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Yesterday Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania (my home State) urged the closure of all youth sports programs until January. I fear that is a short-sighted directive that highlights a broader failure of many in our society to recognize the positive power of sports for children and young adults.
Moreover, COVID and other factors have put pressure on college athletic programs, causing some to debate the merits of the very existence of NCAA sports. Again, I find this a misguided view that misses the impact that competition has in the development of young people.
Let’s start with a simple statement of fact: participation in youth sports correlates to positive long-term life outcomes. This makes sense on its face. Athletes learn to handle pressure, they learn to take direction and work as a team, and they gain firsthand experience with the fact that preparation and effort lead to improved outcomes. These are all critical life lessons, part and parcel with success in many aspects of adult life. If you aren’t willing to simply accept the logical argument in favor of sports participation, there are ample studies available that bear the idea out with statistics:
- Even after controlling for family background and cognitive ability, involvement in extracurricular activities predicts higher grades; higher college aspirations, enrollment, and completion; greater self-discipline, self-esteem, and resilience; lower risky behavior such as drug use, delinquency, and sexual activity; and lower truancy rates (Zaff et al. 2003).
- Furthermore, the effects of extracurricular activities appear to extend well beyond college: students who are involved in clubs and sports go on to earn higher wages, advance further in their careers, and even vote and volunteer more frequently than their less-involved peers.1
- Girls in particular seem to benefit from athletics: Participation reduces the chances of developing heart disease and breast cancer, cuts rates of unplanned pregnancies, lessens obesity, and boosts body self-esteem. And the advantages extend into adulthood: Four out of five female business executives played sports as kids, and women who go on to play sports in college are 25 percent more likely than those who don’t to develop political aspirations.2
The idea of forgoing all these benefits happens against the backdrop of many schools opting for remote learning this Fall. In other words, children will be losing the positive impact of sports along with the social interaction and educational impact of in-person learning. Against the health risk of COVID, which all agree is statistically low for children, there are considerable risks of damage to children owing to isolation. There has been an alarming increase in physical and sexual abuse of children during the pandemic3. One concern is that teachers and coaches are a first line of defense in terms of recognizing and reporting abuse.
In at risk communities the role of sports takes on another level of importance. Coaches sometimes play the role of surrogate parent, and being with a team means being off of streets that have seen a surge in violence this year. If not sports, and not school… what? Remember, keeping kids out of school and off the field doesn’t mean keeping kids away from kids. They will still be at risk of conducting COVID from friends and family, they’ll just be losing the unquestionable benefits of education and competition.
Turning to college athletics, the issue goes beyond COVID to a more long-term financial problem. While NCAA football and basketball programs can be cash cows, most sports programs represent an expense for schools, many of which were experiencing budget challenges even prior to COVID, and now the situation is worse. This has led some to argue that sports programs should be cut so more funding can be directed toward the classrooms. But I would argue there is as much learning happening on the field as off. Again, turning to statistics, according to a study by Gallop:
- Former NCAA student-athletes are more likely to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical wellbeing, and their financial wellbeing is comparable to non-athletes. These patterns persist across NCAA division, graduation cohort, gender, and race and ethnicity.
- NCAA student-athletes (39%) are more likely to earn an advanced degree than non-student-athletes (32%). This difference is most pronounced among black graduates, with 49% of black student-athletes versus 39% of black non-athletes attaining an advanced degree.
- NCAA student-athletes are slightly more likely (33%) than their nonathlete peers (30%) to have had a good job waiting for them upon their college graduation. Student-athletes who were first-generation college students (FGCS) (36%) are even more likely than their non-athlete FGCS peers (30%) to have had a good job waiting for them upon graduation.
- NCAA student-athletes are especially likely, relative to non-athletes, to have benefitted from meaningful and enriching support experiences with professors and mentors in college
In an era when there is debate about the practical merits and financial benefits of some college courses and degrees, participation in NCAA athletics can be defended with cold hard facts like those above. Learning to handle the stresses of training and competing while at the same time keeping up with studies is a form of practical education that has clear application in one’s later life and career. Certainly there are many esoteric realms of study that do far less to prepare students for the real world than managing a career as a college athlete.
Moreover, striving for college athletics as a young athlete is a powerful motivator that helps keep kids on the positive track of youth sports, whose benefits I have already described.
In short, amidst the challenge and danger of COVID-19 we should never forget that children and young adults face other risks and challenges as well. Sports matter, sports are not frivolous, sports shape kids in a very positive way. For most it is a positive influence, for some it is a lifeline. Shutting down youth sports entirely this Fall is a questionable choice, and I sincerely hope it will not be the path we take.
1 Inequity Outside the Classroom: Growing Class Differences in Participation in Extracurricular Activities http://vue.annenberginstitute.org/issues/40/inequity-outside-classroom-growing-class-differences-participation-extracurricular
2 What's Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/whats-lost-when-only-rich-kids-play-sports/541317/
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There’s an Alex Morgan quote that says, “Dream big because dreams do happen.” I used to carry that around on a crumbled up purple index card in my soccer bag. I rarely physically looked at it, but it was always there serving as a reminder as to why I ran from the upper quad down to the stadium for practice in the heat of the day.
I had wanted to play soccer in college ever since I could remember. That’s what made committing to play soccer at Frostburg State University before the start of my senior year so special. It was a dream come true.
When I was looking at schools, coaches would give me a “standard” day in the life. Basically, their version was all about going to class and practice making it sound like a piece of cake. Being a student-athlete is hard, but that’s what makes it so worth it. I’m here to share what a typical “day in the life” looked like.
On a day where we just had practice, I’d wake up and eat breakfast – the everyday morning things. I would get ready, pack my soccer bag, and then head off to my first class of the day. I would typically have two morning classes and one in the early afternoon. With how my schedule usually worked out, I’d have class before practice, so I’d find myself either eating a pre-packed lunch (usually a sandwich with some kind of snack) in class or shoveling in a granola bar on the way down to the turf. Practice was usually two hours – some days there was conditioning, others there wasn’t. We’d know before practice if we’d be running as our coach would send the dreaded “Track at 2” text around 10 am which indicated you better bring your running shoes! After practice, we would have to quickly clean up the turf and put the soccer goals back as another team was ready for their time slot.
Twice a week, we would head up to the PE Center after practice to meet with our strength coach for our lifting sessions. There, we'd grab our workout cards our strength coach has pre-prepared for us. We would get a quick rundown of what the workout looked like before splitting up into small groups to tackle the workout. If we lifted after a game day, sometimes it was just recovery, meaning we’d be doing yoga, a pool workout, or a light workout filled with stretching. And yes, my team got lucky where 6 am lift was a rarity but lifting before the sun comes up is something that happens!
Now, there’s class and practice and lift. But, added in, you are finding times to meet with your professor about an assignment, going in to see your athletic trainer to get help with an injury, working with fellow students on a group project or running off to an event a student group you are a part of is hosting. Then, you are balancing your schoolwork, personal life, maybe even a job. Some days practice would end just as the dining hall was closing, so you’d get extra steps in hustling over to use your dinner swipe.
Game days look similar. Most of the time, my teammates and I would be able to go back to our off-campus houses or dorms to eat a something before having to go to the locker room to get ready. We’d meet in our locker room about an hour before we were expected to be down at the turf for warm-up. In that hour, we’d get taped up by our trainer, get our uniforms/equipment on, sing at the top of our lungs, and rally around the fact we had an opportunity to go prove how good we were.
For away games, there were days we wouldn’t miss any class if the game was relatively close. There were days when you’d miss one or two. Others you’d miss your entire class schedule since you’d be spending the day on a bus. If you missed class, you were responsible for making up the assignment/exam or getting the notes. My coach would give up a form where we'd fill out what class and highlight what day(s) we'd be missing to give to our professor. I never had an issue with a professor about missing class. It rarely counted as an "absence" and as long as you'd make up the work, it was never a problem. We'd usually arrive at the field 1.5 hours before kickoff. For about 45 minutes, we had time to get dressed, meet with an athletic trainer, and get hyped up in the locker room before warming up. After the game, we would always get food before traveling back to campus. Hopefully, we won the game, so it'd be a fun bus ride back!
I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. But, after a couple weeks, it becomes second nature. It’s the life you are used to and wouldn’t trade for the world. Some days you won’t want to do it. And that’s okay. Because even though you don’t want to, you will, and you’ll look back and be glad you did.
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