Why Sports Matter By: Joshua Chamberlain Posted: March 9, 2012
I had a talk the other day with a group of students about how to build culture within a school. These were high school sophomores looking for a sense of purpose. Some of them felt put-upon in the way only high school sophomores can. A few simply did not give a damn about how they did in school. Some of them thought the other two groups of people were ridiculous. Even though these were really good kids, very few of them knew where to look for answers.
The sad part is that all they want are answers. They truly want to change things in the school for the better and want to become the students they long to be. Unfortunately, they have never been required to define their roles. This has nothing to do with their lot in life; the class consists of kids from each of the social strata. It is simply a group of kids who, through no fault of their own, have never been forced to take personal responsibility for changing their own situations.
Contrast this with the scene later that same day that unfolded in the weight room, where I was working with a group of my football players. While certainly not finished products in any way, this is a group of boys who know their roles. They are committed to making the team better and have taken it upon themselves to attend the weight room sessions because they know that getting stronger is one thing they can do to improve. In short, they are taking personal responsibility for changing their own situations.
What got me thinking about this topic, however, was that when the group of football players finished their workout and were hanging around talking once they were done, the topic of conversation shifted to what my class had been discussing earlier in the day. Unlike my class, the football players discussed ways to approach the issues at hand. They discussed solutions. Each of them looked at the situation from the perspective of someone who wanted to figure out what he could do to fix it, rather than just gripe about it. Once again, each of them was looking for a way to take personal responsibility for changing his own situation.
Now, I did not know these boys before they started playing football. I do not know if it was football that instilled in them that specific ethic. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the direct connection.
People often say that playing sports “builds character” or “teaches life lessons” without really thinking about what those phrases mean. Sports have played a big role in my life, and with that has come perspective about the real result of playing sports. My football players have not just learned life lessons or built character; they have changed their approach to life.
While that may seem a little over-the-top at first glance, the two discussions I was a part of illustrate the basis for my analysis. Everything about the two groups of people with whom I spoke was similar. Their ages, socio-economic background, and academic performance were all alike. The only difference lay in the fact that one was a group of committed athletes and one was not.
Having played and coached a number of different sports, I have learned that football matures people more effectively than any other sport I have been a part of. There is no ambiguity in football. The design of football is such that individual players get immediate feedback on their performance. If a player does not do his job, the play will not work. Big plays only happen if every player executes his assignment.
Football practices are designed so players get multiple repetitions in order to learn each skill. There is no hiding from coaches, and fixes are made before the next play starts. Players must fix their own mistakes and find ways to augment their performance in the context of an individual play in order to raise the chances of team success.
Players also receive immediate feedback from their adversaries. If a player takes a play off, there will be a physical repercussion, as his opponent will seize the opportunity to make him pay physically. In this sense, players must police themselves. The threat of pain is typically sufficient motivation for a player to work hard.
If the player does not want to pick himself off the ground every play, he must find ways to improve. If the player wants to be dominant and help his team win games, he must find aspects of his play to fix. Thus, football is not important because it teaches kids about the value of teamwork. Football is important because it teaches kids about the importance of taking individual responsibility within a team setting. This is the real-world application.
It has often been said that football is not for everybody. I agree with this statement and have used it frequently. As evidenced by my conversation with the non-football playing students, coming up with solutions is not for everyone, either. Will playing football make you a better person? It would be difficult to make that assertion. If approached properly, however, it will teach kids how to grow up and act like an adult in a way unlike any other sport or activity.
As a society, we say that we value individuals with drive, initiative, and who take responsibility for finding solutions to problems rather than just whining. It is good to know that I work with a group of kids who are ready to carry those traits forward.