Kirkham's Korner: The philosophy of athletics

By Steve Kirkham published February 26, 2007

An interesting split occurred during the 1970's. Physical education and athletics, which were perpetually intertwined, were torn apart by a movement among physical educators to be considered a respected academic degree on college campuses.

At the same time, big time athletics were becoming a dominant force on many campuses. Universities were able to pay coaches just to coach, and take away their academic responsibilities. This was not the case at smaller institutions. On those campuses the academic side needed the coaches to teach classes and the coaches needed the extra money they received from teaching.

As happens in many instances, there were unforeseen consequences when this movement occurred at the same time as other changes in our society. Coaches had always been strong leaders in the high school and collegiate environments and the physical education classroom. Many were taken out of those settings when there was also an anti-athletics movement afoot on campuses. Of course, when it occurs at a major university the trickle down effect to other levels is usually automatic.

The world of activities morphed into separate factions. Physical education became a dirty word. Human performance and wellness is one example of the change in labels. Intramurals, varsity athletics, club teams, recreation, and activity classes all became separate and distinct entities. At a major university these separate groups receive funding, have positive influences, and continue to develop as time goes by.

On the step ladder down to the lowest levels of the educational experience; grade schools for example, there has developed a lack of understanding, funding and leadership. Many school leaders think athletics are intramurals or vice versa. One of my favorite examples is the no-cut rule implemented by many high schools. This becomes an intramural experience. There is nothing wrong with that if everyone on the schedule has the same philosophy. But if another school has a cut rule and the players have developed to become the best they can be at the varsity level, the school with the intramural philosophy will be at a tremendous disadvantage. And intramurals by definition cannot be the same as athletics. This type of philosophy is not a problem as long as the players, parents, fans, and administration expect and accept the consequences. Unfortunately this is almost never the case. Coaches get fired, the players are frustrated and demoralized, and administrations avoid the parental questions with an ostrich mentality that is extremely prevalent.

Another example is the proliferation of parent-coaches. When I was young athlete many fathers coached baseball during the summer. Of course in the 60's everyone's father had played, watched and lived baseball. They stopped as soon as you made the school team. They understood the difference. With the proliferation of opportunities for young people of both genders to participate in activities outside of the educational world the lack of qualified coaches has become a serious issue. Parents have filled the void in a large percentage of these situations. This, of course, has created a large number of new issues.

Most parents only coach while they have children involved. In far too many instances they focus on their children and give the other participants a less than positive experience. In the best-case scenarios they have some playing experience. Unfortunately too many of them have little or no playing, let alone coaching, experience. You couple this with the ESPN world, where someone can become an "expert" on a sport they have never participated in and the situation can be an absolute disaster. The fact that their hearts and efforts are in the right place has nothing to do with the players and their experiences. Of course, just as in the intramural world, if everything is kept in perspective the kids can learn and have a positive experience. I have watched dads/moms try to show their sons or daughters the proper way to soften and wear a baseball or softball glove. They have no idea. The kids might appreciate the effort but not the results.

The great news is that kids have an unbelievable number of opportunities to learn and play any sport. Unfortunately the people teaching the game to them have almost no idea where to begin or in what order to teach the game. Or they immediately start trying to "win." I often ask the coaches at the levels below high school what the winning means? Does it help the coach keep their jobs? Do the numbers of kids grow exponentially in that sport? Does the 5'9" 150 pound eighth grade boy who dominates get any bigger? Who is that really tall kid in the sophomore class who isn't playing? He is the one who sat on the bench while we were trying to win and then got the late growth spurt. Of course now he has no interest in the game.

Next week, my ideal framework to teach kids sports!

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