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A Sporting Chance


A Sporting Chance
It's all they're playing for


Core Principles of Sports Done Right
Athletic participation must be healthful, positive and safe for everyone involved, conducted in an environment that teaches values and ethics; strengthens the community; promotes competition without conflict; and enriches the lives of athletes.

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The final seconds ticked down on the scoreboard, ending the last varsity game of the season and his dream. Ever since his son was old enough to hold a football, the father was sure the youngster was headed to the pros. But in this high school game, as in so many others, his son wasn't in the starting lineup. And today the team had lost. At home.

It was too much to bear. The father headed straight for his son's coach, John Wolfgram.

"He was angry," remembers Wolfgram, who was walking across the parking lot with his own family when confronted by the parent. "He felt his son had not had enough playing time, even though the staff had tried to be fair all the way through. He had played, but he did not start.

"The parent was viewing the situation from afar and didn't understand the internal dynamics of the team. He was very emotional because the end of the game meant the end of his son's career that he had followed and invested in for a long time. The situation ended quickly, but left a negative feeling about the season."

For Wolfgram, the verbal attack was one of few in his 30-year career as a football coach in three Maine high schools, where his teams won eight state championships. Yet for him and so many other coaches, it epitomizes the dark side of interscholastic athletics. It's what happens with increasing frequency in Maine and across the country as unrealistic expectations of parents, young athletes and communities conflict with the realities and values of youth sports programs, often with dire and far-reaching consequences.

"Some of the situations we've been reading about around the country, (including threats and violence) occurring in youth sports and in high school, college and professional athletics, we're now seeing in Maine in ways we haven't seen before," says former Maine Commissioner of Education J. Duke Albanese, co-director of the Sport and Coaching Education Initiative at the University of Maine. "A generation or two ago, there was considerably more authority given to coaches by the schools and parents. That's not to say that the iron-fisted coach of yesterday fits now, but a case needs to be made for leaving coaching to coaches.

"Today, there's incredible involvement by parents, the majority of whom are supportive. But some are over-involved. Parents have become the brightest and darkest sides of youth sports," Albanese says.

In the traditional world of interscholastic sports, how student-athletes play the game has theoretically been more important than winning or losing. The emphasis is on an activity that, by dictionary definition, is engaged in for diversion or amusement. While a few youngsters might have stars in their eyes, the adults in their lives realistically understand such interscholastic sports are opportunities for children to take the court, field, track, pool or ice competitively for what's probably the first and last time in their lives, and to hone their lifelong love of athleticism and fitness. Only a handful out of the millions of American middle and high school athletes ever make it to the bright lights of professional sports.

But in recent years, the traditional concerns about good sportsmanship, the health benefits of athletics, and the role of sports in a balanced educational experience have been overshadowed by the troubling trend of out-of-control parents, win-at-all-costs coaches and student-athletes pressured to perform. The negativity is as insidious as it is pervasive. In such a school sports environment, people are losing sight of the core values of interscholastic athletics, the experts argue.

"There's too much adult pressure placed on the sports experience," says Robert Cobb, dean of UMaine's College of Education and Human Development, which graduates the largest percentage of the state's teachers and is home to the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching.

One of the most recent efforts to stem further erosion of the positive values of interscholastic sports is outlined in a 45-page report, Sports Done Right: A Call to Action on Behalf of Maine's Student-Athletes, published in January by UMaine's Sport and Coaching Initiative, directed by Cobb and Albanese. The report is the result of a 15-month study launched in 2003 by a 17-member panel of statewide experts.

Among them: Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson; Martin Ryan, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association; and Dr. Robert McAfee, former president of the American Medical Association.

Funded by a two-year, nearly $400,000 U.S. Department of Education appropriation secured by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the study examines and defines healthy interscholastic sports, and sets new guidelines for conducting youth sports in Maine, and possibly beyond. The report was written as a companion piece to Maine's Learning Results, the state's academic standards.

Sports Done Right provides a philosophical framework for guiding Maine interscholastic athletics, linking sports to the overall school mission and community values, while supporting quality coaching education. It also addresses middle school and community recreational sports.

The report focuses on seven core principles and practices of a healthy sports program philosophy, values and sportsmanship; sports and learning; parents and community; quality of coaching; opportunity to play; health and fitness; and leadership, policy and organization. Also highlighted are red-flag trends considered "out of bounds," such as negative behaviors and attitudes, and detrimental athletic policies like pay-to-play arrangements.

"We've misplaced our ethics in many aspects of society, and sports is one of them," says Wolfgram, a member of the Sports Done Right panel and an English teacher at South Portland High School, who now is an assistant football coach at Bowdoin College. "What's needed is competition without conflict. Competition is designed to raise the level of performance, but if it's not done with integrity, it provokes conflict. In the sports world, that leads to physical altercations; in business, to cheating.

"Football is a perfect example. The competition is very intense. The game is emotional. There's physical contact. But the game has to be played with self-control, with a focus on excellence and raising the level of performance. Conflict takes away from the dynamic of the game. If there's conflict, the result is social disorganization."

In its obsession with sports, the country has inadvertently condoned poor role modeling in professional and collegiate athletics, Cobb and Albanese agree. High-priced players engaged in violence and unethical behavior have lost their ability to offer young people a wholesome notion of what sports can be. Not only are youngsters mimicking the unsportsmanlike behavior they see in the media, but also parents are applying adult-athlete performance standards to their children.

Student-athletes are excessively involved in year-round play in a single sport, increasingly pressured to specialize in that sport to the exclusion of others. In addition, there's too little evidence that interscholastic sports programs are conducted in a manner that consciously contributes to student learning and the overall goals of schools. And there's a crisis in the availability of qualified coaches to lead youth sports programs at all levels, with most school sports teams being coached by individuals who are not on the teaching staffs of those schools and not fully trained to work with young people.

"We need to fend that off so we can protect sports as it should be for kids," Albanese says. "What's at stake is student burnout, with a lot of talented, young athletes dropping out by ninth or 10th grade because all the fun is taken out of the game. We have real concerns about the pressures and unrealistic expectations undoing all that sports has to offer young people."

The Sports Done Right report is unprecedented in its reliance on the voices of student-athletes to examine problems and solutions in interscholastic sports. In addition to small group meetings with the panel, more than 300 Maine student-athletes and adults responsible for their sports programs participated in a 2004 Maine Sports Summit at the university. The student-athletes called for stronger communication between athletes, coaches and parents; positive sports learning environments; more fun in sports; winning kept in perspective; and consistent, fair treatment of athletes of all abilities. Students also identified practices detrimental to healthy sports experiences, such as negative comments and behavior by parents and fans, win-at-all-costs attitudes and coaches favoring the best players. Given the choice between having a winning team and giving all team members a chance to play, the student-athletes chose the latter.

"Winning and success are important for establishing healthy goals, but the reality is that students aren't always going to win, and there's a lot of rich learning that comes with falling short," says Albanese. "Those are realities for student-athletes. It's when the extremes, like winning at all costs, creep into sports that they become unhealthy. Or when all the good work by a coach who's great with the student-athletes is undone because he or she isn't winning enough. In that community, winning is too high on the pedestal.

"A balance must be struck between striving for success and excellence, and recognizing that the athletes are kids, allowing as many to participate as possible so the result in the end is learning."

Community participation and school leadership are central to the decision and process to guide interscholastic athletics, according to Sports Done Right. Maine superintendents and school boards have been invited to participate as stewards of the initiative, assisting schools and communities with a broad dialogue and ultimately signing on to "compacts" developed in partnership between UMaine and the Institute for Global Ethics, based in Camden, Maine.

Under such compacts, all stakeholders including parents, student-athletes, coaches, school boards and administration agree to launch community conversations about the report and its recommendations, receive appropriate training and conduct school sports under the core principles and practices of Sports Done Right. The school-community compact is a long-term commitment and does not phase out with the changing of school boards and superintendents.

In addition, the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching at UMaine, in affiliation with the Institute for Global Ethics, will train local leaders to facilitate community conversations and implement Sports Done Right.

The center has already incorporated the core principles and practices into its new Online Coaching Eligibility Course, which introduces aspiring coaches in Maine schools to information that promotes and supports positive and healthy athletic competition.

"The report gives us a model a clear prototype that can get everyone on the same page, understanding what has to be done for a more healthy interscholastic sports environment," Wolfgram says. "If we get people across the state to buy into the compact, and we have the leadership to put the ideas in place, in 20 years we'll have an interscholastic environment with the interests of the student-athletes at heart, helping them grow, have fun, strive for excellence. Winning will still be important, but will be kept in perspective."

by Margaret Nagle
March-April, 2005

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