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Teaching Life Lessons Through Sports

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

Organized athletics originally were viewed as mechanisms for teaching social values and selflessness, but society has changed and so have sports. Mitch Lyons suggests that athletics still can be a springboard for valuable lessons, if the approach is changed.

Despite the fact that 7 million kids in the U.S. are playing high school sports, educators continue to drop the ball in school athletics because they are content to teach 19th century sport in a 21st century world.

High school sports as they exist today were the vision of Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, who also saw them as a tool to build societal values. We speak in sports metaphors today largely because of Dr. Gulick's work in popularizing school sports as a specific means of teaching moral character.

Dr. Gulick became the father of interscholastic sports almost 100 years ago when he was the physical education director for the New York City Public Schools. He took over schoolboy-run sports teams, said that the strength of "the 'new athletics,' or the new interpretation of the old athletics, lies in viewing them as social and moral agencies, as means for the creation of corporate sensitiveness and genuine institutional honor."

One hundred years ago, Dr. Gulick's idea swept through America as high schools incorporated school sports in their program so they could teach teamwork, self-sacrifice, and the subordination of the individual to the greater good, a concept not yet grasped in a nation built on the rugged individualism of the American pioneer.

Young people, Dr. Gulick believed, would recognize the moral imperative of sports when they played the game. He recognized 100 years ago that while teaching sportsmanship is laudable, it will not take hold by merely talking about it.

But the mere playing of games for the last 100 years has not taught social righteousness.


To make athletics more of a force for change, we have to recognize that our model for sports teams is wrong. What we need to do is to change the model to be an educational one by changing the message from verbal to written. That means the model needs a written curriculum. The model should have kids practicing the mental skills needed to succeed, including sportsmanship, on a daily basis. The model needs to have a text for the student to read, study and practice. A won-loss record is no substitute for learning and practicing how to think to be successful. Yet, we budget playing games over content. We need to reverse that by budgeting subject matter first in athletic departments.

Here is our mission for athletic departments in colleges and high schools, if we believe that athletics can be educationally meaningful:

  • Write down a curriculum for all coaches to follow, therefore changing the model of sports teams.
  • Write down a text for students to read and be tested on, thereby making sports a true learning experience.
  • Base the curriculum and text on the science that studies performance: sport psychology.
  • Make sure that coaches are teaching and students are practicing the mental skills that show us how to perform at our very best, in or out of sport.
  • Budget subject matter first, not last.
  • Establish benchmarks for learning the mental skills of creating a positive environment for self and others, giving maximum physical effort, goal setting, visualization, task-orientation and meditation that helps us recognize harmful thoughts and how to replace them with helpful ones.

Don't listen to coaches who say that they already teach these skills. They don't teach mental skills in a consistent, educational way. For example, students don't know the mental skills they are actually practicing, how visualization works, that their thoughts affect their performance or that it is a skill to be positive. Generally, children don't understand the concept of self-worth, our most important possession and how it affects our lives.


Our societal needs are different than they were a century ago when team games swept America in order to teach a lineman in an assembly line or on the football team that he was a significant part of the team, even while the owner and the quarterback got all the glory. Today, we combat low self-worth and negativism in our society, which frequently leads to violence, addictions, eating disorders, and discrimination. Although the causes are many for these ills, a higher self-worth in all individuals and a more positive society in which to bring up children certainly would benefit the population.

Just as Dr. Gulick was wildly successful in having Americans understand the team concept, we can create our own success by using sports to practice building self-worth and creating a positive environment for a better society.

Today, we know how important our thoughts are and how they affect our performance. What is taught in sport psychology mirrors the values of hard work, helping others, and achievement.

Sportsmanship lies within the bounds of sports psychology, since we know that people learn faster and perform better in a positive environment. Once we know that, why wouldn't we practice the skill of creating a positive environment, including recognizing our own negative thoughts and then changing them to more helpful thoughts on our teams?

We can teach the mental toughness that is discussed in sport psychology. We can correct students and ourselves from being mentally weak when at the first sign of adversity, we give into anger and frustration. As part of an applied science class, why couldn't athletics have children practicing daily the attributes of always giving maximum effort, creating a positive environment, and achieving through preparation, including goal setting, task-orientation, and visualization?

We need to teach children how to practice the mental skills to improve as players, which includes practicing the skills necessary to become better human beings. The children will want to learn lessons that have an immediate benefit for them. The benefits are not just in their play, although that is what they care about, but in how they think about what they are doing and what they think of themselves. True educational leaders will change the subject matter of athletics to find 21st century solutions to 21st century problems.

Mitch Lyons is an assistant men's basketball coach at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts, and is president and founder of the nonprofit corporation,

Read Mitch Lyons' previous Soapbox column, Sports-Psychology Curriculum Focuses on Educating Athletes and Winning.

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Copyright 2007 Education World

Originally published 01/20/2005; updated 06/29/2007