This is the first in a series of blog posts about the many challenges and opportunities in high school athletics, covered extensively in my forthcoming book, The Other Classroom: The Essential Importance of High School Athletics (August 15, Rowman & Littlefield).
Writing The Other Classroom opened my eyes wide to what the late Coach John Wooden meant when he uttered these sage words: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
After 24 years coaching basketball, I thought I pretty much knew what I needed to know to be an effective and successful high school coach. Sure, there was always seasonal tweaks here and there. But essentially, I felt I had it down. Writing the book was humbling.
I admittedly had the vantage point of distance. I had retired from coaching, and thus was removed from the high-pitched fervor, elation, frustration, joy, controversy, pressure, and incessant competitive juices that characterize high school athletic programs. I put ego aside and peered into the world of the high school athlete without distraction or agenda and focused on what I believed the overriding mission of any credible high school athletic program: helping student-athletes get ready for life after schooling.
I saw with greater clarity the treasure trove of daily opportunities to teach and mentor student-athletes. Looking back, I am sure I and my staff missed our share of them, even though we worked hard and spent innumerable hours trying to do our jobs well.
Did we do enough to build self-esteem? How many citizenship lessons did we capture, especially during away-tournaments? What more could we have done to help players with goal-setting and thoughtful decision-making? Did we encourage player self-advocacy at each opportunity? How well did we develop character traits, like empathy and loyalty? Did we model behavior we wanted our athletes to emulate, especially when we felt the rise of frustration? The list could go on.
In hindsight, I felt I had not prioritized as well as I presumed. I coached both to teach life lessons and win games for sure. But I began to question whether I did nearly enough to prepare my athletes for their adult journeys. I recalled an incident when I was a relatively inexperienced high school coach, where my athletic director told me before one league game, when my team was in internal crisis, “tonight, don’t coach for the scoreboard; coach for the program.” The suggestion so took me aback at the time I considered resigning. Now, looking back at what hung in the balance, I think he had a point.
Hindsight of course is often 20-20. I understand the ego part of coaching, the monstrous burden of running athletic programs and the ear-splitting drumbeat of outside pressures from parents and others to perform in athletic competition. It is impossible to turn a blind-eye to how the world sees sports and the emphasis we culturally place on winning and superior performance. Those energies are real and commanding. We all want to win.
High school athletics, however, are not about the adults, even though it sometimes feels that way. They are not, when all is said and done, about the scoreboard, although it can feel that way most of time. From a visionary perspective, high school athletic programs are all about the kids and how we can help them grow emotionally, become better people, embrace enduring values, develop various life skills and learn to become good citizens. The other stuff—aiding and fueling the drive to win—while important, are secondary.
It begins with recognition that high school athletics are a vital educational tool. The high school athletic experience is an immersion in educational lessons unmatched by anything else in the high school curriculum. High school athletics develop the whole person—physical, emotional and mental—in various ways each day thru a constant flow of opportunity, as they teach considerably more than sport skills.
That is not to say academics should play second fiddle. Far from it. Academics are the cornerstone of the high school experience. It is to suggest, rather, that a well-considered high school athletics program represents a standalone curriculum that merits a place shoulder-to-shoulder with scholastic components.
It is important to note that the life lessons of high school athletic programs are not a threat to competitive performance. When an athletic system is based on well-considered values, where student-athletes are personally evolving at a steady rate, athletic performance takes care of itself. Prevalent program values can stoke a desire to succeed in competition. A value-based high school athletic program that affirms and respects its young athletes, builds trust and confidence, creates a positive environment, and celebrates connection between and among athletes and coaches, inspires athletes to overachieve. There is no need to sacrifice the competitive dimension to get student-athletes ready for adult life. The two are harmonizing and feed each other.
Therein lies the sacred trust. It’s a mindset. If we view the high school athletic experience (and this applies to all youth sports) as life-preparation first and foremost, we have the ingredients of a strong and resilient foundation for the long-term development of the high school student-athlete as a person, in addition to as an athlete. And, I submit, we’ll put even more wins on the board and banners on the wall.
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