say a student’s attendance is worth $25 a day. We have 10 students on the basketball roster. Over the course of the year that would be six additional attendance days for each of those students, totaling $1,500. That is just one, relatively small, sport team. That also doesn’t account for the increased performance in the classroom of those students. This brings me to the real question. Is sport worth the investment? It may surprise you that my answer is “it can be.”
Sport vs. quality sport
Above all else, children report that they participate in sports to have fun. However, a recent shift to the professionalization of sport at all levels has changed the game. Parents are increasingly concerned with winning and getting their child a scholarship. So much so that parents are spending thousands of dollars a year (Lewis, 2011) on youth sport as an ‘investment’ in their child’s future. Because parents are convinced that children must spend many hours on a single sport in order to get a scholarship, children are specializing in sport very early. These ideas are perpetuated by club sport organizations making money off of youth participation. Not only does this decrease the participation rates in multiple sports, it also increases the risk of overuse injuries and burnout in children (Hedstrom & Gould, 2004).
Youth sport at a recreational level is also headed in this direction with highly competitive leagues (i.e. Little League World Series). I bring this up because this type of environment does not foster the development of self-esteem or long-term motivation in young athletes. In fact, the greatest decline in youth sport participation happens as children enter high school, generally when teams become more selective. Not to mention recent research that indicates that the longer one participates in sport, the lower their moral reasoning (Rudd & Stoll, 2004). It’s critical, therefore, that we don’t just emphasize sport participation and hope for all the positive outcomes, but that we emphasize quality sport participation.
Quality sports are intentionally structured by the adult leadership in the sport (Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2007) to be a positive experience for participants. Quality sports are those that are athlete-centered and emphasize fun, learning, and skill development. Quality sports are coached by trained individuals who have knowledge of developmentally appropriate games and skills. These coaches are competent in each of the eight domains of the National Standards for Sport Coaches (NASPE, 2006) and they treat athletes, parents, and administrators with respect. Quality sports are those in which parents are involved and integrated into the program for support. These are the types of sport environments that will elicit the positive outcomes mentioned above. If we continue, however, to focus on winning at all costs, the decline in the sport culture will continue. More coaches will be using illegal recruiting practices and encourage their athletes to cheat to win. Athletes will be tempted to use all means necessary, including performance enhancing substances, to win. Parents will continue to pressure their children to be the best at the cost of fun and appropriate development. And sadly, participation rates will continue to decline (NFHS, 2011). You are being called to action as a parent, teacher, administrator, and coach. Don’t just be an advocate for sport, be an advocate for quality sport.