Athletics aren’t dessert; they’re meat and potatoes too . . .

By | December 6, 2015

It’s a common practice for school boards to adopt proposals that tie academic performance to after school activities. In most cases, if students fail to maintain a certain academic average they become ineligible to participate in after school activities like cheer-leading, tennis and chorus.

The prevailing philosophy is students are more apt to improve classroom performance when carrots are dangled and pressure is applied. Unfortunately for some students, the ones who fall into the category of academically challenged and yes, even academically lazy, this thought process doesn’t always live up to its billing or achieve the desired results. There has to be a more balanced approach schools can take.

Those in leadership positions seem to have the misconception that anything taking place after 3pm is non-academic in nature and as a result; considered dessert. Although a strong case can be made that Reading, Riting and Rithmetic are essential to success, so too are qualities like perseverance, time management, communication skills, integrity, responsibility, sportsmanship, hard work and discipline.

The question becomes; we know where the three “R’s” are taught and understand their role in education but where do you learn life’s trump cards; the qualities of achievement, the development of self-esteem?

Where are they found . . . in the classroom? Or could they be more representative of after school activities? Personally, I can’t ever recall learning much about persistence in English or discipline in Social Studies. People with integrity might have taught science class but it certainly wasn’t something I learned by sitting there. Self-esteem is mostly an after school offering.

Nonetheless, if we’re talking about making a real impact in a person’s life, after school activities has to be considered as a time frame where a vast majority of life’s qualities are taught.

So why is acceptable for school boards to take away educational opportunities for students who struggle with standard forms of testing when they don’t always indicate all that’s special about a person? Most individuals seem to understand not everyone has an IQ of 130 or can swim 100 meters in under a minute. Nor can everyone tear an engine apart and put it back together without leaving a few parts on the work bench.

Individual skills and talents are as diverse as the number of people you test so might our current approach to education be discriminatory? Can you imagine the school valedictorian not being eligible to go to class the next marking period because he or she only won 60% of their cross country events? Or become ineligible to take Physics because he or she didn’t have a passing grade in Social Studies? I think we’d all agree both of those examples are ludicrous!

Why then is the reverse acceptable?

Any student who doesn’t do well in class gets yanked from participating in after school activities. Why can’t they co-exist; why shouldn’t they co-exist? Everything the school offers is educational in nature, each one playing a different but significant role in a child’s development. The current approach in education is all about standards. But who is standard anyway? Who wants to be standard? Don’t we want our children to find their passions wherever that takes them, and then excel?

It’s hard to fathom that administrators would take one educational opportunity away for the perceived benefit of another. To me the most important role a school plays is helping each child become “worldly.” That means creating an environment that encourages students to grow in all three triangular aspects of life. Just as the YMCA’s developmental motto is body, mind and spirit, doesn’t it make sense to develop at least the body and mind? I’d say spirit as well but I don’t want to upset those who believe in the separation of church and state.

Why then would anyone pull a child from sports or after school activities when the country has such an inclination toward sedentary life styles and obesity? How can any administrator justify taking away a child’s opportunity to develop a healthy lifestyle or ways to mature socially because he or she is faltering in class?

The Duke of Wellington said, in regards to the Battle of Waterloo where his forces defeated the French led by Napoleon, that the battle was won on the playing fields of Eton. What he meant by that was the British system of education which educated and formed the character of those who became the elite officers of the British Army was a combination of their education and the vigorous after school activities they participated in at Eton, which for those who might not know is their Harvard level boarding school for boys.

And at America’s three main military academies, half of the buildings on their campuses were built for athletics because they’ve found that developing the total student is critical to success in every phase of their training.

Of course grades are terribly important but when after school opportunities are denied to those who are dyslexic, have Attention Deficit Disorder or currently aren’t motivated; aren’t other educational opportunities lost as well?

None of this is to say students shouldn’t do the best they can in the classroom or feel pressure toward class room achievement. But isn’t holding one form of education hostage at the expense of another comparable to throwing the baby out with the bath water? America’s strength is its diversity of thought and talents. One’s freedom to pursue passions makes that possible.

I think we need to understand there are four different intellectual levels of students; academically skilled, academically lazy, academically challenged and those who are classified learning disabled in any number of ways.

Granted, academically skilled individuals don’t have problems being able to participate in after school activities. That’s due to the fact they typically learn by visual or auditory stimulus whereas the last two levels rely primarily on tactile senses to excel. As to the lazy one; well Darwin did have a point but why are we trying to bury them before they’re dead?

If every student is truly entitled to equal educational opportunities under the law and after school activities are part of the total educational package, why then isn’t this illegal? What happens after school isn’t desert and we must stop thinking of it in those terms. It’s every bit the meat and potatoes that academic classes are.

Some thoughts to ponder:

  • Is putting academic requirements on after school activities actually effective in pulling grades up or is it a way of downsizing after school activities to ease budgetary pressure?
  • Does the fear of becoming academically ineligible actually inspire students to work harder or does it encourage them to drop AP and college preparatory courses to remain eligible?
  • Where do ineligible students go and what do they do after school when they aren’t being supervised in an organized activity? Does having free-time actually mean increased study time or might it cause something else?
  • Where do students who are learning disabled fall into this equation? Are they exempt from the rules others have to live with or just denied opportunities to gain self-esteem by demonstrating whatever talent they have that’s not taught in a classroom?
  • What about the many students who live in a one parent household with the second parental figure being the after school advisor or coach? Does taking away that role model help or worsen each child’s chances for success?
  • Is there anything to be said about the various academic differences between schools and teachers? Do those inconsistencies provide an even playing field for everyone?
  • Whether we like it or not, there are many students who’s primary means of personal growth is though their capabilities in music, debate, the arts or obviously athletics. How does taking those opportunities away meet the goals that school’s have of preparing everyone for success in life?

How many know that Einstein did poorly in school? Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and Abraham Lincoln only had five years of formal education. Sir Isaac Newton did so badly that his teachers thought he couldn’t learn. Thomas Edison was considered to be a “dull student” and one teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything. Steven Spielberg took special education classes. Woody Allen flunked motion picture production at New York University. Neither Dave Thomas from Wendy’s or Walt Disney finished high school and I was told by my high school guidance counselor to “forget college Wade”, that I’d be lucky if the military would take me.

School Boards need to take a closer look at how they 1) view and then 2) handle after school programs. There is no such thing as desert when it comes any after school program and no two students are the same. All honor students aren’t Rembrandt’s. Not every State Wrestling Champion can split molecules. Not all schoolchildren in college preparatory classes can tear a lawn mower engine apart and put it back together again. Musical talent has nothing to do with diagramming a sentence but Beyoncé makes a pretty good living at the former. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s skill as a dancer has nothing to do with his proficiency in Science or English.

Shouldn’t we be embracing the total student?

9 thoughts on “Athletics aren’t dessert; they’re meat and potatoes too . . .

  1. Bryan Burns

    as,my High School coach, Ron Kanaskie has said in a very concise and straight-forward way… “Athletics IS a classroom”

  2. Ty

    Great points! I think all the positive intangibles have to be intentionally taught by coaches and not assumed to be taught. Some coaches are unfortunately only about winning.

  3. Linda Henry

    Sorry my first posting does not look as if it came through so I will try again. I simply wanted to say that all your points are very well spoken, and from experience, I believe, like you, that each child/young adult should be addressed as an individual with individual needs.

    This is not to say that children/ young adults do not need to learn how to work within a system or group, but isn’t that what sports help to teach? If taken away, where will some have a chance to learn the rules of fair play, motivation, perseverance, confidence etc when perhaps it is on the field of play that they shine the brightest not in the classroom.

    Thank you, Wade, for discussing such an important topic.

  4. Chris Lemos

    When I first started reading, I thought the carrot and stick model was right and necessary. I love to read things that change my mind, but they are rare. Congratulations. You have succeeded in doing so. As your response to Ed Gibbons states, the carrot and stick model works for some but is not best for all. I am sure there is a better way.

  5. Rick S.

    You ask a very tough question. I don’t know the answer.

    I have mixed views on the subject regarding linking after school activities with academic proficiency.

    Can I ask a few question if I may.

    If the student weren’t participating in after school activities, what would the student be doing?

    If the student were hanging out on a street corner, using drugs, that’s a very bad thing. I would want the student in an after school activity rather than see the student doing drugs or getting involved with a gang.

    If the student had an after school job, it becomes a tougher call. Do we want the student learning to earn a living as soon as possible, or do we want the student to gain other life experiences, like music or athletics they will probably not experience as adults. I honestly don’t know.

    I could see requiring students staying after school to get additional help on homework if they are having academic difficulties. Would this be a better use of time than other after school activities? Or, would the student need a break from academics which might be provided by after school activities?

    I can see how athletics might be the stick needed to keep a student working to keep a certain level of academic proficiency.

    I worry, however, if a student is already struggling, can a student juggle the time for both athletics and academics. Can the student go to Tuesday night basketball games and still do homework after the game?

    I honestly don’t know the answer.

    Is the answer different for different groups of students?

    1. Wade Schalles

      Rick . . . in response to your questions.

      All I was trying to say and I think you might have missed it is I believe that between 8am and 5pm there is a lot of learning taking place. Those who don’t participate in the classes that run between 3pm and 5pm are missing out on some great educational opportunities.

      When schools pull kids out of programs that run from 3pm to 5pm because of grades, they’re doing more harm than good.

      Maybe it will motivate some to raise their academic averages but for others it doesn’t.

      There has to be a better way . . . taking one academic opportunity away from students to possibly help another academic opportunity isn’t the right way to go. You’d never pull a kid from math class because he’s failing English so why pull him from band or wrestling because he’s failing English?

      The point I’m trying to make is after school activities are educational opportunities too, just like math and English and should be treated as such.

      The Duke of Wellington said, in regards to the Battle of Waterloo where his forces defeated the French led by Napoleon, that the battle was won on the playing fields of Eton. What he meant by that was the British system of education which educated and formed the character of those who became the elite officers of the British Army was a combination of their education and the vigorous after school activities they participated in at Eton, which is a Harvard like English boarding school for boys.


  6. Marc Billett

    Great article Wade, and I like your line of thinking. I also would like to add that extracurricular activities are one of the last forms of discipline in our schools. Many times it’s the extracurricular supervisor/coach that is the go to person when the classroom teacher has a problem with a student. Often times, these are the people who can motivate and direct a troubled individual to take the right path through the activity they sponsor or coach. They also can be the significant adult figure in a student’s life, especially with so many single parent families. A good mentor, whether it be a coach or a special interest supervisor, can be the driving force for the betterment of the educational process and the total development of the student. As you alluded to in your article, there are some things we just can’t learn and experience in the classroom.

  7. Ed Gibbons

    The points you make have been around for a long time. I know many very successful people who never played sports that are mentally tough and exhibit all of the positive attributes associated with athletic participation. I also know some that were outstanding high school athletes that did nothing academically that are just not doing well now. We probably overstate the benefits of playing sports. I can’t speak for other states but New Jersey has procedures in place that waive academic standards for students with learning disabilities. Speaking from personal experience, I know hundreds of students that put more time in the classroom because of academic eligibility requirements for athletics. The extracurricular program has always provided valuable lessons for the participants. However, a former high school athlete or band member that cannot communicate properly or make simple mathematical calculations, will have a difficult journey through life. Academic standards for after school activities are imperative.

    1. Wade Schalles Post author

      Ed . . . good points. All valid. I’m not trying to make excuses for some students nor am I saying the current system doesn’t work for others. There just has to be a better way.

      Does taking away after school activities motivate some children to work harder in class – yes. But for some it does just the opposite. We both want to offer every child a helping hand up; there’s just different ways of achieving that.

      The fact that you can come up with a lot of why’s the current system is working, and I can counter with equal number of why not’s, doesn’t that mean there might be a better way?

      Warmest Regards,


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