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Why We Play – the Purpose of Education-based Athletics

By Juli Doshan on February 11, 2015 hst Print

In today’s high school setting, a coach is one of the most influential people in a student-athlete’s life. Since coaches spend a lot of time with their students, they can often be more influential about certain decisions than even their parents. So what happens when a coach becomes so focused on winning games that he or she forgets there are other ways to win as well? Coaches should be aware of all the things they are teaching their students and find a good balance between coaching to win and coaching to enhance the lives of student-athletes.

That’s what Jody Redman, Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) associate director, stressed during a workshop entitled “Why We Play – the Purpose of Education-based Athletics,” conducted in July at the NFHS Annual Summer Meeting in Boston. She reminded the audience that although it may be obvious why the students play sports, administrators and coaches need to remember why they are there as well.

“Athletics and activities are the reason why kids show up,” Redman said. “It’s the reason they do well on the ACTs and SATs and the reason they are in attendance. It’s the glue that connects them to their school.

“That’s what you do. You are the glue that connects kids to school, but we have to be intentional. We have to realize it’s about purpose – it can’t just be about physical skill development.”

In order to be intentional, Redman said that administrators should first think about the idea of education-based athletics and what it means. Then, the focus should be on defining a purpose around that idea and developing a set of goals to be achieved outside of simply winning every game.

“I like to win, but it’s not our purpose. Our purpose is education. It’s human growth and development of the inner lives of kids,” Redman said. “When they graduate from high school, 97 percent of kids have a terminal experience (with sports). They will never play organized sports to the level or degree that they play now, in high school, again. So what are we giving them if we are only centered on physical skill development and goals?”

Redman said the challenge to keep high school sports in perspective is even greater now because the sports culture has changed. High school is “book-ended” between youth and club sports on one end and college and professional athletics on the other end, all putting pressure on coaches and athletes to win at any cost.

“The culture has changed,” Redman said. “We know that because we’re in it. We know that kids are being asked to do things we never did. We know that parents are over-involved to the point where it becomes something extremely negative for the kids who are participating.”

“When we look at college and professional sports, what happens when a college coach doesn’t win? They get fired, right?”

With pressure coming from both sides, Redman said those at the high school level must dig deep and retain focus on their mission in order to remain education-based. She said they might even be surprised by what happens when they dig deep enough.

“One of the things we talk about when we get coaches or administrators into a room is (becoming a better person),” Redman said. “You can’t start this journey and say ‘I’m going to work on really clearly defining education-based athletics and activities’ and not think that that journey is going to impact you as well. It will.”

That’s just what happened three years ago when the MSHSL began looking into the culture of sport and started with a book discussion of “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives” by Joe Ehrmann. Redman said they have taken that book discussion and turned it into curriculum that she teaches at coaches’ conferences and as part of Minnesota’s coaching education and continuing education required courses.

“That journey over those couple months in the summer was significant, not only for me professionally, but personally,” Redman said. “You can’t begin that journey without change happening.”

Participants are asked to think about why they coach, why they coach the way they do, how it feels to be coached by them and how they define success. By the end of the session, participants should have defined their coaching goals and written a purpose statement that they can take back and refer to if they need a quick reminder.

“In three short years, we’ve had a tremendous amount of growth and support for being intentional and purposeful in education-based athletics,” Redman said. “People are hungry. They’re looking for solutions because the culture is broken.”

Eighty high schools in Minnesota received “InSideOut Coaching” and conducted book discussions last summer.

One of the biggest things coming out of the curriculum, Redman said, is a common language that can be spoken and understood among coaches and administrators.

“We have begun to talk about this common language with our ADs,” Redman said. “Because now we’ve got new head coaches going to a class, learning about goals and purpose, going back to their building and there’s nothing for them because nobody else is speaking the language.”

Redman said that parents should be included in the common language as well, and that they might be the easiest group to convert to a new way of thinking.

“If I’m a coach and I get up in front of a group of parents and say ‘This year, I’m going to change your sons or daughters and I’m going to help them to become men and women of empathy and integrity who will lead, be responsible and change the world for good,’ there is not a parent that’s going to argue with you.

“But you’ve got to be intentional about it. You can’t just say it at the preseason parent meeting.”

One of the easiest ways for a coach to be intentional, Redman said, is to write his or her own purpose statement, refer to it often and have an assistant coach or a team captain hold him or her to its standards.

“You get in the heat of the moment and you do lose sight,” Redman said. “So we have to provide strategies that will help to not only say ‘Philosophically, isn’t this wonderful?’ but we’ve also got to have concrete tangibles too that a coach can walk away with and say ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’”