Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

Schools, Sports, and Character

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Mens sana in corpore sano – muscular Christianity – “There is no ‘I’ in team”

These and other verbal pieties have a long history in independent schools, words and phrases that justify and exalt the ideal of sport as a crucible of character. That’s as may be, but in actual schools in our own time, there’s more to it than just platitudes, however aspirational they may be.

I coached, mostly quite happily and often delightedly, for going on 30 years, and I loved the feeling of a happy team, working hard and finding not just occasional success—and I can’t claim much of that—but the sheer communal joy of being a part of something that was bigger than any on individual, even the coach. Somewhere in my education in political philosophy I encountered the Arabic term asabiya, which my memory defines as “group feeling,” a kind of collective unity of identity and purpose that fits pretty well with our own notions of team spirit, and perhaps even school spirit. There is something gloriously transcendent in the feeling one gets from a great practice, a pre-game pep talk that truly reaches every player, and the spiritual refreshment of selfless play and (even occasional) well-earned victory.

Of course the distilled asabiya that infuses coaches and players in these private team moments is a rare thing, made rarer still these days by a distortion of the athletic ideal in schools that makes each player and every team merely elements of a “progr’m”: a carefully laid out system of feeder teams, parent support groups, and anxious coaches and administrators dedicated to creating, at the top of a food chain, varsity teams that win enough games to festoon gymnasium walls with championship banners and create conduits—perhaps narrow but emphatically public—between the school and the college sports teams for whom high schools serve as part of a minor league system. The most successful teams—or progr’ms (Why can’t people in athletics say “programs,” if they have to use this term at all?)—acquire a further encrustation of college recruiters, videographers, and local hangers-on, and the very best players may even find themselves surrounded by posses of “advisers” hoping to skim something off the top of the student’s future success.

Spectators who are just interested in kids, play, and character must practically don blinders before doing something so simple as watching a game. Screen out the school politics playing out in the sideline, screen out the banners, screen out the college scouts in their somehow distinctive outfits sitting high in the bleachers just apart from the real fans, taking notes. Screen out the student supporters who have learned the mindless, reflexive rudeness of fans at professional games whose behavior makes old timers like me cringe. Screen out the intense parents, watching their children and the coaches like birds of prey and sometimes even clocking playing kids’ time in the fear that their dreams of a “full ride” at some college will go up in smoke through either one knuckleheaded play or the suspected partiality of a coach—who is subject to pressures of his or her own. Focus on the players, their faces, their movements, their body language—focus on the actual character this vast enterprise is actually supposed to be building.

Recently I watched one of the top athletes at our school melt down after a couple of unexpected losses in an individual sport. The physical explosion was stunning, the tears and shame almost unnerving. This is a kid I know well, a kid with whom I have discussed their intense dislike of what it means to be an athlete, especially a very successful one. Highly competitive, the student doesn’t like the effect that competing has on them—mistrusts the feeling of exultation from winning, likes most opponents and is uncomfortable with the fact of head-to-head, win/lose competition with them (shades of Jane McGonigal on gaming), hates the pressure of being good enough to justify being expected to win always, rejects the adulation that comes from a kind of success that is no different in the student’s mind from the academic success that earns only some respect and never adulation. Why is sport different from anything else I do?, the student wonders. “I am me, not Me, The Athlete.” The other day the student discovered another uncomfortable side effect of being at the top: the feeling—the sense of embarrassment—of “letting down” the team and even the school that comes with losing when they “should have won.”

I have no problems with the struggles of and lessons learned by this student, not just in the meltdown but through years of hard work and good competition. But I am sad that those struggles and lessons have not made that student feel better, and more proud, about who they are—that instead the context in which they have been experienced has made the student doubtful of the value of the whole business. I am sadder still that I am capable of sharing this doubt.

Of course to the teenage mind the spotlight illuminating a bad moment or two shines more brightly than it does for anyone watching, but seeing this episode and talking with the student afterward made me realize how much of a pressure cooker school sports truly can be—and how the forces acting on contemporary school athletes pollute what used to be hailed as the “purity of sport.”

Once upon a time school sports were ways of allowing children to work off “animal spirits” or of channeling excess energy away from misbehavior. I am a fan of strange indigenous activities that have sprung up spontaneously at schools to serve just this purpose—think of school-specific twists on playground games at your own school, perhaps, or more elaborate games like Eton Fives—and I love reading stories of school sports a century and more ago when teams were selected and coached by students alone.

Soon enough, of course, school teams became vehicles for extending the school’s identity and brand, and athletic success became not just a matter of satisfaction to the team and student body but something of a proxy for the overall “quality” of a school. Through most school hallways the top athletes now stride like kings and queens, receiving the deference of peers and teachers and secure in the knowledge that their grades and test scores need not quite reach the level of their unathletic peers in the quest for college admission; this is no secret, whether it is any less fair or unfair than whatever advantages are conferred by being a “legacy” or an applicant in some other privileged category. (And I should add here that the student mentioned above specifically avoided the athletic recruiting process when applying to college, not wanting to claim any privilege for an activity they hold in low esteem.) Schools enthusiastically spend millions of dollars on athletic facilities while scratching their heads over the expenditure of mere tens of thousands for instructional technology, professional development, or faculty salaries.

I don’t think there’s much resolution here, and I fear that the more insidious trends are likely to become more pronounced. But I will still go to games, and as a spectator I will work hard to screen out the cultural distractions and focus on what I can read in the eyes and actions of the students—what I may see there of the character, will, creativity, and joyous asabiya of each player and each team.

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