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Intervention: Sports as a Mechanism for Behavior Change

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Athletes can learn valuable lessons about life by playing sports. Photo: Randall Hill, Reuters

Early Sunday morning workouts are when some of the best conversations happen at the gym. It happened to be one of those late summer mornings at my strength and conditioning studio when I entered a philosophical mood, so I started talking about the ethics of cutting athletes from high school sports teams. On one hand it teaches young adults that are often labeled as the “trophy” generation the value of working hard to earn something of meaning. It teaches young athletes to take responsibility for their outcomes. If these athletes try out and do not get on the team it is not anything against them, rather a reminder that other people are working hard to make the team as well. It sends a message that if they want to be part of something meaningful, they have to earn their spot. On the other hand, it cuts those same children from the lessons of life sports teaches us.

A couple of months prior to this philosophical sports talk I was teaching a sports management class at a local college when I asked the students to raise their hands if they ever played a sport. Being a sports management class, almost everyone’s hand instantly shot up with expressions of ‘this is stupid’ on their face. I then asked my students, who has ever learned a lesson from sports that they could never learn from school? I watched their facial expressions change as they realized where this was going. Only a couple of hands went down. The point of the question as I explained to the class was, there are real life lessons regarding relationships, respect, grit, delayed gratification, and countless other topics that simply cannot be taught in a classroom or a book. I proceeded to ask the class the same question I was asking my client on this Sunday afternoon. Is cutting children from a high school sports team worth excluding them from the lessons sports provide for the sake of hopefully creating a winning team?

This question is a trick question in the sense, are the athletes not learning a lesson about sports and life by being cut from the team? Lessons regarding effort and reward, finding the fit for you, discovering your strengths and accepting your weaknesses so you can learn from them and grow. It teaches athletes that if they desire something meaningful they have to meet the standard. If the standard is lowered, the goal loses its meaning. In ancient Rome a marker referred to as a Standard was placed at the furthest point of advance during battle so the warriors had a physical representation of where they were and how much ground they still had to conquer to reach their goal. If the warriors were pushed back, so was the Standard. In ancient war, this was a powerful reminder to keep pushing forward.

It happened to be that my client on this Sunday morning was an addiction and behavior change expert and we covered a lot that morning about sports and addiction behavior change. Most significantly the correlation between athletes not making a team and addiction behavior change. Not everyone in daily life makes it on their first attempt. Most of us have heard the stories of President Lincoln and his failed businesses or Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team.

Some people need a wake up call to realize how badly they want something. Addiction can ruin people and sometimes it takes a blunt hit to their personal life to realize what is happening. Like the lessons we learn from sports, this stimulus to change cannot be taught in a classroom or from a book. The individual suffering from the undesired behavior has to experience the setback first hand. They need to be part of the story they are learning.

After realizing this connection, the two of us postulated how individuals in need of behavior intervention could benefit from the mechanics of lessons learned from sport. We concluded that only through sport could these individuals learn the lessons of sport. And only then could they transfer those lessons to behavior change in such areas as drug and alcohol addiction. Sports act as a reference point for learning how to adapt and change.

Sports are an astonishing tool for behavior change. Where else do you take an action and see as well as feel a physical manifestation occur to your body? With time invested in themselves and their sport, athletes feel and see a change to their physiology. With that said, success fuels success. Meaning, as athletes see this change occurring, they want to work towards additional positive changes to their body and performance. Why can’t this occur with substance addiction? Why can’t an individual use sports as an intervention to substance abuse?

It is amazing to think of sports we play as children as a lifesaving mechanism, but that is what sports are, a mechanism created to emulate real life situations. Not all of the interventions people experience are as dramatic as substance abuse, but that does not mean sports do not have a place in life changing intervention.

Who has ever sacrificed something important in their life for a sport only to look back at the event during a tough time and say, “this has nothing on that winter I was training for a marathon in the spring and we had over 100 inches of snow on the ground in Boston. Sometimes it felt like running, other times like mountaineering, but regardless of what it felt like, it was way more discouraging than this.” Sports can teach people a lot about life and sports have the power to change life. By understanding this concept it switches the lens through which we view sport from a simple pastime into an instrument of success. An instrument capable of teaching us lessons about life that no teacher can express.

By Chris Johnson

Christopher P. Johnson is an educator and co-founder/ head strength and conditioning coach at Boston Strength and Conditioning, llc in Newton, Ma. He received his Masters of Management degree as well as his Bachelors of Science Degree in Sports Science from Lasell College, and is currently pursuing a terminal degree through the United States Sports Academy.

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