It is inherent to human nature that when we have been doing things in a certain way for a long time, we tend to not consider whether or not it is the right thing to do, or if it could be done in a better way. However, as educators it is our responsibility to continually revise our practice and adapt it to new research and educational principles as we progress as a community and as a society.
In this article I will attempt to illustrate how the widely accepted “seasonal model” in sports is not in line with some of the most basic principles that have been widely accepted in education globally in recent years and now constitute some of the basic ingredients of our practice.
Seasonal sports have their origin in the United States, and common in other countries or school communities with a strong US influence, while it is not the norm in European countries (with few exceptions due to climate reasons). It is generally accepted that a relevant factor in the origin of this structure was the impossibility of performing outdoor sports during winter in certain regions, with the well-known story of how James Naismith invented Basketball in a cold winter at a YMCA gym being a good example. However, it also seems that a deciding factor is the natural replication at schools of the structure of American professional sports, which maximizes revenue and commercial value in those sports. The fact that people are used to seasons in professional sports prevents debate around the educational suitability of sport seasons at schools. It is accepted as natural and inevitable.
There are two main educational reasons that should be considered in the analysis of sports seasons in an educational context: the effectiveness of the learning process and student agency.
The Effectiveness of the Learning Process.
In the seasonal model, the academic year is usually divided into three sports seasons (sometimes two or four), lasting for roughly three months each. After three months of practice, some sort of official competition takes place, bringing the season to an end. It seems undeniable that a learning process that lasts for three months is not as efficient as one that happens over a prolonged period of time. If that was the case, we would be teaching math very intensively at schools for three months, and then moving on to English, etc. Learning happens best in the long run, but instead of providing that opportunity for our students in sports, we expose them to a rushed learning process with a clear focus on an end-of-season competition in which in many cases what is reflected is not the learning that happens at schools, but often from students’ practices outside of the school community. The system focuses on the perceived need for schools to participate in a high number of sports competitions (many schools list their number of sports teams as an achievement in their marketing), instead of on the actual learning that should be happening in the sports practices and competitions. It is a school-centered approach instead of a student-centered approach. Having more teams participating in more competitions (and success in those) is more important than students actually being able to develop for a longer period of time. A year-long approach allows for a long term approach to the learning process, supporting a natural progression, with opportunities to experience competition along the way and reflect on those experiences to keep learning and improving, and ideally with a culminating learning experience at the end of the academic year, a celebration of their growth, in the form of a competition (or a million other ways to experience sports), very much the same way that we teach other subjects, with regular formative assessments and a culminating demonstration of understanding. Teaching and learning will always be more effective over nine months than over three months.
A commonly agreed key factor in high quality contemporary education is Student Agency. It is not the purpose of this article to reveal or instruct on the benefits of student agency, which is by all means widely recognized as one of the fundamental building blocks of effective education, very much at the level of other basics such as inclusion or differentiation. Research consistently shows that students’ capacity to make their own choices about the way they learn will increase engagement, satisfaction and overall achievement. So, if we are doing this in the classroom, why are we not doing it in sports? Students participate in sports in their free time, out of their own initiative, interest and passion, so it seems even less appropriate to restrict their choices in that context, limiting them to what we (schools, conferences…) believe should be played in October or in March. Are we educating our children in taking ownership of their own decisions? As a parent, it is my duty to promote healthy habits and lifestyle with my children; it is not ok to sit on the sofa and play videogames all day, and it is not ok to eat pizza every day. But it is not “more healthy” to play three different sports throughout the year than playing the same one, your preferred one. If my child has a passion for basketball, which is in essence something highly positive for their growth and well-being, who am I to tell them that they can only play it for three months, and then play something else for the rest of the year? How am I supporting them in learning to make their own choices when those choices are undoubtedly correct in nature? How am I, ultimately, recognizing their right to practice the activity of their choice in their free time and respecting them as an individual. It seems, again, school centered, restrictive and dictatorial. As an Athletic Director, it breaks my heart when students tell me “but I like volleyball, why can I not play volleyball?” ( in my head I know the answer is “because xyz conference says so”). We already have enough restrictions in our programs, inevitable limitations in regards to facilities, coaching resources, time, etc. We will never be able to provide everything that every student needs, but are we doing everything we can to empower students to play and learn what they want?
Shifting our seasonal programs to year-long will be a huge task that will not be easy, but that change can only start with a new mindset from us Athletic Directors and administrators, and proactively looking for solutions to the challenges that we will face instead of justifying our reluctance to change in tradition, history or inertia. Although each school is a world of its own, and those challenges will differ in each community, some of them will be common to many schools. In any case, challenges that will need solutions, instead of justifications for not moving forward. These are some of the ones that I have heard from fellow Athletic Directors and administrators:
- Seasons provide students with the opportunity to experience different sports. This statement is, put very gently, inaccurate; what seasons do is keep students from being able to make choices about their sports, restricting their options and “forcing” them to play what is available if they want to be active. If they have a passion for a sport, they can only practice it for 3 months. If they want to play sports consistently (as we should be promoting as one of our main goals at schools!), they will have to join whatever sports is available. A system that provides students with the above referred opportunity to experience different sports is one in which a number of sports (within each school’s own limits) are offered, and students can choose between them, and change their choice if they wish. Obviously not at any time, but within reasonable periods of time depending on each school´s structures, (eg., every month, quarter, trimester…). This seems terrifying for some, as they imagine absolute chaos and students signing up for different sports and changing constantly, but my own experience tells me that this is not the case; students know what they want and like, and changes are minimal.
- We don’t have the facilities/coaches/resources. Yes, we have organized our sports around seasons for many years, and the transformation will require rethinking our resources, being creative, solving problems, making adjustments and learning as we grow. We might have to reduce some sports and go down to 6 or 7 from the original 10 that you used to offer. Or we might have to adjust your practice times in shifts where younger students go first and older students start later, after their study halls, peer tutoring or clubs. Isn’t that what we are here for anyway? To find solutions so we can provide what our students need?
- When I was an athlete, I was exhausted at the end of the season and I needed a break. A break is needed because we have structured our training sessions that way, trying to squeeze as much practice time as possible in a short period of time, instead of spreading the load over a longer period of time, which not only offers an improved learning experience, but also helps to balance student life after school. Having two or three practices a week for the whole year is a much more sustainable way to cope with academics, family life and other commitments (violin lessons, robotics club, tutoring… anything) than having four or five days of practice during a season, and then nothing for the rest of the year… unless they then join another sport, which will mean a questionable practice load for a sports program in the context of an educational institution and its goals.
- We don’t have the budget for this. Yes, this will be more costly, but as everything in life, you can get a basic service for less, and higher quality for more. Many schools have traditionally not charged for after school sports because “teams represent the school in competitions”, which again is a school centered approach instead of student centered; the focus is on putting teams together for competition, not in providing the best possible teaching and learning for students, and schools can offer this to students with no cost because it is only for a limited period of time and normally to a restricted number of students, the best ones in that particular sports, who are selected through tryouts. The traditional idea of running tryouts and providing exclusive educational opportunities to certain students based on their athletic abilities, and its educational suitability, is currently subject to debate in the educational community. The issue is addressed by extensive work in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and a summary of their research and conclusions can be found in this outstanding presentation from professors Lauren Sulz and Douglas Gleddie.
When addressing the issue of increased costs, the very first thing that needs to happen is an open and transparent conversation in our communities, including students, parents, teachers and administrators. Schools can provide (and have been providing) a basic sports practice for three months a year. Is this enough for our students? Would they prefer to be able to practice the sport of their choice for the whole year? With the results of that survey in your hand, which will very likely be yes (over 80% in surveys I have conducted among high school students), then the conversation shifts to parents: this is what our students and children want, and it is also what is best for them; what can we do to provide for them? Each school is different of course, but in many cases it will require a fee to support the cost of a program that will be between two and three times the size of before, the same way that there is usually a fee for most after school activities (again, this might be different at each school). It will be, in the end, their choice: the student’s choice to keep seasons or to be able to choose their sports year round, and the parent’s choice to pay if they want that for their children.
- Year round sports is what clubs are for. The idea that selecting our best players and providing them with a number of learning opportunities including practices and competitions, for free, while the students who don’t “make the cut” are relegated to clubs with a more leisurely focus seems highly questionable in regards to inclusion. Do we split our math classes between the advanced students that then take exams and the lower-level students who don´t? Or do they work together as part of the same social group that they belong to, with differentiated instruction and assessment according to their needs? Denying lower level athletes from competition is taking away an essential part of the learning process that, when done correctly, has immense benefits for their development.
- Sports are different. The culmination of all misconceptions about sports in schools. Until we understand that we need to approach sports as educators and apply the same basic principles that we use for the rest of the areas at schools, instead of the practices that we experienced in our competitive sports backgrounds, we will not be doing what is best for our students. I once heard a coach say “I don’t share your inclusive approach because it makes us lose other things”, a statement that could probably be valid at the professional level, or in an educational setting… in the 1970s, but unacceptable for an educator in the 21st Century. Whatever we lose, inclusion comes first, and the same goes for student choice.
The shift to year-long sports seems inevitable in the upcoming years as a new generation of Athletic Directors and Administrators with a more student-centered approach to sports start opening their communities to this conversation. Some schools are already taking steps in this direction for the benefit of their students even in a context where other schools are unwelcoming towards it. Whether this becomes the norm in three years, in five or in ten, we are already late. We could be doing better for our students, or at least trying to get started, today.
“One doesn’t just wake up one day and decides to be a better person; it takes a lifetime of perseverance and hard work” George Turner, “The Sea and Summer”, 1987.
Rethinking the Educational Suitability of Sports Seasons