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Picture this. Your son comes home and tells you that he wants to trial for his school’s top basketball team. In your mind are all the right reasons – teamwork, sportsmanship, fitness, new friendships and the lessons that healthy competition provides. You fully support your son, as any parent would, no one could debate the positive benefits of boys being involved in a bit of healthy competition.

Following weeks of trials, your son comes home to tell you that he has ‘made’ the team. You drive to his first Saturday match and find your place in the stands with the rest of the parents and take in the atmosphere. 

As the game progresses, you notice a few things that you had not expected: a coach loses his temper and yells at a player, a player on the opposite team gets sent off for being disrespectful to the referee, and a parent from your son’s team shouts a negative comment to one of the opposing team’s players.

Your son’s team loses and the coach calls all the boys into a huddle. From the sidelines it appears that he is pointing out each of their mistakes. You wait at the exit of the gym and watch your son as he walks towards you, head down. You ask yourself, “Is high school sport too competitive?”

Unfortunately, the story above is all too common.

Is high school sport too competitive?

First, let us explain something fundamental about playing sport.

In high school gyms, pitches and pools – anywhere boys can be involved in competition – we see the above scenario play out. Our initial instinct is to blame the competition itself, drawing the conclusion that sport has become too competitive and that it is bringing out the worst in everyone involved.

We believe that this is the wrong conclusion.

As high school educators, coaches and parents, we bear a great responsibility in teaching our boys about healthy competition, creating healthy environments, and using competition to teach boys morals and values. If all of this is done correctly, competitive sport can be a great tool in teaching boys how to be men.

Let me explain …

Every adult that a boy is in contact with has the potential to lead him. Therefore, the responsibility of creating a healthy competitive environment lies not just with the teacher or coach but also with the parents.

There are two types of leadership that you can offer a boy involved in competitive sport: transactional and transformational.

Transactional leaders see sport as an opportunity for them to gain something. This may be the prestige of coaching a winning team, career advancement, or even living out their own unfulfilled dreams. Transformational leaders on the other hand, view sport as an opportunity to teach boys lessons; to have an impact on them that will last throughout their lives, regardless of winning or losing. Great transformational leaders can create positive and healthy environments, where players thrive, even in the most intense and competitive environments.

Transactional versus transformational leaders

Leaders who have a transactional approach to high school sport create unhealthy environments. Here are some examples of typical behaviour:

  • Reliving their glory days and often tell stories of their achievements.
  • Participating in drills and training as a means of showing off rather than playing to the level of the children they are coaching.
  • Disregarding rules and/or safety.
  • Showing disrespect to athletes, parents, other teams, coaches or officials.
  • Identifying the team’s wins or losses as their own.
  • Punishing athletes when the team does not win or when a player makes a mistake.
  • Rewarding good performance with playing time.
  • Showing favouritism.
  • Belittling athletes.
  • Showing little interest in creating a community environment by getting families involved. 

Transformational leaders have the ability to create healthy environments in the most intense competition and use the competition to build a player as a whole person. Typically, they:

  • Have a strong focus on building teamwork, pride, responsibility, hard work, respect and sportsmanship.
  • Use wins and losses to teach life lessons.
  • Teach athletes how to handle wins and losses with dignity and good sportsmanship.
  • Make constructive and positive correction.
  • Hold athletes accountable for their actions.
  • Give athletes appropriate responsibilities.
  • Welcome interactions with parents and build a healthy team community.
  • Understand that their role as a coach is about shaping young athletes lives. 

John Wooden, one of the greatest transformational coaches in the history of sport, coined his own definition of success which was, “Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

As highlighted by this phrase, with the right leadership and with parents understanding their role in leadership, high school sport can be one of the most important tools in shaping a young man’s life. Over-competitiveness of high school sport is often, and wrongly in my opinion, highlighted as a negative – but the potential to shape fine young men is too great a benefit to overlook.

Written by Graham Pattison, Director of Sport

What are your thoughts? Is high school sport too competitive? Let us know in the comments below. 

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