Send Student-Athletes The Right Message

Today, our American society is consumed with winning to the degree that too often the end justifies the means. The old adage, “It matters not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game,” has been overshadowed by the phenomenon of “winning is everything.”

It is unfortunate that student-athletes receive such confusing signals from the media, fans, adults, and their peers as to the real benefit of interscholastic competition. The challenge for school administrators and coaches is greater now than ever befor e to ensure that the true mission of interscholastic athletic programs is not compromised.

Most adults who, as students, were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to participate in a first-class athletic program, are better today because of that experience. Countless successful individuals, in all professions, extol the values and less ons they learned as a result of participating in school athletic programs. Over the years, the treasured values of sportsmanship, teamwork, fair play, sacrifice, and commitment, which are inherent in interscholastic athletics, have served people well in their daily lives.

The question becomes, are these values any less important for young people today than they were 20 or 30 years ago? During the 1993-94 school year, more than 5 million students participated in high school sports nationwide. Even with these impressive sta tistics, many taxpayers continue to ask whether experiences resulting from athletic participation justify the time and expense to provide these invaluable programs.

The best answer school administrators and coaches can offer when these questions arise is the quality of their product —students. There are people negative toward athletics who enjoy pointing to those athletes who have received much publicity and fame, but have stumbled in their personal lives by breaking the law, displaying traits of immorality or being involved in uneth ical practices.

Although these incidents may be true and highly publicized, the individuals involved are without question a small percentage of those who have had the benefit of participation in interscholastic. School administrators can point with pride to the high per centage of student-athletes who are leaders in their and communities. Many of these students excel academically and in other activities as a result of the determination, work ethic, and concern for others that have been forged in their personalities part ially as a result of their athletic experiences

Douglas Heath, a psychology professor, conducted a study which chartered the lives of a wide range of individuals. His summary, which follows, describes the key contributors to well-being, success and happiness in adult life:

“School grades and achievement test scores predict moderately well which students will do well in school the next year. They do not predict well which students of average or above-average grades and test scores will succeed later in life. Scholastically talented youngsters risk failing as adults if they do not develop the character strengths necessary to
succeed.” Heath concluded. “Participation in activity programs is a school's best predictor of an adult's success.”

Professor Heath's study is especially important today, as school districts face budget disasters and whack away at the school's activity programs. When you consider the overwhelming evidence that participation greatly enhances a student's chances to stay in school, avoid drugs, graduate, go on to college and be successful in future life, you have to wonder why any school district would consider reducing this portion of the budget.

Several years ago, General Douglas MacArthur, addressing the corps of cadets at West Point on the merits of athletic competition stated, “Upon the field of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of vi ctory.” So it is today that those who participate in interscholastic athletics will use this experience in a manner that will be beneficial in their adult lives.

Rest assured, the true objectives of interscholastic athletics far outweigh

any championship trophy won, a gaudy record achieved, or wide-spread publicity and temporary adulation earned. Those individuals who enjoy the thrill of the athletic arena are competitive by nature. The inherent trait is reflected most by their burning desire to win. For every time the scoreboard reveals one team h as won, then the other team has lost. However, is this really true? Countless success
stories would suggest otherwise.

Values received from athletic participation in high school can be and are often lifelong. Many coaches and teams with .500 win-loss records or less have very successful seasons in experiencing the long-term rewards and benefits of athletic competition. A winning record is not necessarily a guarantee of a truly rewarding experience. Winning at all costs should never be the prime objective for an interscholastic team.

The individual primarily responsible for providing these meaningful experiences and teaching the valuable lessons is the coach. A coach is the one person who can make being a member of an athletic team an experience that one would prefer to forget or one that will provide a solid foundation for future success as students and adults.

Being a coach of an athletic team provides a unique opportunity to establish a special relationship with student-athletes. Experiencing the thrill of victory, as well as the disappointment of defeat and all that accompanies those efforts, allow for valua ble lessons to be taught and learned. Few vocations, if any, can provide the chance to make a more meaningful difference in developing character traits in young people than the coaching profession.

Coaches are and must be role models for members of their team. Their actions can and do have far reaching effects on the lives and values of those whom they instruct. When all is said and done, the greatest satisfaction coaches can receive from the coac hing profession is to see their student-athletes become successful, productive, and law-abiding citizens in our society. Therefore, let all who are called “Coach” be reminded that indeed the coach has awesome responsibility, and yes, marvelous opportunit y to impact the lives of those they lead in a positive manner.

The fact remains that in all successful interscholastic programs, values learned are more important than victories achieved. This is and should be the ultimate objective and primary reason for schools sponsoring interscholastic athletics. If this is the case, who can question the benefits derived and the lifelong values obtained by student-athletes participation in school athletic programs.

Jack Warns is Assistant Commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Reprinted from the OHSAA’s “Athlete.”