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School Sports

Role In Student's Social And Emotional Development



The role of sport in society, and more particularly in schools, has been debated for many decades. There are divergent viewpoints on the value of sport, with proponents on one end of the continuum hailing sport as having the same goals and objectives as all of education and on the other end those who purport that sport is an entertainment enterprise that should be separated from education altogether.

A Brief Historical Perspective

The development of organized sports and games in the United States has had an interesting history. Early settlers in the United States brought some games with them, but there was a minimal amount of organized athletics in communities and none in the schools until near the middle of the nineteenth century. Very little is known about the early history of sport development, but most authorities agree on the historical evolution of the major American sports that were developed in the eighteenth century. The first organized baseball team was founded in 1845, and the first college game was played between Amherst and Williams in 1859. The game of American football originated from soccer and rugby; the first game is claimed to have occurred in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. James Naismith created the game of basketball in 1891 to fill a need for play and sport during long winter months. Sports received mixed reviews, as the activities were usually conducted by citizens on a volunteer basis or by unsupervised high school and university students. By 1879 a need arose for systemization of sport and for a governing agent to oversee sports in the United States, which resulted in the formation of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1888. In 1906 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was founded as an outgrowth of meetings held by twenty-eight of the nation's colleges.

The NCAA and AAU have remained powerful governance boards in regulating college and all other amateur sports in America. As girls and women entered the sport arena, the formation of the National Association of Girls and Women in Sport in 1899 was instrumental in providing sound sport opportunities for all girls and women in a variety of sports at the elementary, high school, and collegiate levels. In 1971, with the impending passage of Title IX, representatives from 278 colleges and universities formed the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which governed women's intercollegiate sports until a takeover by the NCAA in 1981. The AIAW began to level the playing field for girls and women in sport. For the first time in American history, women's sports began to rival men's programs in the number of contests held, which increased the amount of publicity given to women's sports. When the NCAA took over as the governing body of women's intercollegiate athletics, it inherited a new era in women's participation. In 1971, only 31,000 women were engaged in varsity sports; a decade later there were 70,000, and the numbers have continued to escalate significantly.

In the United States, participation in organized sports has become a common rite of childhood. At the beginning of the twentieth century, agencies and schools provided sport opportunities as a means of providing wholesome leisure time activities for children and youth. Prior to 1954, most of these experiences occurred in Boys and Girls Clubs, Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCA), Young Women's Christian Associations (YWCA), Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. With the inception of Little League Baseball in 1954, sport for youth moved from social agencies and activities organized by youth themselves to adult-organized sport programs. In the early twenty-first century, schools have organized teams primarily for the "athletically elite," often to the exclusion of the majority of students. Opportunities for youth to engage in sport remain unequal across genders and social class.

The debate continues as to the value of sport in education. Sport is ingrained in society as both an educational fixture and an entertainment enterprise. The argument continues as to whether or not sport holds valued benefits for its youth and young adult participants and therefore warrants a prominent place in the educational system.

Benefits of Sports to a Child's Development

A wide spectrum of outcomes has been attributed to modern-day sports and play. Critics have condemned sport for fostering excessive violence, an overemphasis on competition and winning, and the exploitation of individuals. Sport proponents have extolled the value of sport as a contributor to health, personal fulfillment, and community integration.

It is important to look at how sport has the potential for producing positive outcomes in educational and noneducational settings for children and youth. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has proposed a model for systematically assessing the potential positive outcomes of sports and the conditions necessary to produce them. The Csikszentmihalyi model is based on the premise that four main types of consequences are of importance when examining and/or evaluating any sport activity. Two of these consequences are present at the individual level: personal enjoyment and personal growth; and two are at the community level: social harmony/integration and social growth/change. In relation to this model, an ideal sport activity is one that contributes in significant ways to all four types of outcomes.

Leonard Wankel and Philip Kreisel have identified five factors that should be present for a child or youth to experience the benefit of personal enjoyment in sport: personal accomplishment, excitement of the sport, improving one's sports skills, testing one's skills against others, and just performing the skills. These factors are thought to contribute most to the enjoyment of sport.

Personal growth includes a variety of physical and psychological factors. Physical health can be maintained and improved through sport participation by enhancing the cardiovascular system; improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels; increasing muscular strength; improving muscular endurance, flexibility, and bone density; and weight management. Because sports are a major type of activity in which children and youth are involved, it is considered a viable method of promoting good health. Lifetime sports, such as golf, tennis, swimming, and cycling, are especially beneficial in meeting nationally established health objectives. Early childhood participation in sport can minimize the emphasis on competition and focus on skill instruction. However, sports may not be a sufficient substitute for physical education programs in the schools. Quality physical education curriculums that have developmentally appropriate physical activities which provide the necessary foundations in motor skill, movement acquisition, and behavioral development can enable children and youth to become successful participants in organized sport.

Numerous studies support the positive relationship that exists between psychological well-being and regular involvement in physical activity, especially in the areas of reduction of anxiety and depression. Conditions to maximize such outcomes are usually associated with individual preferences related to activity type; environmental factors; level of competition or intensity of activity; and individual versus group format.

Sport has also been shown to serve as a mechanism for the transmission of values, knowledge, and norms in creating social harmony. The specific values conveyed may be those of the dominant society, or they could be those of a subgroup. Therefore, sport could contribute to either differentiation and stratification or to integration into the overall society. Evidence indicates that different sports appeal to different social stratifications in the society and may reinforce cultural or societal differences. Sport also may serve to transmit general societal values, which leads many sport authorities to believe that sport has positive value for the participants in building character, discipline, a strong work ethic, and the ability to work in teams. The research literature supports the importance of de-emphasizing winning and competition and thereby moving young people into positive and enjoyable experiences. Unfortunately, the trend has been toward a more competitive, "win-oriented" framework, which has created increased aggression and violent behaviors among spectators and youth participants. This has led to many national forums at the high school, collegiate, and community levels to reassess the sport culture.

Positive outcomes related to socialization and social integration are also dependent upon appropriate leadership, as well as the creation of a climate for this to occur within the sport experience. Changes within sport and change in the general society have a symbiotic relationship–general societal changes affect sport, and changes in sport can also affect society.


Youth sports participation can have many benefits for the individual and for society. However, it is evident that sports can produce negative consequences if quality programs are not developed. Schools and communities can strive for the highest standards by educating and training coaches, deterring the professionalization of youth sports programs, and abiding by the guidelines established by national sport governing bodies, so that sports programs have optimal benefit for all youth, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or ability.



CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, MIHALY. 1982. "The Value of Sports." In Sport in Perspective, ed. John T. Partington, Terry Orlick, and John H. Salmela. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Coaching Association of Canada.

GREENDORFER, SUSAN L. 1978. "Social Class Influence on Female Sport Involvement." Sex Roles 4:619–625.

MORGAN, WILLIAM P., and GOLDSTON, STEPHEN E., eds. 1987. Exercise and Mental Health. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION. 1981. The Sports and Recreational Programs of the Nation's Universities and Colleges. Mission, KS: National Collegiate Athletic Association.

SAVAGE, HOWARD J. 1929. American College Athletics. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

SEIDEL, BEVERLY L., and RESICK, MATTHEW C. 1978. Physical Education: An Overview, 2nd edition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

SEEFELDT, VERN D., and EWING, M. (1997). "Youth Sports in America: An Overview." Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest 2 (11):1–12.

WANKEL, LEONARD W., and BERGER, M. 1990. "The Psychological and Social Benefits of Sport and Physical Activity." Journal of Leisure Research 22 (2):167–182.

WANKEL, LEONARD W., and KREISEL, PHILIP S. J. 1985. "Factors Underlying Enjoyment of Youth Sports: Sport and Age-Group Comparisons." Journal of Sport Psychology 7:51–64.



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