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Balancing Sports and Academics through Policy

Student athletes

Balancing sports and academics can be a challenge for high school students, and they often need the help of teachers and coaches to handle these pressures. However, instead of acting like colleagues, these educators can seem more like rivals, each vying for students' time, effort, and commitment. Over the years, I've learned a thing or two about finding the right balance.

Priority Tug of War

I've had my fair share of issues with coaches. Early in my career, when I was teaching high school Spanish, the wrestling coach came to me after school to ask if I would change the grade of a star wrestler so he could compete in a meet. The school's policy was that if a student was failing any course, he or she was off the team until the grade improved. "Let's face it," the coach said. "He's not going to need Spanish later in life, so why not give him a pass?" I quickly replied, "Is he going to need wrestling later in life?" He scowled and stomped out of my room.

Coaches weren't the only ones to ask for special treatment. When I was teaching English, struggling student-athletes' parents would occasionally ask if I could give their son or daughter a break during sports season. "Basketball is her life," one mother explained. "Can't she just make up the academic work after the season is over?" I answered, "No, her grade is based on the progress she's making, and right now she isn't doing enough work to make any progress."

But I'm not anti-sports. When the father of a failing student told me he was planning to pull his son from the soccer team, I cautioned him from such a hasty decision. Being involved in sports can be the only reason some kids come to school because it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment that they may not get in class. The key is balance. So what can we do to help kids balance sports and academics?

Collaborate to Set Clear Expectations

Teachers, coaches, administrators, and even parents should come together to craft eligibility policies—rules students must adhere to if they want to participate in sports or other major activities. These guidelines must be thoughtfully designed so students are held accountable. Policies must also be clear, fair, and easily understood by students, parents, teachers, and coaches. In addition, they should be shared with everyone involved at the beginning of the season, not just when there's a problem.

Typically, eligibility policies include not only academic but behavioral guidelines. Some policies I've seen are harsh; one misstep and a kid is off the team. Others are far too lenient, suggesting that student-athletes get preferential treatment. The best policies acknowledge that academic progress is essential for participation in extracurriculars, but they also recognize that students are in the process of growing up. They make mistakes, so they may need second (or even third and fourth) chances and the guidance of both teachers and coaches. The guidelines for behavior are the same as they are for the general student body, but serious infractions that could affect participation in sports should be handled on a case-by-case basis by a committee of teachers, coaches, parents, and student-athletes.

Acknowledge the Importance of Education

The best eligibility policies insist that a student is passing all courses to play a sport. Unless the student has a C or better in every class, he or she cannot participate in any games—the student can still attend practices. Some might think that students who are failing shouldn't even practice with the team, but in my experience, students just quit the sport when that is the policy. Several coaches I've worked with actively supported teachers by letting failing students know that they're expected to put greater effort into their academics. A few coaches I've known would even preemptively talk to a student in danger of failing on behalf of a teacher.

One of the best coaches I ever knew told me, "Look, I love basketball. I love coaching. I love working with kids. But our high school has never sent anybody to the NBA and very few have even gotten athletic scholarships to college. Kids learn a lot from being on a team, but our job is to make sure all of our players graduate." This was a guy whose teams won numerous division championships.

If the eligibility policy is clear, fair, and understood by everyone, teachers and coaches can more easily work together. When that happens, kids win even if their team loses. After all, at the end of the day, everyone's goal is to look out for the well-being of all students.