Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Reuniting Mind, Body, and Spirit: The Lessons of Sports for School Reform

Athletics and arts are key to academics.

June 1, 2001

The author believes that linking mind, body, and spirit is the key to higher academic achievement.

Credit: Ron Greene, American Sports Institute

Intensified coursework. Increased graduation requirements. Overwhelming homework. Cuts in electives. More standardized testing.

Although well-intentioned, many proposals for school reform reemphasize the same old approaches. For instance, more tests of superficial learning and more courses taught by the textbook. These misguided approaches validate the premise put forth by social theorist George Leonard, winner of twelve national awards for education writing: Whenever we're not getting something right, we try more advanced versions of the same thing.

No wonder our students suffer from disinterest, manifested through disruptive behavior, drugs, alcohol, and violence. We have numbed their minds, neglected their bodies, and drained their spirit. In my talks to school superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents, I like to ask two questions: Question 1 -- On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being totally excited and one totally apathetic, how excited are middle and high school students about going to school for their academic courses only, not the extracurricular or social aspects of school?; and Question 2 -- Are kids natural or unnatural learners?

The range of responses for the first question is between two and five, with three being the most common. However, everyone says that kids are natural learners. If kids are natural learners but are not excited about school, then something is fundamentally wrong with how we go about educating them.

The Promoting Achievement in School through Sport (PASS) program help students set goals for their academic, athletic, and personal lives.

Credit: Ron Greene, American Sports Institure

Sports, Arts, and the Human Spirit

In contrast, the very disciplines that bring forth the human spirit are those that also have a physical component. Sport, music, dance, and theater are all disciplines that involve the body. What's needed today is an affirmation of spirit and physicality in the educational enterprise..

Students put a great deal of time into after-school sports and the arts, knowing they have hours of homework ahead of them once they get home. But they know that these disciplines enrich and fulfill them and make them whole students once again.

For more than fifteen years, the American Sports Institute in Marin County, California, has been taking a different -- some might say, radical -- approach to educational reform. We believe a key to higher academic achievement can be found in linking the mind with the body and the spirit. Students learn valuable lessons from honing their performances in sports and the arts. These activities help students develop a healthy character and attitude, and prepare them to learn and achieve in academic courses.

The Original "Performance-Based Assessment"

In traditionally taught courses, the only one who judges a student's work is the teacher. With sport, music, and theater, students must also perform in front of others and be judged accordingly. Not only do the students have to make the right moves, hit the right keys, or project their voices in the proper manner, they must do so with spirit to qualify as true performers or to compete at their best. Sports and the arts are the original home of "performance-based assessment."

Skillful teachers and coaches have a lot in common. In many schools, teachers usually demonstrate once, explain once, and then the students work on the assignment. Feedback comes in the way of grades on papers rather than through constant feedback from the teacher.

A coach demonstrates how to do something -- say, shoot a free throw -- then explains why it should be done a certain way, and has the athlete do it over and over again, with the coach stepping in when necessary to make corrections until the athlete can perform at a high standard. There is constant practice by the athlete and ongoing feedback from the coach.

Good coaches also know that the success of the team is directly related to the character of its players. Character enables athletes to deal with adversity. The attitude of one player can lift or destroy an entire team. Coaches often say they would rather have a good player with a great attitude than a great player with a bad attitude.

Accomplished athletes learn patience and perseverance, how to stay positive when everything is caving in around them, self-control, tolerance, compassion, humility, and self-assertiveness. This is why good coaches are constantly working with their athletes on character issues. Good teachers recognize the importance of these values for a student's academic mastery, as well.

PASSing the Course

The American Sports Institute has designed a two-semester course to integrate this mind-body-spirit connection for students and their teachers. Known as Promoting Achievement in School through Sport (PASS) , the program begins with a three-week training for teachers and includes all classroom materials. PASS courses are taught in sixteen middle and high schools, mostly in California, with a similar program, firstPASS, implemented at twelve elementary schools. The courses teach students to take a holistic view of their lives, examining their courses, sports, and relationships, and assess their strengths and weaknesses. The PASS students learn to set goals for their academic, athletic, and personal lives.

A 1997 evaluation of four PASS teachers and their students was conducted by the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) in Aurora, Colorado, one of ten research centers administered by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. The study found that PASS teachers scored high in creating learner-centered classrooms, emphasizing high expectations for their students and the creation of positive interpersonal relationships. Perhaps more important, the students themselves agreed that their classrooms created a positive climate for learning and honored students' voices and perspectives.

The PASS course has been adapted for a daily advisory period at Gage Park High School in Chicago. This period, mandated by the Chicago Public Schools, provides students with academic support, character development, and career guidance. At Gage Park, students and teachers engage in PASS activities, including a schoolwide clap-in, where 1,300 students, in unison, give two sharp claps; a success quote of the week from Plato, Michael Jordan, or Eleanor Roosevelt; a concentration practice; and the Student of the Day activity. James Vergini described this last experience: "When I was Student of the Day, I stood in front of the class. They said positive stuff about me, no negative stuff. That's probably the only time somebody said something positive and nothing negative about me."

A recent San Francisco Chronicle story told of how one PASS student at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax, California, Emma Fazio, practiced these lessons connecting her mind, body, and spirit. Emma juggles three sports -- basketball, volleyball, and softball -- with ballet lessons. She said, "When I'm on the free-throw line, I try to relax and concentrate like I do in class.".

Emma learned about life off the court, as well. "In the fall," she recounted, "I ran for school president, and I lost. It made me think about the need to be flexible and realize that I did my best and tried my hardest." This spring, Emma tried again. White Hill's new student body president can shoot, spike, and throw, as well.

Joel Kirsch, Ph.D., is president of the American Sports Institute in Mill Valley, California, and a former sports psychologist for the San Francisco Giants.

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  • 6-8 Middle School

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