By Jason Despain
In a recent NFHS Coaching Today article entitled “High School Athletics and Community Service,” Kent Smith explains the need to involve community service in high school athletic programs. His article focuses on the example set by Orrville (Ohio) High School teams as they teach athletes to give back to the community.
After reading his article, some coaches may think, “Volunteering is nice, but I’m paid to win games, and volunteering distracts our efforts to win.” Such thoughts, however, are likely not accurate. In fact, research of a similar program suggests that Orrville’s commitment to service likely contributes to overall program success – both on and off the playing surface.
For 20 years, volunteering at local elementary schools has been a common practice for teams in the Wyoming State Basketball Championships, where all 64 participating teams are given the opportunity to volunteer at a local elementary school. An analysis shows that the program positively influences confidence, teamwork and ability to win basketball games, so much so that more than 75 percent of studied state champions opted to volunteer.
Coaches claim that the elementary school visits caused athletes to play better basketball, attributed to heightened levels of relaxation, confidence and teamwork, but how does that correlation work?
Academia shows that individuals who volunteer in service activities perform at a higher level. Christine Carter, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the benefits of volunteering and proved that volunteers are healthier, less anxious, less depressed and more energetic. Plus, they feel stronger and have a greater feeling of self-worth; and all this is due to the release of endorphins while serving.1 When student-athletes participate in volunteer work, like mentoring children, coaches can expect them to experience a “helper’s high,” which elevates confidence and enriches performance.
The influence on performance is predominantly true for small high schools. A statistical regression was run using tournament results from 1997 to 2008 for schools in Wyoming’s smallest high school classification. After controlling for variables such as school size and seeding, the regression showed that visiting elementary schools significantly affected the number of games won at the state tournament.
This greater impact of elementary school visits among smaller schools is likely due to the fact that small schools suffer more from the “Hoosier effect” – that is, they are more overwhelmed than larger schools with playing in a big arena with big crowds for the first time. Thus, they benefit more from the relaxing and confidence-building effect of volunteering.
Volunteering, particularly in the form of mentoring, causes a boost of confidence. Many factors of service may contribute to the confidence boost, but being viewed as a role model is one of the most significant.
Larry and Dianne Moser, a husband and wife coaching duo at Tongue River High School, observe that being viewed as a role model raises the athlete’s confidence level, which they noticed during the state tournament elementary school visits, as well as during mentoring activities that they coordinate with their hometown elementary school throughout the season. The Mosers further observe that the confidence level peaks when the athletes see those students at the game to cheer them on.
Not only are the athletes more confident in themselves, but they are also more confident in their coaches. Courtney Neves participated in the elementary school visits as a member of the Burlington High School basketball team. He explains that seeing the coaches lead the team in volunteering caused him to view them in a positive light. He said, “It’s so much easier to be dedicated to a coach and his game plan when you have respect for him as a person. Seeing our coach committed to volunteering helped me to respect him even more.”
Lovell High School’s Bob Geiser exemplified how the mentoring opportunity can benefit a team. He built confidence in his players by highlighting all of his athletes, particularly reinforcing academic achievement and other positive qualities. By recognizing them in a public setting, he built each player’s confidence. Wendy Walker participated in the program as a member of Coach Geiser’s team and affirmed that by mentoring students and being recognized as a role model, she was more focused and confident as an athlete, and the experience built her confidence in Coach Geiser.
Serving together as a team can build a sense of unity, which is only accomplished when athletes work together off the playing surface.
Chris McGown, the newly hired head coach for the Brigham Young University men’s volleyball team, sees a need for more team unity and is turning to volunteering to meet that need. He says, “We want to be more team-oriented and not be just a collection of individuals. We need to learn how to behave as a team and work in a way that puts the needs of the program ahead of the needs of the individual … As much as we do on the court as a team and as volleyball players, one of the things we want to do more of is serve the community. Whether it’s at a hospital or a retirement home, we want to help out a little bit. It is good for the guys, and it is good to do this as a team and do other things as a team on other places besides the court.”2
Further, visiting elementary schools serves as a great boost for bench players, as well as starters, which elevates the entire team and increases their commitment and confidence to each other. James Hounsell participated in the mentoring visits for many years as an assistant coach, and he noted that working with the elementary school students caused his more shy and reserved athletes to come out of their shell and have a positive experience. A number of coaches stated that elementary kids do not know who the stars are, so they treat all of the athletes like heroes. For role players whose contribution often goes unnoticed and uncelebrated, the elementary school visit serves as a successful and rewarding experience.
Bob Despain directed the elementary school visits and shared the following account of how the program contributed to one team’s success.
In 1991, the Cheyenne Central girls’ basketball team qualified for the state tournament as the lowest seed, and for the struggling program, just qualifying for the tournament was a great success. In the first round, Cheyenne Central was matched up against the tournament favorites – a team that had beat Central by 40 points earlier in the season.
Despain recalls speaking with Central’s coach about the elementary school visits. Despite a relatively early game time, the coach insisted that his girls visit the elementary school before the game, and Despain even recalls that they stayed longer than required and arrived at the arena behind schedule.
After the pregame warm-up, Cheyenne Central, still radiating from the positive experience with the elementary students, jumped to an 18-2 lead and held on for the upset. Despain acknowledges that many different factors played into the upset, but maintains that the elementary school visit inspired Cheyenne to perform at a higher level and win the game.
In the egocentric atmosphere of professional sports, teaching young athletes to volunteer and mentor should be a priority of any coach. Ultimately, a coach not only works to develop better athletes but also to develop better people. Teaching student-athletes to serve helps coaches to fulfill their greater purpose, and such service does not hinder the on-court success of the program. In fact, it only adds to it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Despain is originally from Casper, Wyoming and currently studies economics at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He has recently been named a 2011 Truman Scholar, a prestigious scholarship for students focusing on a career in public service.
1 Carter, C. (2010, February 19). What We Get When We Give. Huffington Post, pp. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-carter-phd/what-we-get-when-we-give_b_468374.html.