What Teens Need From School Sport Programs

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Interscholastic athletic programs are often described as an “extended classroom,” where students develop positive psycho-social skills within a supportive and positive learning climate.

There are places, however, where the current model of school sport sometimes resembles the “win-at-all-cost” professionalized model, in which individual participants are motivated toward self-promotion and the promise of monetary gain. This conception of school sport has given many educators reason to reconsider the educational value of interscholastic sport participation.

What most teens need from their schools today are education-based athletic programs that produce positive educational outcomes. Sport leadership should be transformational in nature, not merely “transactional,” with all coaches responsible for creating a safe, healthy and inclusive psychological environment.

Transformational coaches must be intentional in their practice, creating a positive culture, and teaching/modeling a perspective on competition that is grounded in ethical principles.

Reclaiming the Game in School Sport

The school sport setting represents a fertile ground for the development of initiative and feelings of self-confidence. The competitive nature of sport also offers an ideal setting wherein collaboration and problem-solving are required to successfully resolve conflict.

Numerous opportunities exist for transformational coaches to teach personal-social life skills such as citizenship, civility, character and cooperation.

Education-Based School Sport Programs

In our article, “What Teens Need From Sport Programs: Educational Athletics by Transformational Coaches,” published in the January/February 2021 issue of Strategies, we provide a template for implementing a truly “education-based” interscholastic sport program.  

Education-based sport programs should include the following components: a transformational coach, a positive and welcoming climate, and a newly defined sense of competition.

  • Transformational Coach: The transformational coach is a relational coach who openly communicates with their student-athletes and usually possesses an “athlete first-winning second” philosophy (a nod to the American Sport Education Program). The connection formed allows the students to be more receptive and responsive with the knowledge that the coach has their best interests at heart. 
  • Positive and Welcoming Environment: Coaches are encouraged to adopt a “we-build-up” culture and environment where put-downs and hazing is prohibited. Athletes should be encouraged to give compliments and utilize positive constructive criticism. One example of this is the Rolla High School wrestling program in Rolla, MO.

    Operating with the motto “Relationships, Education, Passion, and Servant Leaders (REPS),” the coach teaches wrestling — and life skills — to the 80-100 students in the program. 
  • Competition Redefined: The original Latin meaning of “competere” is to meet, come together, strive together. Rather than the current “win-at-all-cost” focus, how about a paradigm in which contestants strive together and in which both give their best efforts? Athletes need an opponent giving their best (see Ali-Frazier in boxing) in order to determine their true abilities; thus, coaches should give meaning to the handshake ritual.

    In wrestling during the pre-match handshake, wrestlers should be encouraged to ask opponent for their best efforts. At the conclusion of the match, they should thank the opponent for their efforts. Without the best efforts of contestants, how can any athlete realize their full potential?
  • Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility: Don Hellison was well-known as the creator of the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model, utilized in many physical education curriculum settings and in after-school physical activity programs. The model has not typically been utilized in competitive sport, but it can serve as a useful template for coaches lacking an intentional approach to teaching respect, self-direction, giving effort, and helping others. The model is currently used in some competitive sport programs, such as wrestling.

Points to Ponder  

  • With an ever-increasing number of “walk-on” high school coaches, can they learn to become reflective in their pedagogical practice, and can they adopt transformative approaches to competition and coaching?
  • Relatedly, are school administrators investing in the professional development of our scholastic coaching workforce? 
  • And finally, is there a collaborative effort for the development of vision, goals, philosophies, and target outcomes which can sustain the progressive development of our after-school education-based athletic programs?

Transformational leadership for educational athletics is growing in importance, not solely for sport coaches, but collectively with support of school faculty, administrators, and superintendents. This is how society can be assured that scholastic sport programs will continue to offer a climate and culture led by professionals (i.e., coaches) that is truly “education-based.”

Closing Notes:  Finally, while living in an era of a health pandemic, we see a need for both short-term and long-term strategies meant to generate important shifts in our traditional conceptions of school sport. Below are links to current initiatives and resources that offer promising new strategies for change:

Additional Resources


Dennis Johnson
Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson, Ed.D., is a retired Wingate University (NC) professor and NCAA cross country coach. He currently is president of Hem-View Consultants, primarily working for the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) — authoring coaching resource materials and delivering coach development seminars for high school and college wrestling coaches. He can be reached at drdennisajohnson@gmail.com.

Robert Benham
Robert Benham

Robert Benham, Ph.D., formerly was an assistant professor at Michigan State University working in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS). He currently works in the area of coaching education as the director of Coach Development Services in Honolulu, HI. He can be reached at bbenham12@gmail.com.