The role of athletics in the education of adolescents: The mind-body-spirit balance

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The role of athletics in the education of adolescents: The mind-body-spirit balance.

Betsy Mitchell, January 6, 2000

The role of competitive athletics is an extension of and complement to the total learning process of an adolescent. Competitive athletics provides a unique learning environment that is simultaneously similar to and different from classroom experiences. The combination of physical, mental and emotional skills presented in a competitive yet collaborative environment affords students the opportunity for growth and success in non-academic areas. The process of acquiring the skills necessary to perform athletically in either team or individual sports is the paramount goal of an interscholastic athletic program. While winning is the objective of competition, it can not be the sole objective or achieved at any cost. The athletic program that emphasizes process over result is the correct educational sport model. Participation in an appropriate athletic program allows students to engage their whole being, mind, body and spirit.

The educationally sound athletic program develops each student in appropriate stages with respect to the students’ age, physical characteristics and fitness, general sport experience and specific sport skill. While hard physical training is at the heart of any successful program, pursuing success at high cost to a student’s current or future health should not be tolerated. Students must be educated that the correct training methods come over time through consistent and balanced physical training; there are no shortcuts. Daily physical training is one of the most important points of learning for students; it allows them to see, very tangible terms the results of hard work. When a sprint time decreases, when a ball travels farther, when more weight is lifted, the student receives feedback about the process required to prepare to perform. Other important physical learning outcomes include resiliency, endurance, strength and a sense of overall wellness.

The educationally sound athletic program develops in each student the spirit of fair play, sportsmanship and teamwork through relationships and communication required for team participation. Each team should have commonly held expectations about commitment, attendance and behavior. The spirit of an individual who participates in athletics will soar on the wings of selflessness, and pursuit of the common good. Students learn about the importance of timely and accurate communication both on and off the field. Athletic participation provides an excellent laboratory for the adolescent to learn about societal acceptance and his or her place in an organization. Competition is about winning and losing; the educationally sound athletic program places emphasis on how the student deals with the emotions connected to both outcomes.

The educationally sound athletic program contributes to an adolescent’s learning about successful habits of mind. Athletic participation provides an excellent concrete exposure to short-, intermediate- and long- term goal setting and acquisition. Through an appropriate team structure each athlete has the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to create a meaningful public performance. Cultivating the personal and collective courage in students to extend beyond current knowledge and risk failure is one of the greatest aspects of an interscholastic athletic program.

Athletic participation provides each student with an excellent laboratory in which to develop personal abilities and learn about their place in the wider world. While athletics develops all aspects of the being, mind, body and spirit, we must not forget that the experience of preparing for and playing in games should be fun. Interscholastic competitive athletics should be experienced as one part of the whole school in which to take part and take pride. Each athlete must remember with humility that in the end a game is just a game, to be played hard, enjoyed and then left on the playing field. The lesson of learning to balance multiple activities and priorities is perhaps the greatest lesson that adolescents can learn from participating in athletics.

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