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Using Sports as a Classroom

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0


This paper is going to highlight some ideas of what makes sports such a great tool for educating people. There are so many little lessons that can be learned on the playing field and just because you do not end up writing a paper or taking a test on it does not mean you did not learn valuable lessons. Questions that are answered are why, and how sports are relevant in making people better. The methods for this research paper are mainly through books, but in some cases I use my own experiences to help highlight some of my personal findings. This paper will be used as a very remedial start to my college thesis.

 Sports The Best Classroom

Sports have been around literally forever. The Chinese have been participating in forms of gymnastics from as far back as 4000 BC. The First Olympics were held in 776 BC in Olympia Greece where initially they participated in a single sprinting event. The Olympics gradually expanded to include several footraces, run in the nude or in armor, boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw.  Sports have been used for a number of reasons throughout history.  Yale President, A. Barlett Giamatti says, "The Greeks saw physical training and games as a form of knowledge, meant to toughen the body in order to temper the soul, activities pure in themselves, immediate, obedient to the rules so that winning would be sweeter still. The English ideals, on the other hand, aim beyond the field to the battle ground of life, and they emphasize fellowship, sacrifice, a sense that how one plays is an emblem of how one will later behave; they teach that victory is ultimately less important than the common experience of struggling in common." (Simon, 1985,p 131). Today we should use sport as a way to transition children to adulthood by teaching them lessons in relationships, personal well being, and morality.


When participating in a sport an athlete must deal with a number of different relationships.  Anthony Lacker (2000) puts it best when he says, "Sport does not exist in a vacuum of society. Sport interacts with other institution in society just as individuals interact with each other." (p. 33) This is true on many levels and if you look at all of the relationships that are built through sport you will see the benefit to individuals.  Relationships need to be built between the athlete and authoritative figures (coaches and referees), fellow athletes (teammates and opposing competitors), and finally the relationship of athletes as role models. 

The relationships that are built between athletes and the authoritative figures associated with the sport are very important. First, lets look at a coach and the life lessons that can be learned from having good and bad ones. Bad coaches can teach lessons to athletes about life more than you would think.  The first lesson that can be taken from a truly bad coach is what not to say or do to someone else. An example of this would be a coach who is so unforgiving, making players have to watch what they say and do around the coach to avoid any potential backlash. This kind of coach creates a level of unease around practice and games and has his own players walking on eggshells. He or she creates a climate that encourages players to tell little lies rather than to tell the truth to avoid the scorn of a "bad" response. So, how can this be a life lesson that can be turned positive?  This type of coach will keep you on your toes and ready for any question. He will make you prepare extra hard to try and avoid the scorn of a bad response.  Another thing that a bad coach teaches athletes is the ability to overcome them. This coach will not be the last person that is in an authoritative position, whom you may not like. In fact if you play long enough you will have another coach that you will most likely think is terrible at coaching. Along with that, you will have bosses that you do not care for, as well. So, if you can overcome a coach that you do not feel comfortable playing a sport for when it's just for fun, you will surely be able to overcome a boss you do not like at a job you truly do need.

Good coaches have a much clearer and easier way of helping educate Athletes. The first demonstration of this is from Randy Pippin (2008). "How many squares do you see in the box below?"









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"Immediately , individuals can add or multiply and see that 4x4 is 16. Then some people realize the whole diagram is a square, which brings the total number of squares to 17. Then, Looking more closely reveals each of the four corners has four boxes making 22 squares." (p. 9) This goes on and on till eventually we realize that the diagram makes 30 squares instead of just 16. As Pippen (2008) says, " the Greek word for educate means to pull out, which is what coaches do. Coaches have the professional responsibility to pull everything out of their players." (p. 9) This is not just talking about athletic prowess but also means that coaches should be striving to instill character, work ethic, and life skills. So, coaches that strive to be great strive to pull all thirty squares out of an athlete not just the sixteen that come easily. So, why teach Character? According to Pippen (2008), "teaching character improves thinking. In turn, how you think both reflects and determines your attitude."(p. 10) These are just some of the things that good coaches are always thinking about. Coaches are always striving to become better at their trade and not just to win, but to build better people as well. This is something that a student can be around if he or she decides to be in a sport.

     The next authoritative relationship that sports gives you  a chance to experience is the referee.  These people are the ones who make the final decision on what is and what is not fair on the game field according to their knowledge of the rules. The lessons that can be learned by abiding by a referrers opinion of the rules is a good one.  The referee may not always be correct when making a call and the ability to move on past the call is something that is hopefully learned on the playing field rather than on the street when it is to late with a police officer. Another lesson that can be taken by being around officials is that there are rules and if they are not abided by there will be a penalty. Take doing your taxes as an example. There are rules most of which are hard to understand. If the rules are not followed you can be fined (penalized) or even jailed (ejected). Again having experience with officials is better learned on a playing field than in the game of life.

     Your peers around you in athletics offer a lot of experiences that one may not encounter as much of if they do not participate in sport.  A rival may cause you to work harder because you want to beat them or never feel the pain of defeat again. This was the case for Dan Gable (Zang,2001) a world class wrestler. Dan had an astonishing record in high school and college leading into his last match of his college career at the NCAA national championship match for his weight class. He had been national champ all three years previously and was 181-0 all time. Dan lost that next match to Larry Owings.  If it were not for this day he may not have ever had the work ethic he needed to become a World and Olympic champion years later.  According to Zang(2001), " Stunned by the solitary blemish on his high school and college record, Gable began a seven hours a day, seven days a week regimen." (p. 29) This kind of answer to a negative outcome can only come because of sport.  He went on to beat Larry Owings on his way to a World Championship in 1971. Dan Gable went on to also when a Gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Games without even giving up a point. Now this is an extreme example of how sports can cause an individual to develop an outstanding work ethic.  Gable went on to be an outstanding College wrestling coach however, I have no doubt that the lessons of hard work he learned on the mats would ensure that Gable could have been successful at anything he had ever wanted to be successful at. This is true for all people. If Larry Owings hadn't pushed him maybe he would have never thought of going to such extremes of working out. This is an experience all athletes will encounter and it will make them better people in the end.

     Teammates play a vital role in the education that takes place because of sport. Often times the relationships with people you meet because of athletics would never happen if not for athletics.  High school is a small example of this. If you did not play basketball with your life long best friends maybe you would have never meet them. An even larger example of this comes when you talk about the desegregation of the world on the sports field.  On a college football team you will get almost every single race and religion you can think of. The diversity that goes along with getting the best athletes on a college football team is outstanding.  Often times the first time someone from a small town is around (for any serious amount of time) anyone of another religion or race is in college. Going to class and passing by on the sidewalk with someone of a different race or religion is not considered to be serious intermingling. However, practicing for ten plus hours a week, competing with or against, and celebrating after a big victory or recovering from a tough loss is. I grew to know and love more people that where different than me because of sports than I would have without them. 

     Teammates can teach lessons as well. Seeing what kind of things people have to overcome can make you a stronger person as well. Watching how a teammate handles a situation whether it is handled well or poorly can teach you how to handle something in the future.  Watching a teammate work hard can teach you to work hard.  Watching a teammate throw everything away because he or she could not control oneself away from athletics can teach you a lesson you cannot be taught in a classroom.  In the end if you play a sport you will learn as much from your teammates as you do your coaches and without sport you will not have these opportunities.

     The last relationship that you can learn on the playing field is that of a role model. That is both with people you look up to and people that look up to you. You can learn by watching your sports role models make mistakes or follow their leads in being successful.  You can also learn something from being a role model for someone else.  There are a number of things that come from the building of these relationships and all of them can be used as experience in whatever a person decides to do with their life outside of sports or education. 

The relationships that are built through sport offer a chance for athletes to build skills in interdependence, teamwork, communication, trust, sharing, and group success.  These are all traits that can be transferred to the work force or to being a part of a family.  A story that better illustrates the benefits of these traits is The Cold Within by Mike Doyle.

  "Six humans trapped by happenstance in black and bitter cold. Each one possessed a stick of wood, Or so the story's told. Their dying fire in need of logs, the first woman held hers back for on the faces around the fire, she noticed one was black. The next man looking cross the way Saw one not of his church, and couldn't bring himself to give the fire his stick of birch. The third man sat in tattered clothes; He gave his coat a hitch. Why should his log be put to use to warm the idle rich? The rich man just sat back and thought of the wealth he had in store now how to keep what he had earned from the lazy poor. The black man's face bespoke revenge as the fire passed from his sight; for all he saw in his stick of wood was a chance to spite the white and the last man of this forlorn group did naught except for gain. Giving only to those who gave was how he played the game. The logs held tight in death's still hands was proof of human sin. They didn't die from the cold without; they died from the cold within."

     This story shows that if these people would have learned the lessons of teamwork, communication, trust, sharing, and group success they would all still be alive. Now it is a fictional story about these people but you can hypothesize that if they all played sports whether it be together or separately this outcome of the story could have been different.

     A physically active person shows many characteristics that will help them in their own well being.  The physical activity that can be learned and practiced in sport can be used to help people with their mental and physical well being.

There are many conditions that must be present before you can say that anyone is ready to learn. (Laker,2000) Parents are told that constructive play can prepare a child for emotional stresses of the playground and of school. However, one thing is true in order for a student to be completely ready to learn he or she must have good self esteem.  People of all ages are much more effective as learners when they feel comfortable in their surroundings and a major reason for discomfort is low self esteem. Typically self esteem is low because of one's self image. If they see themselves as out of shape or not popular their self esteem will be low. This leaves a lot of room for sports to help children mentally. Besides improving your self esteem because you are good at a particular sport you can also do so by working hard. If you see improvement in the sport you play this can help your self esteem as well as just being a part of the group. Being a part of a team means people have your back. Knowing this goes a long way for a person's self esteem thus making them a better learner.

There is a correlation between mental well being and physical well being when it comes to physical activity. As Laker (2000) says, "the case is easily made: good experiences of school physical education lead to good self esteem; this leads to a positive perception of physical activity, which in turn can lead to a healthy, active lifestyles, thereby diminishing the risk of obesity and coronary heart disease and resulting in a healthier population." (p. 94) Now this example uses Physical Education as an example, but it can easily be substituted for sport. 

Most people play sports for the fun of doing so and look at it as a form of recreation. However, if another reason was needed the physical benefits of playing a sport are noteworthy. People that participate in sport often times feel they physically look better which helps their self esteem. Another advantage to the physical activity that sport brings is the lowered risk of heart disease. In 2006 Heart Disease Claimed 831,272 lives or 34.3 percent of all deaths (www.americanheart.org). This is an astonishing number of deaths and it only includes deaths related to heart disease and not other obesity related illnesses. Being active in a sport can help students from becoming overweight and can lead to many positive life experiences.

Morality is defined as conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct, and moral quality or character(Simon, 1985).  These lessons are taught in a number of ways such as: parents, classrooms, and through religion.  However, many of these things can also be reinforced through sport. According to Simon (1985) "Many individuals never think of sports in moral terms. They see sports as a mere instrument for attaining fame and fortune, or as play, an activity we engage in for fun and recreation but not as one that raises serious moral issues which require serious examination in sport."(p. 5). So why use athletics as a classroom for the building of ones character? We participate in athletics to contribute to the formation of certain traits of this character such as: courage, integrity, coolness under pressure, and self esteem.  The formation of these traits is desirable, therefore participation in these sports should be desirable as well.

      One major moral issue that athletes encounter in sports is cheating. Simon talks about this when he says, (1985) "Competition in sports, it has been argued, is ethically defensible when it involves participants in a mutual quest for excellence. In effect, competitors should view themselves as under moral obligations to their opponents. Each competitor is obligated to try his or her best, so that opponents can develop their own skill and be genuinely tested. On this view, sports are absorbing to spectator and participant alike precisely because they involve our minds and bodies so fully in meeting a challenge, a challenge worth meeting for its own sake."(P. 64) Unfortunately often times the "obligation" towards excellence can turn to the use of performance enhancing drugs.  The athlete who is using the performance enhancing drugs is chasing the fame or fortune talked about above. There are a couple of moral lessons that can be learned from sports simply because the presence of performance enhancing drugs.  First, athletes will be tempted by the potential benefits performance enhancing drugs can offer. Overcoming this temptation is a test in an individual's morality.  If an athlete can overcome the draw to use the performance enhancing drugs he or she is better for it.  They have now conformed to the rules of conduct and thus built their moral character.  This will lead to athletes to do the right thing when it comes to other things in life that may have immoral shortcuts.  A second reason why being around sport, which will eventually mean being around performance enhancing drugs, is that there are many programs specifically designed to educate athletes on the negatives of use of the drugs. An example of this is that every year NCAA athletes are required to sit through a video discourging performance enhancing drugs while explaining the side effects.  If these athletes were not part of the sport under NCAA regulation they may not have all of the knowledge about the negative effects of the performance enhancing drugs that will sway their desire to use them.

     The lessons learned in athletics are very important to one's life. Often time you will hear coaches speak about how the lessons you have learned on the field will make you a better person, spouse, and co-worker. After all, is that not the end goal of education? So athletics is like an advanced course of life with added benefits of comradely, physical fitness, and morality.




Laker, A. (2000). Beyond the Boundries of Physical Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Pippen, R. (2008). Coaching to Change Lives. 2008 Coach of the Year Clinic Notes , 9-13.

Simon, R. L. (1985). Sports and Social Values. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Zang, D. W. (2001). Sports Warz. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.




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