Jim Bishop | Have we gotten out of sorts over sports?

Dave King knows he’s juggling a “hot potato,” but he feels his message is urgent.
Dave, the athletic director at Eastern Mennonite University, believes firmly in the value of sports, but is raising red flags over what he perceives as “the new American dream” of obsessing over sports and sports competition.

Speaking from years as both a coach and athletic administrator, Dave is concerned that the positive values – promoting good health, character development, sportsmanship, teamwork and social interaction – are being overshadowed by a sports culture that emphasizes early specialization, extrinsic rewards, over hyped media coverage and obsessive pursuit of athletic scholarships.

Dave believes that individuals, families and congregations need to address the issue – now.

“I’ve heard too many stories from parents who tell me how stressed and busy they are but few recognize the potential harm – the problem of sports schedules conflicting with church and other family activities. Instead, they are driven by the immediate gain of the prestige of playing on the ‘elite’ team and don’t see the long-term impact,” Dave notes.

King has been at EMU since 2005; before that he served 14 years as athletic director and middle school principal at Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite School. He also spent nine years teaching and coaching at the elementary and middle school level.

One indicator of “something’s out of balance,” according to Dave, is that organized sports have replaced free play. “Those back yard pickup games are a thing of the past,” he notes. “Many up-and-coming athletes seem to lack ability to develop creativity and problem-solving skills.”

I resonate with that observation, recalling my growing up years with numerous athletic events held at Doc Brenneman’s barn, the upstairs a wooden floor with volleyball and basketball nets that were heavily used by our church youth group. We also had access to a well-groomed baseball field and a swimming pool.

My problem: when sides were being chosen at these church outings, guess who usually was the last one picked (“well, I guess we gotta take Bishop”)?

And, guess who always was assigned to right field, where I prayed that the ball would never be hit and, when the game was tied in the bottom of the ninth, the misguided missile would be fired my way. Invariably, the shrieking orb would sail over my head, the winning run score and the game end abruptly.

In volleyball, I was too short to hit the ball with any force over the net, and I was routinely called for “carrying.” Double-dribbling was my forte in basketball, or an opposing larger player would handily steal the ball and fast-break to the basket.

But the big difference back then: a general consensus amongst my peers that when the dust settled, hey, it’s just a game, no stats were kept, no scoreboard was lit, and we planned our next matchup on the level playing field. Well aware of my lack of athletic prowess, I’d nevertheless vowed to return to the field of dreams and try, try again.

Dave identifies heavy parental involvement in their children’s sports activities as another danger area. Parents begin doing everything for their kids and use performance as a basis for relating to their offspring, he notes.

That hit home with me. It’s been many years, but I recall how emotionally involved I got in varsity volleyball contests when daughter Jenny was a starting center on the Turner Ashby team her senior year. It was scary how worked up I’d get at hard-fought contests that went into overtime, my vocal challenging of referee calls and having to attend every home and away game if possible. I was proud of Jenny and her team’s achievements, including several tournament wins, but in retrospect, my expectation level was askew.

The stratification of youth sports today, with all-star elite, select and premiere teams, “feeds directly into the college scholarship process,” Dave points out.

I prefer watching Division III-level sports because of the emphasis on maintaining balance between academic performance what happens on the playing field. The competition is keen, and winning is still important, but student-athletes play for the sheer enjoyment, experience and lessons learned. Division I play is big business, and if winning seasons aren’t the bottom line, the coach’s future is in jeopardy.

There’s also a problem with “adult models” placed on organized sports, “which isn’t how kids think,” according to Dave. “Strong competition is introduced before most youngsters are ready for it.”

Further, sports “specialization” is occurring at an early age that limits children’s ability to learn to play a variety of sports for fun and promotes feelings of exclusivity – you’re either in or you’re out,” Dave says.

The move to sports specialization and year-round play “leads to a greater risk of injuries and a higher burnout-dropout rate, Dave points out. He cites a study in which 70 percent of those who started playing sports at age eight had quit by age 13.

“I’m fully committed to the value of sports and athletic competition – it’s my bread and butter, after all – but I sense that many students and their parents aren’t viewing sports as a way to develop life skills, but rather a means to achieve recognition and acclaim,” Dave says.

“Plus, I fear that certain values may be compromised or sacrificed in the process if decisions are largely based on what is achieved on the playing field,” he adds.

I know; many will immediately resist Dave’s critique. But he needs to be heard; I think he’s right on. He welcomes speaking invitations to continue the dialog and can be contacted at david.king@emu.edu; phone 540.432.4646.

Whether as spectators or participants, perhaps we all need to become better sports.


– Column by Jim Bishop

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