By Mike Strzelecki
With tightening budgets and greater legislative emphasis on standardized testing, schools have had to rethink their priorities. Extracurricular activities and “non-standard” classes such as art and music are often at risk.
Competitive and intramural sports, however, seem to be weathering the financial crunch nicely, an indication of the importance schools place on athletics. And, while wildly popular in high schools, sports are equally critical in middle schools, say local educators.
“Schools like ours have to prepare students for the academic demands of high school, college, and beyond,” says Kendra Johnson, principal of Arbutus Middle School, in Baltimore County. “But, at the same time, they have to ensure that students also have sound interpersonal and life-balance skills. That’s where sports often come in.”
“Competitive sports and other athletic activities are essential on so many different levels,” she continues. “On the surface, they allow students, who may or may not be as successful in the classroom, to thrive in an area and bolster their self-image. Competitive sports and other athletic activities require teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving. These skills are essential in any profession and in any setting.
“Of course, competitive sports and other athletic activities also promote a sense of responsible balance that is missing in many young lives.”
Studies have shown other benefits of organized sports in regards to middle school students as well. Participation in team sports can help serve as an ego-check for the athletes since they do not often stand apart, but rather are part of a larger team. Coaches often provide positive role models and mentors for the athletes and can encourage family time as students often want to practice their sports outside of school. Sports also promote what is known as the three Ps of athletics—practice, patience, and perseverance.
A Group of Their Own
Middle school is a period of rapid growth with a wide range of differences in maturation. It’s a time of restlessness and figuring out peer groups. Middle school students fight for independence, yet remain very dependent on their parents. They tend to be emotive and sensitive, and academics often take a back seat to socializing.
Laura Happel, the eighth-grade girls’ basketball coach and math teacher at Arbutus Middle, says that sports can play a critical role in helping students deal with these issues.
“Getting along with peers who are different from you in middle school is often a hard task,” she says. “But finding ‘common ground’ to bring people together often teaches a lesson of its own. My players have to learn that they have to work hard individually to succeed, but also work together as a team.”
In addition to competitive basketball, Arbutus Middle offers an array of recreational sports. Happel says that playing fields and ball courts are an ideal place for middle school students to learn certain core values.
“I find that one of the most important values that my players learn on the basketball court is the meaning of respect,” she says. “I demand from my players a very high level of respect, not only to myself, but to other players on the court as well as the referees. And then this concept extends to the classroom. The players learn to respect teachers and school staff.”
To participate in sports in Baltimore County, eligibility rules require that a student have no more than one “E” on his or her last report card. Happel, however, extends her bar a bit higher.
“You must have all Cs or higher to play on my team,” she says. “If any player’s grade drops below a C, she spends half of each practice on the sideline studying and doing homework until the grade improves.”
Middle school is also where the concept of student-athlete emerges.
“I teach my students what it means to be a student-athlete,” Happel says. “The word ‘student’ comes first because the athletes need to learn that being a student is the first priority. Being called a student-athlete means you have been given a privilege. With this privilege comes the concept of time management. Being able to keep up with sports and school work and household responsibilities is often hard for middle school students, but learning how to manage time can only be a plus for the future.”
Carry-over to the Classroom
In 2002, Beckett Broh, an assistant professor of sociology at Wittenberg University, in Ohio, published a study concluding that participating in athletics helps students perform better academically than any other extracurricular activity.
In an April 2008 interview on the website America.gov, Broh says that, as athletes, students build self-confidence and self-esteem and learn vital problem solving skills, all of which they carry to the classroom.
“It also seems to change who their peers groups are,” she explains in the interview. “They gain social status in school, and that seems to promote a stronger engagement in the educational environment, so … they’re less likely to drop out, they’re less likely to disengage from the classroom environment—things like that.”
In addition to competitive sports, most area middle schools also offer recreational sports, often in the form of intramurals, where students within the school form teams to compete against each other.
Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, a Baltimore County public school, in Pikesville, offers flag football, volleyball, lacrosse, and hockey. It also has a Fit Club that promotes physical fitness for students through general workouts and a Spirit Club to support the competitive teams.
“What intramural sports do is allow the students to refine and extend certain concepts and skills learned in the classroom,” explains Kim Bartosz, chair of physical education at Sudbrook. “They help students build a positive attitude toward physical activity as a natural part of their lifestyle, as well as develop social skills. These are important skills that they can carry into adulthood.”
“Intramural sports give everyone an opportunity to ‘play’ in their own way,” she adds. “Just like there are different products on the market to suit different needs, intramurals provide another choice for students over competitive sports. What happens to the kids who don’t make the competitive teams or don’t even want to try out?”
Lessons on the Field and Off
Nick D’Ambrosio, a former athlete at Archbishop Spalding High School, is assistant principal at Roland Park Middle School, in Baltimore, and the lacrosse coach.
He says Roland Park Middle offers four competitive sports—track and field and football through the public schools program and soccer and lacrosse through Baltimore’s Parks and People Foundation, a nonprofit providing recreational programs in Baltimore City.
D’Ambrosio views sports as a stepping stone to professional careers.
“My philosophy is that you learn so many life lessons through organized team sports—lessons like teamwork and sportsmanship,” he says. “The idea of establishing a common goal as part of a group, and then working together to achieve that goal is crucial. These are skills students will need for the future, in their professional lives. You can’t build teamwork skills from many other extracurricular activities, but sports offer it.”
D’Ambrosio also believes competitive sports can play a critical role in keeping some students off the streets and on a disciplined track.
“Kids need structure and support, and often don’t get these in other areas of their lives,” he notes. “After-school sports offer two hours where kids can get this structure and support, and they get it in a safe place. It gives them motivation to do well in the classroom and keep up their grades. It gives them purpose.”
“Middle school students often have difficulty seeing how their actions today affect their future,” adds D’Ambrosio. “Competitive sports offer a good lesson along these lines. You do well in school, you do your homework, and keep your grades up, and you get to play sports. This is something they can relate to and learn from.” BC
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. January 2010