Play School Sports to Prepare for the Future of Work

I was a sophomore in high school, tagging along to wrestling practice with my friend Angie, a team statistician. A couple days of just “hanging around” were apparently too much for Coach Beard, who one day looked at me and said, “There’s work that needs done.” The next thing I know, Coach Beard is teaching me how to tape ankles. And, that was it. That’s all it took. Before I knew it, I was traveling with the team, lugging around this metal trainer’s box everywhere I went. I was taping ankles, stopping bloody noses, and getting bags of ice.

By my junior and senior years, I was a student trainer for the football team, wrestling team, and girls’ and boys’ basketball teams. In fall and winter, it was essentially my after-school job. And, later it turned into a campus job when I was in college.

Much of who I am today started with school sports.

So, when I saw a tweet last week that said something like “thanks for keepingthe great things we have in high school sports,” I instantly sat up a little straighter. Why the word “keep”? Are school sports in jeopardy? Is our focus on 21st century skills and accountability in schools causing people to question the value of sports? Should we question the value of sports?

Based on my own experiences with high school sports, I am a firm believer in their value. But, I am now a mom, with a middle school athlete, concerned about the Future of Work and what it holds for my kids. I started to question whether we’ve arrived at a place where school sports are detracting from adequately preparing for tomorrow. So, I evaluated my love for high school sports from a logical perspective, rather than an emotional one.

I considered the tremendous cost to schools and families, both in money and time. I also considered the social aspects for the students, the parents, and the communities. And, I evaluated what skills kids learn by playing a sport for their school.

In the end, I still came out on the side of school sports. There are simply too many opportunities to teach kids valuable skills. So much so, that I think we should continue to encourage participation, particularly in light of the challenges we face with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

From my own experience, I know that I learned so much more than how to tape ankles and elbows and knees. I learned a lot of soft skills too — grit, emotional intelligence, adaptability, and how to be a lifelong learner. Of course, this was over three decades ago, and back then those skills didn’t have names. In fact, at that time, they probably weren’t even considered skills.

But, today’s kids have the advantage of our enlightenment. We now know that soft skills are invaluable at work. And, as we continue into this 4th Industrial Revolution, those soft skills will become even more valued and prized.

Some of these soft skills are being taught in school, even in elementary school. But, as kids age and mature, they master many of these skills within the context of the classroom. So sports become a mechanism to provide a new context in which to further enhance soft skill development.

Here’s a good example from one of my son’s recent football games. The other team had a different defense then what the kids had seen thus far in the season. In the first quarter or so, it was clear that my son, and others on the offensive line, were struggling to make adjustments. After the game, my son described that struggle. He said that he and the other linemen were frustrated and unsure of how to adjust. But, he also said that once they had a break and a chance to compare notes, they figured it out. And, with each break, they continued to talk, and make small adjustments to the point of making noticeable progress.

Sure, my son is learning how to be a better offensive lineman. But, at the same time he and his teammates are learning how to manage their emotions, like frustration, (emotional intelligence), how to collaborate and solve problems in the moment (adaptability), how to identify weaknesses and deliberately improve (grit), and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from being curious about what isn’t working and then fixing it (lifelong learner).

Now, my son has no clue he did anything other than play a game of football. But, hey, I had no clue that Coach Beard and the other coaches that I worked with were teaching me lessons that would last a lifetime.

So much of playing sports at this level is simply learning something, practicing it, executing it in competition and receiving immediate feedback. That cycle repeats throughout the season, as the kids strive for improvement each time. That cycle is not always fun, nor is it always easy. It will test emotions. It will test willingness. And, it will test hope. But, all of this testing happens in an environment that is designed and intended for learning. So, while they’re tested, kids are supported and encouraged.

I think the greatest thing I received from Coach Beard was his support and encouragement. Sure, he needed help — having me tape the ankles freed him up to actually coach. But, while I was helping him, he was encouraging me to take on more responsibility, to increase my knowledge, and get comfortable with the discomfort of stretching your skill set. Coach Beard taught me how to believe in myself — not in a classroom, but in a high school training room.

Once kids are beyond schooling, it will be up to them to navigate a world of work that is expected to rapidly evolve, as things like automation and AI eliminate and create new jobs. The experience of playing school sports — the cycle of learning, executing, and receiving feedback — will have created a certain comfort with being uncomfortable. These kids will have tried hard things, they will have sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. But, they will have learned how to manage themselves, how to work with others, and, perhaps most importantly, how to believe in their unique abilities.

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