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Posts Tagged ‘basketball’

If we were starting over with school and community sports, I don’t think basketball would be a school sport.  It is a bit of a round peg in a square hole.  And this is not easy for me to say, as someone who first coached a team in 1987 and has been involved ever since including some time as President of BC High School Boys Basketball.

The most recent impetus for this post comes from the response I received to a recent post I wrote – Some Different Ideas to Increase School Sports Participation.  I had more emails, texts and in-person commentary on this post than any in recent years.  And the post came out just as high schools across the province were selecting basketball teams, so that likely led to the basketball-heavy feedback.

So, let’s start with the question why are some sports school sports, some community sports, and some both?  The most obvious answer is that because they have always been this way.  And what sports fall into what categories in different provinces (or more broadly across North America) is not the same.  And increasingly most former school sports are at least as popular in the community.  Another good answer on which sports fall into which category is based on who owns the facilities.  Schools in British Columbia have gyms – so gym sports are often school sports.  Schools in British Columbia do not have ice rinks or pools, so ice and water sports are often community sports.

This is quite simple, but I want to come back to the title – the problem with basketball.

Basketball popularity has been booming in Canada.  It is 3rd behind hockey and soccer in participation for 3 to 17 year-olds.

Young boys and girls start playing basketball starting about 5 years of age.  By the time they are 12 or 13 there are various club program, travel teams and other opportunities to play basketball.  When students show up in grade 8, in some schools several dozen boys or girls will have played a number of years of community basketball – often on teams described as “Elite” or “Rep” or otherwise denoted with some special status.  And these players will show up at tryouts – sometimes more than 100 in the gym, and 15 will make the team and 85 will be told they are not on the team.

And even that team of 15 is really big.  Only 5 players play at a time in basketball, so 2/3 of the team will always be off the court.  And the coach of the grade 8 team, is now often an older student or a parent or well-meaning community member sometimes without deep training or experience.   Basketball is a great game but just imagine the ongoing tension of a sport where 100 kids want to play, 15 make the team, 5 play at a time, and really often only 2 or 3 regularly touch the ball.  And the coach has limited skills and experience.

Well is this really different from the way it has always been?  I would say yes.  What is different is that kids are playing a lot of basketball at a young age.  In the past when kids showed up at grade 8, if you didn’t make the team, it was not as though you had ever invested any time in the sport, now you have.  You may have played 7 or 8 years and are not making the team.  This is a huge shift.  When I showed up for tryouts in grade 8, yes a lot of boys did not make the team – but most of them had barely been exposed to basketball – they had not quit other activities to focus on basketball, and really, they didn’t actually play basketball so not making the basketball team was no big deal.  Basketball was not the 3rd most popular sport in Canada then so didn’t need the infrastructure to support it.

And schools values have changed?  Again, I would say yes.  I know people worry we don’t have competition for young people anymore and they have to learn to deal with failure.  But we also know that students being connected to their school is a really positive thing – whether it be a club or a team.  And the thing about high school basketball is, if you get cut, it is not like community sports where you go to the next tier down, you stop playing.  There are not many places in school this happens.  Yes, the school musical has an audition – but almost all the kids who want to be involved usually get a small role or help as part of the crew.  Yes, student council has elections, but they non-elected executive are usually still part of the larger council.  Yes, some classes have criteria – but if you don’t get into Honours Chemistry, you still get into Chemistry, you are not shut-out completely. Yes, other teams have tryouts – but actually most sports are very inclusive and can take everyone.  Whether it is swimming, track, cross-country, wrestling or football, these sports find places for almost everyone who is interested.  Volleyball would be in the same place at basketball on this issue.

Other than basketball and a few other sports – name other experiences in high school that if you want to do X and you don’t qualify for the top tier you are completely shut out from X?  I think the list is very short.

And before you use “but Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team and he turned out just fine” story, that is only partly accurate.  As a grade 10 he didn’t make the Senior Team but he did play Junior Varsity that year.  I think the Michael Jordan got cut story, actually helps make the point for a different system.  Our system which narrows the number of participants is also doing so just as many are starting to grow.  Some grade 8’s will be 12 inches taller before they stop growing.

Basketball Should Be Like Soccer.   If basketball was structured as primarily a community based sport with different tiers and where when you signed-up you knew you would get to play, it would be so much better.  Community organizations could ensure coaches were certified and adopt a common philosophy.  And you could still have elite programs as soccer does.  And you could still have school programs as soccer does.

I was struck by the disappointment and anguish from parents in the responses to my post on school sports.  And it is something I see every year as a parent and coach.  Kids love basketball.  But schools have limited resources – with gyms and coaches.  Schools are not the answer to provide 5 teams for grade 8s, this should be done by the community.

The problem is we are trying to fix a plane that is already in the air.  Club programs have come in to supplement and at times compete with high school programs.  These programs are a mix of non-profit and for-profit ventures with limited oversight.  Parents are left to shop around blindly for opportunities for their children and too often kids don’t make a grade 8 basketball team and their basketball career is over.  We are going from hundreds of grade 7s playing in the community and the numbers dramatically dropping in grade 8 as there are scarcity of spots on high school teams.

If I had a magic wand – basketball would be a primarily community based sport.  The programs offered would be non-profit, with all coaches requiring certification.  There would be paid coaches heading up coaching staffs of well trained parents and other community volunteers.  Teams would have a maximum of 10 players.  At younger ages the kids would play 3×3 to maximize touches on the ball and this would transition to 5×5 by upper elementary school.  There would be tiers, maybe based on age and gender, maybe not.  And yes school basketball would still exist as there is something about school sports that is special.  But there would always be a place in the community for those wanting to play basketball.  And there would be a universal facility / field sharing arrangements between all schools and local communities so communities could easily get into the gyms, and schools could easily access the fields.

If we started over, the primary focus of school sports would be those which are largely fully inclusive – if you want to participate you can.  The focus of community sports would be these team sports that allow for tiers and levels that keep all interested young people involved.  Knowing this is not possible, we continue to muddle forward, with basketball – the fastest growing game in Canada with a development and participation structure that is really quite a mess.

Of course, maybe I am wrong.  Love to hear what you think.

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If I wanted to grow my blog audience, I could probably just write about youth sports, they are typically my most popular posts with anywhere from 2X to 10X the audience as when I write about other topics.  One in particular – Is There a Future in School Sports? gained a lot of attention, and was also published by the AASA (the School Superintendents Association) in their School Administrator Magazine.  Few topics I write about find people as polarized, passionate and wanting to engage.

I don’t hide my love of school sports.  I think they are a wonderful part of our community.  I loved playing as a student, I see the joy my children have and this is year 32 where I have been involved as a coach or administrator with school and youth sports.

So, a lot of people talk with me about the future of youth sports, school sports and ideas to reverse the perceived trends of decline in both.  This post is about ideas, some of my own, some suggested by others, some a combination of the two, that are not just the little changes around the edges – but larger changes.  I find too many people involved with sports organizations and responsible for making the rules often fall into two camps 1) they love the rules more than the kids so they think the answer to a problem is always more rules or 2) they are completely self-interested, and look to rules and structures that benefit their sport or their school without larger perspective.

My goal here is simple – we want more kids playing, more teams competing and more adults coaching.   So with that background here we go.  In no particular order:

Change the seasons

I think school soccer is smartly done.  They run boys in the fall and girls in the spring.  I know lots of people who coach both.  We all know how difficult coaches are to find so this makes a lot of sense.  Why not follow this for other sports? I would look to the two largest sports – basketball and volleyball.  Rather than both running all levels and both genders in single seasons – why not do girls basketball and boys volleyball in the fall and then do boys basketball and girls volleyball in the winter.  Or vice-versa, or alternate them.  You would absolutely get some coaches to double-up.  And this would also help with officiating challenges.  I know, club programs would not be happy in either sport, but they would adapt.  And Ontario has found a way to make this work, so there is an example out there.  I think the same could be done for girls and boys rugby as well.

Automatic Eligibility for Some Sports

The next story I hear about someone transferring schools so a competitive advantage can be gained in curling, will be the first.  We have transfer rules that apply to all sports, but really the bulk of concerns are in football, volleyball and basketball.  As a start, exempt all primarily individual sports like cross-country and wrestling from transfer rules and consider extending the exemption to team sports.  If a student changes school in grade 12 and wants to swim, ski, or run – let them – no appeal, no extra process.  Focus the resources on those sports where there are concerns of recruiting and competitive advantage.  With changes in education, more students are going to be more flexible with their learning plans and likely more shifts in schools.  We also know sports are a great way to connect students to a school – getting to play sports in a new school should be encouraged, not always subject to a one-year penalty.  And yes, I get the challenge of sports like football, basketball or volleyball becoming regional all-star teams – but let’s then focus on them and not worry about the cross-country runner or ultimate player. This would get more kids playing – that is a good thing!

Make Fair Play a Thing

One of the arguments I make for school sports in an era of great growth of club sports is that they allow school-values to be applied in ways that we may not see in community sports organizations.   In many sports there are no cuts made – for example I think in almost all schools everyone who comes out for rugby, cross-country, swimming or wrestling is on the team.  So, I will focus on two sports again – and again the big ones – basketball and volleyball.  What if, as some local associations have done, we mandate at younger ages some fair play rules.  Here is how it could work:  in basketball you would need to have at least 10 players on the team and for the first half or three-quarters you would play shifts (this is already done in a number of places).  Then the end of the game could be open substitution.  This would apply some school values – increasing participation, and also make it different from club or community programs which are often win with the best players while the others watch.   If more kids play, they will keep playing.  One of the reasons kids quit is they sit on the bench.  And I am told by some this model would mean we don’t know who the best teams are then.  Wrong.  We would know and maybe even more than ever as it would require you to have 10 players not just 5.  Some coaches do this kind of system already but if we mandated that all grade 8-10 basketball teams had to shift at least 10 kids in the first half, and all volleyball teams had to play at least 12 players one set each, I think our numbers would grow.  And yes, there would need to be some caveats for schools unable to field these numbers of players.

Play for Your Neighbouring School

Here is a controversial one.  If your school does not offer a sport, play for the next closest school that does.   If the goal is more kids playing more sports, why not.  It is often too much to ask all schools to offer all sports.  Just as students are taking courses at multiple schools why not also sports at multiple schools.  This is fraught with challenges, including the worry that some teams would fold to create all-star teams at others and actually this might lead to fewer students playing, but it is worth exploring.  I know the concerns around competitive advantage – but maybe those with students from another school would play up a tier, or be their own tier.  Some sports are dying.  And we want students to have the option to stay at their home school.  This would be challenging, but interesting.  (Not to distract from this one, but I think it is poorly thought-out to not make it easy for middle-school kids to play up for their catchment school – remember the goal is more kids playing more sports.)

Pay Attention to the Cool Cousins

The Olympics get it.  It started with Beach Volleyball, then Rugby  7s and at the next Olympic Games it is 3X3 basketball.  These offshoots of traditional sports have grown immensely in popularity.  And while there is some crossover in each with their traditional cousins,  they also tend to draw some different athletes to the sports.  Rugby is beginning to do some 7s competition between schools, and I think all three of these (and I am sure there are others) are worth considering.  What if beach volleyball and 3×3 basketball each had a weekend in the spring (ideally before other sports have their provincials) where there were High School Provincial Championships.  I do think there is something to wearing a school uniform that is different.  This would help grow these sports, engage some students in an additional sport at school and help keep our school sports relevant.

Think Activities Not Just Sports

I am sure there are others, but let’s use robotics and eSports as the examples for now.  There are inter-school robotics competitions played throughout the fall and winter (the first one was this past weekend).  These are schools competing with each other and winners being recognized with awards and getting the chance to advance to further competition.  This sounds a lot like what we are doing in sports.  And I think eSports is fascinating.  There will be eSports teams in our schools within the next couple years (there may be already).  We are already seeing them in the United States. So where should they fall for regulation and coordination.  They could go on their own, or we could broaden the tent of “Sport” to “Activities”.  I know this is a huge shift but there are probably other competitive activities between schools that could be included.

Hold the Community Accountable

If you have been involved with school and community sports long enough, you have probably come across the softball coach who says she wants multi-sport athletes but then says if you play school volleyball in the fall and don’t come to off-season training you won’t be eligible for the rep team next spring.  Or maybe the soccer coach who also thinks that students should play a range of sports, but won’t allow his players to play school soccer because they might get hurt.  I am not exactly sure how to hold these people accountable.  But, for example, what if schools and communities gave preferential gym and filed rental rates not based on one’s profit or non-profit status, but on their commitment to encouraging students to play multi-sports including any school sports they want to play.  This is large conversation – and an entire future post around the hypocrisy of many in the “we want multi sport athlete” community.  It is silly that students cannot play school sports – largely between 3-5 PM because of rules set by community programs.

Conclusions

So, there is the list.  Seven ideas to challenge thinking around school sports.  And yes, with just a couple hundred words on each, they are at the 30,000 foot level, and easy to poke holes in without more detail.  And also true, they all require more scrutiny.  So, which ones resonate with you?  What else would you suggest? I intentionally left off ideas with a big financial burden – I think no matter any of our personal feelings, there is no huge cash infusion coming for school sports.   If we can agree on a collective goal of more young people playing school sports, more schools fielding more teams, and more teachers and community adults guiding our teams – what could we do?

 

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longshot

It was one of those magical nights.

Last Friday night I joined a sold out crowd at the Kay Meek Theatre (one of two sellouts of close to 500 people each that night) to see the premier of Longshot: The Brian Upson Story.  It was like a community reunion – for one night our community was transported back in time to 1982.

The Brian Upson story is hard to believe.  It feels like a script for a Hollywood movie, the kind that people would read and say, this is not believable enough.  With the premier of the movie, it has been told several times recently.  The short version of the story is that the West Vancouver Highlanders won their only provincial basketball championship in their history in 1982.  They won the final game defeating their league rival Argyle by a single-point, after losing to them three times earlier in the season in-front of a capacity crowd at the Agrodome in Vancouver. And it is far more than just a story of winning a basketball title, as the Highlanders were coached by Brian Upson, who, battling colon cancer had not been expected to live long enough to make it to the championships. He coached the team to the title, and passed away two weeks later.  This does not fairly tell the story – it is worth reading the full story.  In 2012, Len Corben described it as the most memorable sports story in the 100 year history of West Vancouver.  Recently, in anticipation of the film Rosalind Duane did a wonderful feature in the North Shore News and Steve Ewen did a feature that ran in both the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province.

This post is not about retelling the Brian Upson Story – others have told it far better than I ever could.

I have seen many student films.  This was different.  I thought I was watching an ESPN 30for30 documentary.  It was a professional film.  I have a vision in my mind what a school project film looks like.  But this blew me away.  Teacher Dave Shannon and his students had taken on an incredibly challenging project and done an amazing job.  And what a great reminder – when students do real work for a real audience they will rise to the occasion.  I realize they didn’t have much choice – they had to do a great job.  They were telling the story of the greatest sporting event in our community’s history.  They had interviewed Upson’s wife and children and the players from the team – they were all going to be in the audience.  And the students delivered.  This is one of those great reminders about school.  We too often don’t do real world work, but when we do it is magical.

And the power of real work was not the only reminder from the movie.  The movie reminded us of the power of high school sports.  All of the players, now 35 years later, spoke to the impact of the team and being part of the experience.  The crowd footage from 1982 was amazing – as 5000 people cheered on the teams in the final – many of them students.  It was something that connected the school.  Schools are more than just taking courses in the same room together, they are communities.

And the film also reminded us of the power of a teacher.  The players spoke about the profound impact Mr. Upson has had on their lives.  He helped make them who they are today.  Teachers and coaches have an enormous impact on young people and the movie serves to remind us of that.  It also reminded us that it is very often those connections outside the class that are most significant – for teachers and students.

Even though everyone in the room knew how the story would end – they cheered along.  When the buzzer sounded and the game ended the crowd in the theatre madly applauded.  We were all transported back thirty-five years.  Thanks to the students of the Rockridge film program.

Friday night was one of those special nights.  It showed the best of community.  And reminded us of the power of teachers, coaches and schools.  Pretty impressive.

Here is the Official Trailer for the movie:

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Follow-your-Passion
It is hard to believe that one of the key tasks of January is to begin promoting our program offerings in our schools next September. This past month, our Board approved a series of new secondary school courses and programs. It is exciting to see a culture of innovation come to life in the program offerings that teachers, principals and schools are bringing forward – I absolutely love the passion-based offerings for students.

We have been offering academy programs for just over a decade.  It started with hockey and soccer.  For many years, students interested in a particular academy program would have to transfer to one of our high schools to participate.  We have changed this over time.

About four years ago, we began to talk about the idea of “one district, three campuses”.  This is based on the principle that students should be able to attend their local secondary school with their friends, but have access to programs for part of their schedule at another site.  It has not been a simple move.  There have been logistics to overcome – calendars had to be aligned so high schools all had the same professional development days.  Timetables also had to be coordinated.  In our case, we now have timetables at each of our high schools where the blocks in the morning rotate and the afternoon blocks are fixed.  So students have the same last period class each day.  This allows us to bring together students from multiple sites each day in the afternoon.

Our school schedules are built so students can complete core areas in the morning, and if interested, pursue specialty programming in the afternoon.

This coming year we now have 10 different academy-style programs open to students from all schools.  We continue to be strong with sports – offering academy programming in soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, rugby, field hockey, and tennis.  We have also now added mechatronics robotics and dance for next year.  The majority of these programs occur in the afternoon, with some classes before school and on weekends.  In addition to these programs we have several courses that are open to students from all schools – YELL (an entrepreneurship program that runs after school and partners students with business leaders in the community, FAST (First Aid Swim Training, where students earn credentialing towards becoming a lifeguard) and a District Honour Choir (that practices in the evening and performs locally and beyond).  In Art West 45 students can attend their own high school one day and every other day participate in a program that allows those passionate about arts to get extended time in this area.  It is the same principle for ACE-IT Carpentry where students attend the program every other day working towards their Level 1 carpentry credential.

In all we are now at about 15 and growing in the number of options we have available that allow students to pursue their passions as part of their school program – coming together with students from across the district who share these interests.

There is wonderful value in students attending their local school but we also need to find creative ways for students to pursue their passions.  Five years ago none of the programs existed that would allow students from a variety of schools to attend.  Now they are part of our culture.  A culture where talented teachers share their passions with students who are thirsty to pursue these areas.

I am not sure that what we are doing is transforming our system.  I can hear my friend Yong Zhao in my ear that we are maximizing the current system and not changing the system.    We are continuing to find ways for students to pursue their passions which is all part of building a system that is relevent, connected and engaging for our learners.

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SA-Aug15-_Page_26_Image_0001(1)

This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – August 2015 School Administrator Magazine.  

The entire issue (here) is dedicated to topics related to high school sports.

A superintendent’s case for a forward-thinking approach to interscholastic athletics addressing safety, cost and the balance with academics

His first reported concussion happened in youth soccer. His second came in high school football. A possible third head injury may have happened in pro football training camp. But when a rookie 24-year-old linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland, decided to retire from the NFL in March, not due to injury but rather to prevent injury, the sports world uttered a collective gasp.

Parents and players have taken notice of Borland’s story and the growth in concussion research. In my 7,500-student district, I recently received an e-mail from a parent quoting Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears head coach and tight end. While that may have surprised me, the provocative words he echoed did not: “If I had a young son today, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

More than ever, superintendents are being drawn into controversies around interscholastic sports. In just the past few months, news media have reported on a superintendent who resigned following the contentious termination of a varsity basketball coach; several superintendents drawn into student-athlete disciplinary cases over alleged hazing; a superintendent challenged by her community after she disciplined a football coach for an offensive sideline tirade; a superintendent who cancelled games against another school over the rival team’s “Redskins” nickname in support of his own school’s Native American population; and several superintendents caught in the middle of school board budget debates around financial support for school athletics.

Sports and schools have been interconnected for generations. Yet the rising tide of serious challenges is raising new questions about the sustainability of interscholastic sports programs. These deal with student-athlete health risks, competitive pressures from a social media-fueled public and tough questioning around the educational value of school-based programs when public revenues are stressed. Jointly, or in isolation, these pressures could lead to a scaling back, if not disappearance, of some school sports in the coming years.

Reigning Romanticism

To an outside observer, it seems as if high school sports never have been more popular. Varsity sports are big business, with communities investing in football and basketball facilities and major sports news outlets like Bleacher Report and ESPN giving high school athletics expansive coverage.

Beyond widespread media attention, several other factors support the notion that school sports will continue to thrive. Communities have a rich history of school sports, and nostalgia runs deep in our schools, notably in smaller communities whose sole identity these days may be tied to their public schools.

Adults often romanticize their own school sports experiences — from cheering on the football team to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match or a buzzer beater in basketball. Superintendents recognize the considerable pride that comes to a school and a community when a sports team wins a regional or state championship. Movies such as Hoosiers and Rudy continue to inspire us.

And unlike in other countries, where sports facilities used by pre-collegiate students typically are not located on a school campus, gymnasiums in North America generally are an integral part of school campuses. Given the physical connection, it makes logical sense that sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling will continue to remain within the school domain.

Three Pressures

The challenges I see school system leaders confronting in interscholastic sports fall into three categories.

Athlete safety. Coaches and school leaders always will assert that students’ safety comes first in scholastic sports participation. But grim evidence from expanding medical research on the long-term effects of sports-related concussions indicates that brain trauma can cause permanent cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to erratic behavior and suicide.

We’re learning that it’s not just the bone-crunching body hits in football that cause injury. Successive sub-concussive blows, even in sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ice hockey, can cause as much or more brain damage. The recovery time can be longer for children and adolescents. Notably, the majority of injuries occur during practices, not in interscholastic competition. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics indicated 58 percent of reported concussions in high school football occurred in practice sessions.

Most chilling, however, is the “culture of resistance” among players to self-report concussion symptoms. According to the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “High school athletes and those with scholarship possibilities especially will try to convince parents and coaches that they feel fine, in order to resume play.”

Other serious student safety challenges include physical harassment, sexual abuse and the ugly ritual of team hazing. These issues are forcing superintendents, like one last fall at a high school in New Jersey, to take serious measures — in that case, cancelling the school’s varsity football season in response to a hazing incident. Community and public reaction to the cancellation was mixed and only proves to demonstrate how difficult it will be to make changes to the nation’s most popular sport.

Blurring lines between school and community sports. Beyond health and safety concerns, sports themselves are changing. Basketball, volleyball and soccer, for instance, used to be school-based sports primarily. Now, it seems as if the school season is just preparing young athletes for the extended club season. The Amateur Athletics Union basketball circuits across the continent have youngsters playing dozens of games, even sometimes more than 100, during the “off season.” Colleges use the AAU programs as the go-to source for recruiting athletes, meaning parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.

Coaching and profit motives in some community programs have professionalized youth sports and raised questions about where school-based sports fit into this new world. In the community, athletes can freely move between programs in a “free agent” environment, and coaches and sports programs can be talent collectors, while public schools hold to academic and residential eligibility rules that limit movement.

High school sports once were neatly organized into seasons that more or less matched the terms of the school year. Students could run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and participate in baseball or softball in the spring. Over the last couple of decades, youngsters have been pushed into a 12-month calendar. This poses a challenge for schools that try to encourage students to play multiple sports at the same time non-school-based sports programs are stressing specialization.

The place of sports in school. One historical advantage for school sports over those in the community has been the cost of participation. In most school districts, there is no pay-to-play measure. This has changed in recent years. As school district budgets tighten, superintendents and school boards are faced with choosing whether to prioritize athletics or core classroom services.

We also are seeing the need to redirect revenue sources once targeted for athletics, such as those generated by campus vending machines and gym rental use, to support the overall operating district budget. I am faced regularly with turning down requests to financially support school sports in my district as teams rely on user fees and parent fundraising more than ever to cover costs.

While competitive sports in secondary schools engage small numbers of participants, we realize we need to find ways for all students to be active to support their physical and academic health. Given the alarming rate of youth obesity, there are concerted efforts to focus on sports that promote inclusive participation and lifelong fitness. Classes in yoga, dance and personal fitness are becoming more common in high schools and our physical education classes have decreased their attention to competitive sports while increasing their focus on lifelong fitness.

Finally, the increased emphasis on global academic competition in education challenges the place of high school sports in the future. When our nations are competing with Finland and Singapore on the international stage and the stakes for our students are rising, competitive school sports can be seen as a distraction. Do we want our great math teachers spending their nights preparing lessons or coaching basketball? (OK, the answer is probably both!) As the expectations ratchet up for educators in the classroom, it is harder to see where commitments to competitive athletics fit into the new definition of a teacher.

The Way Forward

As a school principal recently said to me, “If we were starting schools from scratch, do you really think we would include competitive sports when the community does them so well?”

This conversation really challenges me. I have coached varsity-level sports, I’ve been president of the High School Basketball Association, and I’ve seen the amazing and continuous benefits of school sports on the lives of young people. I would far rather be the superintendent cheering on the championship team than overseeing the demise of these programs — which is precisely why we need to take a serious look at competitive sports in schools moving forward.

At their core, our schools are about nurturing the brain. As I wrote in my response to the parent’s e-mail with his warning from “Iron Mike,” we need to play close attention to the evolving science of brain injury and take student safety seriously. But let’s evolve our sports rather than eliminate them.

Football needs to be different because we know better than to continue to allow head contact in the game. The heads-up tackling initiative is a step forward. Helmet-mounted impact sensors may be another. Within the next few years, concussion management training for coaches and conservative “return to play” guidelines must be standard protocol.

We need to look at whether some sports are managed better in the community and, if so, perhaps we should stop offering them in schools. In British Columbia, we offer 17 different sports for boys and girls through our schools. Working with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit groups, all those involved in sports need to jointly support high school student-athletes and not be in perpetual competition with one another.

For me, hearing community members tell “Friday Night Lights” tales of the past offers wonderful nostalgia and history, but it is not instructive about where we need to go next. Superintendents and other forward-looking system leaders must begin to envision competitive school sports for 2035, not 1955. The challenges individually are not insurmountable, but collectively they are a daunting set of factors. While I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while; looking 20 years out, like many other aspects of schooling, they may have to evolve.

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girls sports

So, having outlined some reasons why school sports may endure in my last post, there are also some realities that lead one to see that there are a number of factors working against school sports right now.

In no particular order, here are some of the challenges that school sports face going forward:

The discussion around concussions and brain injuries seems to be growing all the time. And quickly, the conversations often move to sports that have or are perceived to have high levels of head injuries.  Two of these sports are two of the most popular in high school – football and rugby.  And to be very fair, both sports are trying to get out in front of the issue and make their games safer.  Examples include the Safe Contact Program in Canada that deals with heads-up tackling.   The issue of safety is not going away, and there are definitely voices that question whether schools should be active in sports that can be seen to be dangerous.

We have continued to see a decline in teacher coaches in schools.  Unlike, our American counterparts, high school coaching is almost exclusively a volunteer experience (there are some Independent Schools that offer a stipend).  And over time, there has been a shift from school coaches to community coaches.  I have seem some local data that shows the majority of coaches in almost all schools are non-teacher coaches.  There is a commonly told story that teacher anger at government and new teachers without the same values as those of previous generations are the culprits.  The story seems far more complicated and the real stories don’t make up these myths.  This issue seems part of larger shifts in society that see teachers putting on their parenting hats quickly after school and leaving to coach their own children who are now playing more sports and younger ages than ever before.  Teachers are also far more likely to be working as tutors or otherwise busy after school.

Also on the topic of coaching, we have moved from volunteers to professional coaches throughout youth sports. Soccer and hockey clubs no longer rely just on willing moms and dads as coaches but have technical directors to lead their clubs.  While some coaches are trained and certified in schools the vast majority are willing volunteers looking to connect with kids and support them knowing the power of sports to help connect young people to school and positive peer groups.  Somehow these types of coaches are not enough anymore as expertise is now becoming expected in both the community and in schools.

One of the advantages of school sports over community sports has been cost.  School sports have been far cheaper alternatives than those in the community.  This has been changing.  Now school sports are reflective of the total cost of the offerings, and often can be several hundred dollars for a season to cover referee, tournament and other charges.   While there are still some very inexpensive sports to run in schools, this has been changing.  There are also not the same sources of revenue to support school sports – traditionally some gym rental revenue, or vending machine revenue or monies from other sources could help support school sports – as budgets have got tighter these sources have disappeared.  Now, schools, like the community, are having to find ways to ensure all young people have access to sports.  And the cost issue does not seem to be going away.

Did you know there are 17 school sports in British Columbia?  I am sure you can name the first few quite easily – basketball, volleyball, football.  But did you know about curling, tennis and ski and snowboarding?  There are some questions of whether there are too many school sports.  Again not a simple issue.  I have coached some senior boys and girls soccer.  Now soccer is done very well in the community but there was something great about having students organize by schools and play using “school values” which are often different from the values promoted in the community.  Like UBC saw when they looked at reducing their university Varsity sports, any move to reduce the number of sports would be met with questions of “why us”?  It does seem unwieldy to try to offer so many sports particularly given the other challenges.

In referencing a need to look at our model in the past post, I did begin to make the argument that we are moving to a much more participatory culture with a focus of having all young people engaged and not just the elite athletes.  There is no shortage of news stories around the concerns over youth inactivity and governments of all levels around the world are working on strategies to have young people be more active.  And while “sports” are a great way and we need to be exposing more kids at younger ages to the range of options, “competitive sports” in schools are often about the few participating not the many.  While it is great to win provincial championships, there is definitely something to be said for having all students out running and playing.

It used to work out perfectly – there are three natural terms to a school year and three sports seasons.  Of course the era of a sport being done in a single season is over.  In the old version, come November the volleyballs would go away and the basketballs would come out.  Then come spring break, the basketballs went away and out came the track spikes.  Now all seasons spill into one another.  It is hard for coaches to coach multiple sports and the community quickly picks up the parts that the school is not doing as almost all sports at high school are year-round.

Traditionally schooling has been very localized. The sense of global competition was not ever-present as it is today.  As the academic competition increases, school sports are often seen as an add-on for teachers and students.  Teaching has never been more difficult and the expectations around the profession are at an all-time high.  Do parents want their math teachers coaching volleyball for 3 hours a night or prepping their lessons?  Of course the answer is probably both.  But this is a huge challenge as teachers invest more time in their lessons to support students and students invest more times in their studies to be competitive in the global learning race, sports can be seen as a nice extra but not part of the core for school.

Our current set of rules are all about schools, yet increasingly our system is about students.  The system of school eligibility is about creating a fair playing field for all schools.  There are a number of eligibility policies in place to keep this.  And this has largely worked.  We have an ongoing trend of students taking courses from multiple locations, often a blend of face-to-face and online courses and it seems likely that students will increasingly be defined less by being a member of one school.  So, as a student takes a couple of courses at one school, a few at another and still other with a third institution online – how do we deal with this in a school sports eligibility sense?  School sports are built around the “school” as the centre point but personalizing learning is about the “student” at the centre.  And while I was a vocal leader of creating a fair playing field for schools I see the world shifting.

Try this out.  Find a really good high school volleyball or basketball player and ask them – who do you play for?  In these two sports that have been primarily school sports throughout time, most kids will not answer with their school but their club.  Students now primarily identify with their club not their school.  This has happened fast – I see it with my own elementary aged children.   Yes, kids play sports for the school but this is not seen as their primary identification.  While yes, in some sports in some communities the high school is the primary or only game in town – there are no sports left where the majority of training and growth happens in schools.  Student athletes compete for their school but they play for their clubs.

Parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.  One of the great appeals of school sports to families has been that they open doors to a university education.  Students are now regularly seen through club programs and students could receive full scholarships in a “school sport” without ever playing that sport in high school. Colleges and universities are also looking to bypass school programs creating their own club structures that feed their university programs rather than relying on high schools to develop their future players.

And of all of the challenges, I think the biggest one might be that potentially the community does a better job than schools of providing competitive sports.   Public and private providers in the community may be better at offering competitive sports than schools.  I wonder, if schools did not currently offer competitive athletics would there be a push to start them?  I think the answer is no.  The number of community, not-for-profit and for-profit groups offering competitive athletics is growing exponentially.  And while some of the offerings make me cringe, there are many fabulous opportunities for young people in the community that did not exist even a decade ago.  And while not perfect, groups like KidSport are helping make community sports accessible to all families.

I don’t think there is any one of the challenges in on the list that is insurmountable.  It is more about the cumulative effect of them all.  And to be clear, I am definitely not convinced that the loss of school sports would not be without huge repercussions for schools from overall student engagement, to morale to achievement levels – it might be a future reality though.  And if sports remained in independent schools and not public schools I think we would see a mass exodus from our public institutions.

While we are envisioning teaching, learning and schooling of the future we better add athletics to the conversation.  If we don’t, there will be more voices like Amanda Ripley, making the Case Against High-School Sports.   For me, hearing stories about finding our way back to the 1970’s when schools dismissed and Empire Stadium was full with students for track meets or the glory days of basketball championships at the Agrodome are great stories but not instructive.  We need to get to figuring out the role of schools in competitive sports as we go forward.

And while I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while, looking 20 years out we need to think of what new model will work.

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This is the first of two posts on the subject of school athletics.  I was planning to start with a series of reasons why today’s students may be the final generation to see sports in school as we know them but instead I am saving that for my next post.  For this first post I want to outline five reasons why school sports may continue well into the future.

School sports have always been a big part of my life, as a student, a teacher and a parent.  Some of my most wonderful friendships are because of connections I made through school athletics.  I do think we are in rapidly changing times, and suggesting that school sports may slowly disappear from our schools is not too far-fetched (As a bit of a preview I think issues like cost, safety, available coaches, onerous regulations and increased competition are all challenging school sports).  That said, I find a number of compelling reasons that may mean the obstacles will be just that obstacles, and school sports will continue well into the future.

Here are five reasons that can lead me to believe those of you watching your children play school sports, will get to repeat the rite of passage with your grandchildren.

Firstly, nostalgia is big in schools.  One of the qualities that people like about schools is they generally look the same for children as they did for their parents.  Adults often romanticize their school sports experiences – from cheering on the football team, to scoring the winning goal in the soccer game. School rituals are often slow to change thus one could argue school sports are not going anywhere.  There will be too much of a push to keep them.  And while one can point to some jurisdictions around the world that don’t have them, they never have.  School sports are such a part of the fabric of our schools.

Somewhat related, is that high school sports receive much more media coverage that community sports.  When the media chooses to shine a light on school sports the public watches and listens which then influences the decisions young people make around sports.  We are especially fortunate in British Columbia with Howard Tsumura at the Province Newspaper.  No other major daily paper in the country gives the attention to high school sports as the Vancouver Province and Howard’s work, like his recent piece on why he loves high school basketball, helps ensure school sports are in the public eye.  From our major daily newspapers, to television to local community papers there is far more coverage for teenagers playing school sports than those playing community sports.  And this, in turn, helps to continue to support high school sports programs.

While there are many others in the community offering sporting opportunities, school districts in British Columbia, and across North America, own most of the gymnasiums.  So when it comes to sports like volleyball, basketball, badminton and wrestling, it makes sense for schools to offer them since they have the facilities.  For outside providers to offer these sports they have to pay gym rentals which can be often cost prohibitive.  In other countries gymnasiums are like hockey rinks in Canada, and community facilities.  As long as schools own the places where sports take place they will continue to be primary providers of the sports.

Another real potential for school sports is that, like with so much else in our schools, sports programs will evolve and new models will be created.  I am particularly vested in this as we are trying just that in West Vancouver.  For us, we have taken one of the primary school sports, basketball, and wrapped some programming around it (HERE) that help support athletes, develop coaches and keep students at their home school.  For better or worse, sports have changed where almost all sports offer year-round options and training begins at much younger ages.  School sports and community sports need to form new partnerships so that students are not left to select between playing sports at school and the community. There also needs to be different entry points – so you can have a team that has a range of commitment levels but all those involved have access to training and support to meet their levels of interest.  Our thinking around new models, is that rather than have all students attend one school with a particular sports passion, how do we support them at multiple schools, so they can continue to compete for their home schools and we can reinforce the value of inter-school competition.

Another possibility to ensure the long-term viability of school sports is some sort of new hybrid model of recreation and competition.  There is clearly a global push to have all our students be more active.  Our traditional sports have often been about selecting some students to participate in a model where a small percentage of the student body actually participate.  There are exceptions like football and rugby that have larger numbers, but it is generally true that school teams are quite small given the overall population of many schools.  One possibility is that a new group of sports emerge / reemerge that have larger teams and are more recreation based.  We have seen this with the growth of Ultimate in schools. Another possibility is that increased resources shift from inter-school teams to in-house intramural programs

There are major shifts happening in schooling.  And so many shifts with the nature of teaching and learning.  It is interesting that so far most of the discussion around school sports seem to be about trying to return them to some glory days of the past.  In the next post I will outline some real challenges that seem to be facing school sports moving forward.

There are many who would argue that they just couldn’t imagine schools without sports as we know them. But that is not really the purpose of this post – it is not about whether they are important, it is about the drives and blockers to their long term success.

As I talk to athletes and coaches and read stories in the newspaper, in many ways school sports are continuing to make a difference like they always have before.  And, of course, they have a lot going for them to assume this will continue into the future.

 

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