January 19, 2012

Do Sports Build Character, or Damage It?: Mark Edmundson, a University of Virginia English professor, asks the question through the lens of his own experience as a mediocre high school football player: "Over time, I came to understand that the objective of the game, on the deepest level, wasn't to score spectacular touchdowns or make bone-smashing tackles or block kicks. The game was much more about practice than about the Saturday-afternoon contests. And practice was about trying to do something over and over again, failing and failing, and then finally succeeding part way. Practice was about showing up and doing the same drills day after day and getting stronger and faster by tiny, tiny increments, and then discovering that by the end of the season you were effectively another person" (via MetaFilter).

posted by rcade to general at 09:52 AM - 7 comments


posted by DrJohnEvans at 11:02 AM on January 19, 2012

Do sports build character or damage it? I would say neither. Sports expose ones character for what it really is.

posted by Atheist at 03:24 PM on January 19, 2012

Great article with great points. And it's nice to see a university professor actually write about the benefits of participation in sports to character. There are always going to be examples of individuals who participate in sports but demonstrate terrible character traits. But it's interesting that this writer, as only a participant who experienced marginal success in sports, can see the benefit of lessons learned in practice, etc. and not just in finding ultimate success (ex. winning; being dominant).

Professional sports aren't what I'm thinking about at all, but participation by kids, young people, and even not-so-young people in sports is what has the biggest impact. Of the sports I participated in, wrestling taught me the most and ultimately became what I pulled the most positive traits that got me through many challenging times in my life. I learned to not always give in to cravings for food due to the need to make weight. Practice, especially when it was the last thing I wanted to do, was what taught me quite a bit about work ethic. Running after practice showed me how I could push myself when I was dog-tired and had to keep going.

Also, wrestling taught you to rely on yourself while on the mat in order to help the team achieve a win. So many sports allow you to rely on others on the playing field, where weaknesses can sometimes be hidden. Wrestling was the sport where you had only yourself to rely on while on the mat, and your success or failure depended on your own preparation and performance. This experience proves to you you are capable of things individually, while also demonstrating you need to support others as they work towards the same goals. These are all themes that are part of life as you move into jobs, family life, etc.

Participation in sports also developed competitiveness in me that made me, a marginal student, work harder to earn better grades in the classroom. I didn't want anyone else to beat me when it came to tests or projects.

Obviously I also think a strong, confident, capable coach makes a huge difference in the positive character traits sports teaches individuals.

posted by dyams at 06:44 PM on January 19, 2012

dyams, I had to laugh a bit as I read your post. Wrestling had least impact on me, and perhaps actually had a negative impact, due solely to your last point. The wrestling coach I came in contact with was not supportive of his athletes, freely provided under-handed moves, and was a general ass to just about everyone.

To me, the point is, sports can most definitely have a great impact on a kid. We just need to ensure that we have the right people leading the way. Not always coaches in the general sense, as an older kid on the sandlot might have just as much impact on someone as a coach. Coaches that stress winning at all costs at too early of an age might lessen a kid's desire to compete, a good coach helps the kid that has no chance to become the star player develop to their full potential. I've seen both sides of it, personally, and through my kids. Overall, I think sports, at least through the high school level, have a good impact on character.

posted by dviking at 04:11 PM on January 20, 2012

My son, through his sophomore year in high school, was a good student, but somewhat "lived in a cave". He took part in no school activities, had few friends, and just didn't seem interested. In his junior year, one of his friends got him into indoor track-specifically the throwing events. In the space of just a couple of months it was like I had a new kid. His already good grades got even better, his circle of friends widened, and he took part in more academically oriented extra-curricular activities. He continued through the spring track season and played football in the fall. Track continued through his senior year. He had a decent set of ethics and a good, honest character before the athletics, but the participation seemed to bring him into a sharper focus. In his case, it was all good.

posted by Howard_T at 05:00 PM on January 20, 2012

Good story Howard. I have a 13 year old step son who steadfastly refuses to get involved in a team sport. Sounds a lot like your son-a good kid, good student, and pretty earnest, but fairly detached from his peers. As someone who grew up playing hockey, baseball, soccer, and wrestling, I've always believed in the value of team sports as a character builder and great way to make close friends. (Hell, I stay in touch with hockey buddies I traveled with over thirty years ago.) I think the value just hasn't been demonstrated to him yet, but that he'll realize it soon enough to take advantage. I hope, like you, that in a couple of years I can tell a similar story about my kid getting involved in something bigger than himself.

posted by tahoemoj at 05:31 PM on January 20, 2012

For a number of reasons, chief among them my inability to run*, I participated mostly in individual sports like skiing and horseback riding. Like with wrestling, I had only myself to rely on when competing, despite training and attending competitions with friends. I think it helped me believe in my ability to learn, solve problems without help, and trust myself in a crisis. That confidence made me a more confident kid in other areas of my life, and eventually a reasonably confident adult.

I've often wondered if I would be more of a team player if I'd had more opportunities to play on a team, or whether my somewhat solitary nature was fixed from the start. Either way, I learned great lessons from years of sports, I loved what I did, and I'm grateful for the experiences I had.

* I could and did run laps on a track, carefully. I couldn't run on a field or while doing anything else, like watching a ball, or my ankles would collapse and I would fall. During my one year of youth soccer, I ended up in goal because I couldn't run. I avoided running sports after that. It was eventually found to be a medical problem.

posted by swerve at 12:44 AM on January 23, 2012

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