With 7 million high school athletes nationwide and more than 300,000 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, scholastic sports have a vital role in cultivating positive experiences for student athletes. Middle and high school athletic programs should help student athletes achieve success beyond the playing field by teaching life skills, according to a groundbreaking study evaluating the current status of scholastic sports across Pennsylvania.

"Student athlete success is not based solely on winning or achieving goals of competing in college or at the professional level - notions which actually can hurt a young athlete's self-esteem and future goals," said Aimee Kimball, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and director of mental training at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. "Fortunately, most people involved in scholastic sports share positive values, involving the teaching of life skills and providing a fun, social outlet for student athletes."

Organized by the Pennsylvania Alliance in Sport - a collaboration of six Pennsylvania organizations responsible for interscholastic athletics - the study is the result of focus groups and nearly 2,000 survey responses, representing student athletes, parents, coaches and athletic directors from all PIAA classifications and geographic districts. Now in handbook form, the study is available on UPMC Sports Medicine's Web site at sportsmedicine.upmc/MentalTrainingProgram. The first of its kind in the state, the handbook, titled "Extending Student Athlete Success," was distributed to most schools in Pennsylvania in October.

"There are more teachable moments in the sports arena than in any other aspect of education," said Robert J. Buckanavage, chairman of the Pennsylvania Alliance in Sport and executive director of the Pennsylvania Athletic Directors Association. "This handbook will help scholastic sports in Pennsylvania reconnect with educational values and teach our student athletes how to build positive character."

Highlights of the handbook are as follows.

Student Athletes' Expectations to Play College and Professional Sports

More than just star athletes believe they will play their sport at a higher level. In fact, 70 percent of student athletes surveyed said they expect to compete in college. In reality, only 6 percent of high school athletes nationwide will eventually compete at the collegiate level. In addition, 17 percent of those surveyed expect to compete professionally, though less than one-fifth of one percent of student athletes ever go pro.

"If a student's identity becomes solely focused on sports and he or she fails to make it to the next level, his or her self-esteem and overall beliefs about the future can be negatively impacted," said Kimball. "Parents and coaches should be wary of young athletes' false beliefs of future participation and encourage them to effectively balance time between sports, school, social life, family and other interests."

How Far Parents Should Extend Themselves

- Parents should strive to be "positive sports parents." Almost 80 percent of student athletes believe their parents are doing a good job of keeping them positive.

- The study found student athletes simply want their parents to take interest in their sport, attend competitions and be unconditionally supportive.

- Parents should enforce life skills by communicating effectively with their children about issues like emotional control and respect for others, and by practicing these skills themselves, instead of assuming their children will learn them on their own.

Parents Behaving Badly

Bad parent behavior was found to be at a minimum, though it stands out and can hold back an otherwise positive experience. "Coaching from the bleachers" was commonly reported as a bad parent behavior. Though nearly 80 percent of parents believed they should have no influence on coaching decisions, almost 30 percent of student athletes say their parents often give them advice from the stands.

"When parents are supposed to be fans, they should not try to coach," said Dr. Kimball. "This can confuse the athletes and decrease the effectiveness of coaches."

The Roles of Coaches

- Because of their position in sports, coaches have many roles. A main role for coaches should be to help student athletes develop life skills. They should also treat all athletes equally, make decisions with consistency and frequently communicate with their teams.

- Though most student athletes seem to have very positive opinions of their coaches, nearly 30 percent of those surveyed who quit their sport for negative reasons did so because they disliked their coaches.

- Positive traits of coaches reported most often by student athletes include encouraging teamwork, attending all events, supporting all athletes and being knowledgeable of the sport.

- Student athletes reported "playing favorites" as the most common negative behavior among coaches.

Coaches Sending Mixed Messages

Successful coaches prioritize academics and life skills over winning and should model these priorities themselves. Though student athletes were mostly in agreement that their coaches stress academics and life lessons over winning, according to this study, coaches' actions sometimes send mixed messages.

- More than 80 percent of student athletes agreed their coaches stress academics over athletics, but 66 percent said their coaches would not excuse them from practice if they had a lot of studying to do.

- Nearly 70 percent of athletes said their coaches take time to teach life lessons. While 71 percent of student athletes agreed their coaches would penalize a teammate for breaking a rule before a game, if that teammate was a star player, only about half agreed,.

- Nearly 80 percent of student athletes think their coaches follow the rules and expectations they enforce, but when asked specifically about the life skill of emotional control, just over half the athletes felt their coaches regularly controlled their emotions.

The Pennsylvania Alliance in Sport includes the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors' Association and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. The handbook's contents do not necessarily represent the opinions of members of these groups, but the Pennsylvania Alliance in Sport does endorse its findings and supports its purpose.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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