I have always rejected the description of high school athletics as extracurricular activities and argued strongly at my school to have them officially designated as co-curricular activities instead. Some may contend that this distinction is specious, but I do not. Extracurricular activities are offered or coordinated by a school but are not clearly connected to academic learning. I contend that athletic experiences not only can be, but should be, clearly connected to academic learning, at least at the secondary school level, and a school’s mission statement and expectations should reflect that. In fact, given the direction of education today, athletic participation may be a necessary and crucial complement to the total educational process by providing essential learning experiences that may not be available elsewhere.
Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson saw the need for education largely in terms of producing a citizenry capable of sustaining a democracy. Today that purpose has almost been lost with a major focus having shifted toward economic and vocational preparation, fueled further by the national mandates for standardized testing in a narrowed core of academic areas. While not intentional, in this atmosphere there is less attention to having students develop personally and socially, accept responsibility, affirm individual differences and cooperate with others to achieve common goals. All of these are skills every citizen should acquire. Instead, the main concerns of far too many students (and parents) are grades, scores on standardized test, GPAs, class rank and admission to institutions of higher education. Schools today are being held accountable by state and federal mandates, but certainly not for standards of citizenship! I won’t
contend that in the athletic arena we always get things right, but, if properly approached, we can fill a major gap in education today by addressing many of the elements that are missing or given too little attention in today’s regular classrooms.
I’ll start with one issue that is plaguing our society today- the inability of far too many members to deal with our ever increasing diversity. Classroom teachers in highly diverse secondary schools are genuinely struggling with this issue and are often intimidated by the entire process in trying to get it right and have it work effectively in their classrooms. Racial, ethnic and cultural differences as well as language barriers are almost overwhelming to many of them as they try to cope with this issue.
For contrast, attend an athletic event at these same schools and watch many of these very diverse students on the same athletic team perform almost seamlessly together. I’m not saying coaches are superior to classroom teachers here, but they often get a job done well that is very necessary in our educational process, and it might be worth exploring what elements of the process and what techniques or strategies are used in the athletic arena to accomplish these results. Even if this coordination of effort doesn’t occur, at least some understanding of, and respect for, such diversity is being accomplished in this area of students’ education and lives. Very few of these student athletes will go on to perform at world class levels, but looking at those who do can tell us something very important about the athletic process and its role here.
World class teams today in baseball, basketball, soccer, football, etc., which are often are multi-
national, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic, function successfully because of common goals and a willingness to work with and for each other when needed to achieve those goals. Meanwhile, communication skills that cross language barriers are learned on the fly to alert or assist teammates in carrying out team tasks successfully. At the very least, the performance of these teams proves that the numerous problems of diversity can be successfully overcome through common goals, and there are certainly lessons to be learned there that could be transferred to the general educational setting. The current high stakes testing atmosphere where students are on their own provides little or no incentive for cooperation and may even find some willing to sabotage others rather than help them. No athletic team would ever tolerate such selfish and counterproductive behavior.
While some might argue that promoting appropriate social and citizenship skills are neither necessary goals nor outcomes of the athletic process, I contend that such skills are fundamental to the process and are essential for students to function successfully in our present and future society after their high school athletic experiences have ended.
This article was published with permission from the original author, Mr. Duane Ford.