A Sporting Chance
It's all they're playing for
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,
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.