CAHPERD (the California Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance) put on a fantastic conference this weekend just outside of Anaheim, CA.
The theme of the week – “In Focus” – was everywhere. Conversations on attention networks in the brain, social emotional learning, and mindfulness were occurring not only in the lecture halls but at the coffee shop, the bar, and in small gatherings of educators all over the Garden City conference hall.
One of those presentations titles was especially compelling. Play Equity: Promoting Alternative Sports conjured an idea at the heart the heart of the Good Athlete Project – under the assumption that sports offer one of the world’s most powerful learning platforms, we should do our best to ensure all young people have access to it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Football offers an amazing opportunity to teach life lessons. Those lessons cost between $2,740-9,5000 per season (according to figures from TIME Magazine, 2017). The average lacrosse player spends $8,000-17,500. A hockey family will have to shell out $7,000-19,000 to give their child the opportunity to play.
For most families, these numbers are simply not attainable.
Retention in sports differs significantly based on household income. Participation and retention in sport is high in families who earn more than $90,000 per year, and low in families who earn less than $50,000 per year, citing that “cost too much and make it difficult for their child to continue participating.”
Play is a universal desire of all embodied humans. Organized sports offer the opportunity to capitalize on that desire for its educational benefits. If only the affluent have access to that sort of education, then we have identified another factor in the oft-discussed achievement gap in our society.
Grant Boyd of USA Ultimate led an interactive presentation that addressed this concern.
Coach Boyd’s presentation was all about Ultimate (not “Ultimate Frisbee,” a term for which the toy company Wham-o holds exclusive rights). Ultimate offers an opportunity to play a highly competitive, fun, team-based sport that costs a whopping… $4.00.
In Ultimate competition, athletic and fitness demands are comparable to lacrosse, soccer, field hockey and other mainstream field sports. There is no equipment cost (t-shirt and shorts make up most teams’ uniforms) and the plastic disc is less expensive than even the most affordable basketball.
In addition to the low cost of entry, he added that Ultimate offers a powerful benefit which is too often overlooked. Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) refers to the intelligent development of athleticism over time. Many suggest that young athletes should play multiple sports and move in multiple planes of motion (training all load vectors); they suggest that specializing in one sport too soon has the potential to impede development or even increase risk of injury. In Ultimate, every athlete is the metaphorical quarterback, wide receiver, and running back – at some point the athlete is going to catch the disc and become QB #1. Everyone runs routes, plays defense, throws, catches, and has the potential to score.
The big kids are not ushered to the offensive line to learn one specific skill – all kids are asked to do everything. Imagine equitable opportunities to play.
The cost of entry to the sport is incredibly low; the fitness and skill benefits are high. What it takes is space to play, and qualified coaches to mentor young people through the experience. That is where coach Boyd’s presentation got really interesting.
In Ultimate, there are no referees – the athletes call their own fouls. Everyone knows the rules and are tasked with upholding them.
Think about that for just a second longer… adolescent athletes are expected to hold themselves, their teammates, and their opponents accountable. That is an element of competitive sports which is unique outside of the parks and playgrounds of youth.
Ultimate runs on a nearly sacred document called “Spirit of the Game.”
If an athlete steps out of bounds but doesn’t realize it, someone from the opposing team has to call the violation. If emotions are high, if the game is close, this could be an explosive moment. (Imagine a defensive lineman calling his own holding call in the football state championship game).
Two young people are tasked with communicating and engaging in conflict with one another during competition. That is social emotional learning.
This won’t happen naturally, said Boyd – it is part of the skill-set Ultimate coaches are tasked with teaching. The coach must frame the entire experience. Most of our kids didn’t grow up playing Ultimate like they played other sports, he said, so everyone is a beginner, which means we get to teach them from scratch. One essential part of that teaching is showing young people how to communicate and work through conflict.
Another essential part is cultivating the willingness to embrace mistakes and aim for continuous improvement. When no one is an expert in the sport, then everyone needs a growth mindset. Imagine equitable opportunities for social emotional learning.
Coaches, educators, mentors of all kinds are tasked with framing the experience for young people.
They must equip athletes with language and strategies to engage with opponents. When the athletes have to make their own calls and deal with conflict in the heat of competition, they use the SEL tools provided to them, and often default to their models in the space. Modeling healthy behavior matters.
- How does the coach react when an athlete shows up late to practice?
- How does the coach react when an athlete runs the wrong play?
- How does the coach react to an athlete who loses their cool in the heat of the moment?
There is room for discipline, of course. There is need for guidance, absolutely. But Ultimate, as much as any sport, offers the opportunity for coaches to demonstrate composure. Show kids how to handle conflict. Show kids how to advocate for themselves and teach them to disagree in a healthy, respectful way.
There is real potential in this sport, but like all sports its success will be determined by implementation.
Coaches, as always, it’s on us.