Play ball?
The role of sports in children’s lives

Robert Griffin is a professor in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services. In 1998 Griffin, the author of two previous books on the education of adolescents, published Sports in the Lives of Children and Adolescents: Success on the Field and In Life. Professor Griffin recently discussed his work, thoughts on parenting, and the role of sports in our culture with Tom Weaver, associate editor of Vermont Quarterly.

In the introduction to your recent book you relate an interesting story about the work’s inspiration. Could you tell me more about how you came to focus on this subject?

I received a letter from a man in Tennessee named Ken Heise — no one I knew. He and his wife had had a dinner conversation over whether to encourage organized sports for their two children, a boy and a girl. Ken thought sports was a good idea and his wife didn’t. He had come across some articles I had written about a program I am involved with that helps student-athletes do better in their schoolwork, so he wrote me. He asked me in his letter where I came down on the issue he and his wife were exploring. Essentially, my book is a long letter back to him.
The book is about sports, but more fundamentally it is about growing up well — developing into a happy, productive, and decent adult — and what sports has to do with that. It’s about parenting, and it’s about schools, and it’s about this society, particularly commercial sports — the Bulls, the Yankees, and Nikes — and the ways it imposes its value on youngsters. And to some extent the book is autobiographical, a way for me to make sense of my own childhood.

What surprised you most in the research for this book?

That researchers can’t find support for the claims that are often made about the benefits that supposedly come from participation in sports — improved confidence and more of an achievement orientation and so on. What I found was a very complicated picture, but a basic conclusion I came to was that organized sports isn’t a necessary activity for children and adolescents. The best argument for sports that I can see is that it can be fun and exciting and a place to meet other kids; but there are other activities that can provide those kinds of experiences as well. As for athletics producing better people, it can happen, but I don’t think it is a typical outcome of sports involvement. It is really an individual matter: whether sports is good or bad has to do with what a particular child is like and what a particular sports circumstance is like. What to do about sports comes down to a judgment call for each individual child or adolescent. In the book, I lay out some criteria to use in making that call.

What was your own experience with sports when you were young?

It was the biggest thing in my life. Everything else took second place, including school. Sports was more than what I did; it was who I was. All my friends were athletes. I fantasized about being a professional athlete, although like the vast majority of young people with this dream I wasn’t good enough to make it a reality. Looking back on it, I don’t think it was good for me that I was so consumed by sports. I wish I would have focused more on academics and spent more time in non-athletic activities and with non-athletic kids. And I wish I had been introduced to lifetime sports. I wish sports would have been something I did intensely during the time it was going on and then forgot about, instead of reading all those sports magazines and trying to be the next center fielder for the Yankees. And I wish adults would have talked all this over with me more than they did.

What is your take on the conventional wisdom that sports is a great builder of character and confidence?

Sports doesn’t seem to have much effect one way or the other for most kids, and when it does, the changes don’t carry over into other areas of life. But with that said, sports can build character in important ways with some kids. I mean things like developing personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, persistence, and a solid sense of fairness. All you can do is watch to see whether this is in fact going on with an individual athlete. Sports can be the only place in a child’s life that says, “Go beyond yourself; seek true excellence.” When that message gets through and youngsters apply it in their lives generally and not only in sports, I think that is healthy.

Do you think things have gone too far in pushing kids to achieve too much in sports at too young an age?

If you mean parents putting too much pressure on kids, while that goes on some, I personally don’t see it as a major issue. Most parents and coaches keep things in perspective really well as far as I can tell. To me, the big question is how sports involvement affects children’s development as people: their sense of personal effectiveness, self-concept, aspirations, academic performance, self-respect, and so on.

You devoted a chapter to “Girls in Sports.” What were some conclusions you reached there?

Traditionally girls’ sports have been more focused on promoting grace and dignity and have centered on the experience of playing the game and personal relationships rather than the final score and championships. But that seems to be changing, with girls taking on more of the approach we associate with boys’ sports — a get-enrolled-in-the-soccer-camp-and-perfect-your-skills way of going at it. Sports reflects what is going on in the society generally. These days, there is a unisex ideal, the idea that boys and girls ought to do the same things in the same ways, including sports. Perhaps there is an economic factor involved. It could be that to the extent that men and women work in the same ways, careers and so on, they will also play in the same ways. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your values.

What can parents do to increase the chances that their children will have a positive sports experience?

That is a complicated matter, and I spend a lot of time with that in the book. Parents need to see sports from the perspective of the totality of their children’s lives and their overall responsibility as parents. They have to be willing to look hard at what sports is really doing to and for their children and trust the conclusions they reach. And then take action. Parents don’t have to assume that they need to stay passive and support whatever their children want to do around sports. What children are interested in and want isn’t always what they truly need. Although they often think they don’t, young children and teenagers very much need their parents’ wisdom and guidance.