The role of sports in childrens lives
Robert Griffin is a professor in UVMs 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 works 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
didnt. 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.
What surprised you most in the research for this book?
That researchers cant 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 isnt 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 dont 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 wasnt good enough to make it a reality.
Looking back on it, I dont 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 doesnt seem to have much effect one way or the other for
most kids, and when it does, the changes dont 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 childs 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 dont 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 childrens 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 childrens 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 dont 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 isnt always what they truly need. Although they often think they dont, young children and teenagers very much need their parents wisdom and guidance.