Seeing Success

January 29, 2015
Sports participation can help lithe lifelong learning--we all know that. An influential book now proves it in a compelling way.
By Dr. Philip Willenbrock

Philip Willenbrock, EdD, CAA, is Athletic Director at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor, Wash., and a former football coach at several different levels. He provides team captain leadership consulting, leadership/character education curriculum, and a coaching evaluation rubric through: sharedteamleadership.com and can be reached at: [email protected].


What is the value of athletics in the high school setting? It's a question we're asked more and more as budgets are tightened and our purpose questioned. While most of us have an answer on the tip of our tongue, sometimes I've found that what I say does not always resonate with educators, parents, and members of the community. Until now.

This past summer, I read Paul Tough's book How Children Succeed, which is quickly rising to the top of recommended lists for educators and administrators. The further I read, the more I was amazed at the unintentional, indirect support Tough's words provide for education-based athletic programs.

Its message is fairly simple and has provided me a well respected, research-based framework to answer the athletics value question seamlessly. With How Children Succeed, I felt like I was handed both a sword and a shield.

Seven Functions
A key take-away from the book is that the development of character, leadership, discipline, and other "non-academic" factors have a more lasting impact on a student's future success than previously thought (or at least, what it's been given credit for up to this point). Firmly grounded in research on child development and the social sciences, the text reveals that these types of skills more accurately predict accomplishments as an adult than academic data, GPA, or aptitude test scores alone.

How Children Succeed explains that success is based on developing seven executive functions: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. Across our country, educators are now tirelessly figuring out how to implement, measure, and collect data on these executive functions. But all they really need to do, I would argue, is walk out to the nearest court, field, track, pool, or diamond and ask coaches how they do it, because they've been focused on teaching these executive functions for decades.

Although most coaches don't often throw around the phrase executive functions, they have been developing grit, self-control, and the rest year after year, student after student, season after season. And they are doing this in an environment that is inherently motivating. The student-athlete has chosen to be on the team and is eager to improve. They are all ears when it comes to learning from their coach and teammates.

Breaking down the executive functions, it's easy to see how they align with the lessons learned though sports. We see grit each practice as students are taught to persevere and push themselves through drill after drill. They attempt to do whatever is asked of them just a little bit better, faster, or more efficiently.

We see self-control in the student who has learned to walk away from an on-the-court conflict because he or she knows that a penalty will hurt the team. Our student-athletes also exhibit self-control when asked to fulfill a specific and sometimes unfavorable role so that the team can reach its full potential.

It's not a word today's young people use, but zest is easily apparent in many student-athletes' actions. The student who lumbers through the day with little more than a smile but excitedly bounds on to the field to pursue his or her passion exhibits zest. We also see it in the student-athlete who performs with a style so unique that it forms a lasting signature that defines his or her play.

The development of social intelligence is a building block of athletics in so many ways. The best coaches are masters of teaching respect, love, patience, and mutual empathy, which allows teammates to effectively communicate with one another. Social intelligence is also gained through being team leaders, as well as simply getting along with those unlike themselves in high stakes settings.

One of the easiest executive functions to see in athletics is a sense of gratitude. From the high-five among teammates to a coach complimenting a student, it is an integral part of sports. We also see gratitude in team members who are taught to thank the grounds crew, the booster parents, and the referees.

In post game or end-of-practice speeches, teams often practice optimism. When athletes sink to a low emotional place following a tough defeat, coaches teach them how to lift their spirits and become excited to get back at it tomorrow.

Last but not least, we see curiosity in the eyes of students discussing new strategies and tactical changes. In addition, when students approach a coach after practice and ask what they can do to improve, curiosity is apparent in their self reflection and interest in planning for the future.

Afterschool Classroom
If we are committed to education-based athletics--that teaching life skills trumps winning--then our programs exemplify what Paul Tough suggests is critical to student learning. It is quite possible that the most effective classroom in educating children is not a classroom at all but a high school athletic experience.

As athletic administrators, we know and see the value of high school athletics, but not every parent, administrator, or AP English teacher gets it. I referenced How Children Succeed many times in my preseason parent meetings this fall, and my words were very well received. It has helped start a dialogue about how athletics participation is critical to our students' success and why winning needs to take a back seat to many of our other goals.

I encourage every athletic director to read Tough's interesting book. Then, the next time a complaint over Johnny's playing time or perceived unfair treatment arises, point out that your purpose is not to keep Johnny (or Johnny's parents) happy, but to teach grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity--because those traits are a student's real ticket to success.
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