Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Fit for Life: A Coach’s Pep Talk

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh discusses the importance of physical fitness in school and beyond.

February 1, 2006

Sports isn't just about shaping healthier bodies. It's about shaping minds and lifelong attitudes. Polls and statistics make it woefully clear that America is facing a fitness crisis, and that the problems begin in the early years, when kids spend much of their time in school.

As budget cuts affect physical education as well as music and arts education, zealous advocates of organized sports, especially in middle school and high school, are emphasizing the fitness benefits of athletics. Obviously, if we don't confront the problem of couch-potato, computer-tethered kids, a daunting array of health problems will result as they grow up. But I've been involved in team sports for most of my life, and I'm worried about another kind of fitness.

From my earliest coaching seasons, I saw dramatic examples of how athletics can affect the way participants learn about dealing with the good, the bad, and the blurry aspects of life after school. In all sports, you have to hone certain skills in order to win, or even to lose gracefully. The justifiable pride that comes with mastering these skills -- or, more specifically, with the effort and discipline that mastery takes -- can carry over into all kinds of personal and professional endeavors.

Most importantly, kids who take part in any sport get to feel the euphoria of victory, but they also learn how to deal with loss. You have to discover how to live with success as well as with disappointment, and sports can provide an intensive course in both lessons. In team sports, players have to learn to accept a role -- often a supporting one. Whether it's as a third stringer who has to work hard in practice but warms the bench in games, a crew rower who is no more and no less than one-eighth of her team, or an offensive lineman whose blocking job is vital but unglamorous, a team player learns to do what has to be done.

Having to play a role determined by coaches, whether it is exactly what a player hopes for or not, teaches the acceptance of authority -- but not an automatic, robotic acceptance. One of the most important lessons young athletes learn is that those in authority -- coaches like me -- make mistakes, and that you have to live with those mistakes and play your best despite them. Few people go through life without working for someone totally unsuited to his or her job, and a coach's bad calls can be pretty good preparation for those situations, because quitting isn't always an option.

Athletes have to also understand that anxiety is not a flaw, and that overcoming it is possible -- and sometimes a lot easier than they thought. Finally, a boy or girl who plays a team sport learns how to operate in an atmosphere in which there's no guarantee of equity: A coach may play favorites, or someone may not get the credit he or she deserves. This is not to say that participating in sports teaches a kind of fatalistic passivity, but the awareness that life is not always fair is a lesson that has its uses.

The social elements of team sports have far-reaching effects. Team members develop the ability to communicate under stress. They learn to respect others whether they like them or not, and if a team is ethically coached, its members also are taught to respect their opponents no matter how fierce the rivalry.

Let all the lessons of sports be taught. Students will be better for it.

Bill Walsh, inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1993, coached the San Francisco 49ers, which he led to four Super Bowl victories.

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