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What Teens Need from Sport Programs: Educational Athletics by Transformational Coaches

Dennis A. Johnson & Robert H. Benham

Strategies Cover January February 2021

Interscholastic athletics are deeply rooted in American school culture, as fundamental to the high school experience as prom night and report cards (Ripley, 2013). These programs are assumed by many to have potential to teach valuable life skills, such as authentic teamwork and hard work, while also promoting a healthy lifestyle and well-being. Research also supports claims of greater educational outcomes, increased rates of school attendance, enhanced school engagement, and strong sense of belonging, all of which contribute to developing better citizens later in life (National Federation of State High School Associations [NFHS], 2018).

However, some would argue that our high school athletic programs have evolved to resemble Division I intercollegiate programs, resulting in misplaced priorities, including unethical behavior and a growing sense of unrealized potential (Bowen & Levin, 2003). Karissa Niehoff, newly appointed executive director for the NFHS, states that the educational-based athletic environment is under attack by the oppressive forces of professionalization and inappropriate recruitment practices (Niehoff, 2018).

Currently, there is also nationwide concern about year-round training and the growing intrusion of youth and school sport on the lives of kids and families (Hyman, 2013). For too many young participants, the sporting experience has become developmentally inappropriate. Many teens have grown up surrounded by “helicopter/bulldozer parents,” who are deeply invested in their children’s athletic careers. Instead of emphasizing the core values and broader social benefits that are attainable via sport participation, their own goals can become too narrowly focused on the pursuit of an intercollegiate athletic scholarship.

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