School and Agency-Sponsored Youth Sports Programs Share Common Goals

This article originally appeared in the September 1982 issue of AB with the title, “Can School, Non-School Sports Work Toward Common Goals? A look at the background, roles and prospects for better cooperation.”


Despite the appearance of an aversive relationship between school programs and agency-sponsored youth sports, there are more similarities than differences in the goals and objectives. In fact, youth sports for children below 14 years of age grew out of a public school curriculum that was originally devoid of any kind of organized physical activity.

The first youth sports programs were offered on the playgrounds of public schools in New York City at the turn of the century as a means to counteract a sedentary classroom environment. These after-school programs were available only to boys, supervised by teachers who taught in the schools.

This humble beginning of sports for children has left its mark on physical education, intramural, interscholastic and agency-sponsored sports as we know them today.


Early School Sports Helped Growth of Non-School Sports

Although early competitive sports programs may have initially resembled intramural rather than interscholastic programs, they soon acquired many of the undesirable characteristics that have been associated with intensive athletic competition for children.

Recruitment of highly skilled athletes, exclusion of those who were less skilled and suppression of socially acceptable values in lieu of winning, were common practices.

This trend was paralleled by an astounding proliferation of sports programs in elementary schools. By 1930 they had been stablished throughout the nation, but not without misgivings by educators and physicians.

The transformation of after-school sports for children, from a recreational orientation to highly competitive experiences within an existence of barely 30 years, led to their condemnation by the public school educators in the 1930s. This condemnation, although it did not eliminate competitive sports in the elementary schools, had such a profound impact on both school and agency-sponsored programs that it still influences them today.

Two of its most prominent residual effects were the stimulation it provided to the growth of agency-sponsored sports and a legacy of antagonism between public schools and organizations that offered sports for children and youth in the private sector.

The decrease in school-sponsored sports during the 930s paved the way for programs of physical education and intramural sports. However, the either/or basis for the existence of sports, physical education and intramurals suggests an existence based on conflict rather than cooperation. The history of sports in elementary schools provides us with a clearer perspective of how current programs originated, how they were maintained, and why some are on the verge of elimination.

Clearly, youth sports began as an extension of the public school curriculum created to meet the competitive needs of boys. They became highly competitive in a short period of time, even though they were under the auspices of the public schools. Although the loss of favor by sports in the schools accelerated the development of physical education and intramural programs, it also stimulated an amazing growth in agency-sponsored sports.


More Demands Placed on Physical Education

Programs of physical education, intramurals and athletics in the elementary school continued to grow in the 1950s and 60s as the post-world war II children reached school age. However, new content and methodology were being introduced into the physical education curriculum, thus eventually changing its meaning to children and their parents.

No longer was physical education solely responsible for the physical fitness and sports skills, dances and games of its students. Its proponents expanded the content to include perceptual-motor development, movement education, new games and trust activities.

Concurrently, demands from other areas were infringing on the time that was once reserved for physical education. As a result, parents who expected their children to acquire a foundation of sports skills in the schools began to look elsewhere for these experiences.

They did not have to search long or far because nearly every urban and suburban community offered a variety of agency-sponsored programs that were more intensive than those provided by the public schools.

By the 1970s, sports offerings at the elementary school level had diminished to the point where they were no longer a troublesome issue with educators. However, as children shifted to agency-sponsored programs for their competitive experiences, the schools also lost much of the support that was previously accorded its physical education programs.

In today’s economy, the ultimate determination of whether physical education or sports programs in the elementary schools survive seems destined to be made on a cost-benefit basis. Since public school sports offerings below age 14 are relatively few, the emerging conflict seems to center on physical education versus agency-sponsored sports programs.

Although these two programs have been operating in the same communities without either open competition or cooperation for years, why is coexistence suddenly an issue? Again, the decisions seem to revolve around the delivery of desirable services for the smallest expenditure of public funds.


Cost-Benefit Analysis Seem to Favor Agency-Sponsored Sports

If decisions about community support for physical education or agency-sponsored sports programs are to be made on a cost-benefit basis, the evidence seems to favor the agency-sponsored sports. Actions taken during the past several years by parents, school administrators and boards of education reflect this trend.

However, in their haste to reduce the cost of programs, many administrators and boards of education may have eliminated or reduced the offerings in physical education without considering the consequences of such actions. Aside from the proposition that some physical education programs may not be worthy of support, there are many direct and subtle tactics that have rendered many of these programs ineffective.

For example, how many teachers in other subject areas would purport to achieve significant improvement in skills if they only met with their students for two one-half hour periods per week for a total of 36 hours during the school year? Yet, this is the customary lot of the physical education teacher.

Conversely, youth sports coaches may interact with their athletes 10 or more hours each week, over seasons extending 12 or more weeks.

Other factors that favor the coach-athlete rather than the teacher-student interaction are the teaching ratios of adults to students, motivation and goals of the learners, range in skill level among the learners and the scope of the content to be taught.

The problems in physical education programs are frequently compounded when the content is taught by teachers with no special education or interest in the area. It is not surprising that decision makers have abdicated to agencies these programs of physical activity that were once the responsibility of the public schools.

A reduction of the school’s role in physical fitness and motor skill development can have unfortunate consequences. The impact of budget reductions has led many to the convenient assumption that agency-sponsored sports and recreational activities can be legitimate substitutions for physical education programs.

Although the objectives of these various groups may be similar, they differ greatly in the clients they serve and the process by which they achieve their objectives:

  • Physical education programs have historically undertaken the teaching of a broad range of motor skills, while agency-sponsorship of programs is usually sports-specific.
  • Physical education programs are obligated to serve all children, while agency sports programs have often been selective and exclusionist.
  • Physical education programs are, by federal mandate, accessible to all students, while agency sports are often available on a first come basis to those who can afford the time, fees, equipment and transportation costs.

Under traditional procedure, the substitution of agency-sponsored activities for good physical education programs will disenfranchise many children.


Future Directions: Much Needs to Be Done

Unfortunately, the forces that initially caused friction between public school programs and agency-sponsored youth sports still exist.

This is not to downgrade the role of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), an Association of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and other similar organizations that are advocating a closer working relationship between public schools and organizations that offer activity programs for children.

Such attempts are likely to show little progress as long as school administrators and teachers believe that agencies are usurping the school’s role in activity programs. Agencies, too, must be more sensitive to the criticisms that have historically been associated with their competitive athletic programs.

A major concession to sports competition for children, reflected in NASPE’s publications, “Youth Sports Guide for Parents and Coaches,” and “Guidelines for Children’s Sports,” was made by public school personnel in the late 1970s. These books are significant because they represent a reversal in the attitudes of educators and physicians, which for the previous half-century had reflected a general disapproval of sports competition below age 14. The two NASPE publications show that sports competition for children can be beneficial, and then proceed to describe in detail the conditions under which such programs should be conducted.

Acknowledgment of common goals and the establishment of working relationships at the national level, unfortunately, do not guarantee compliance at the local level. As long as physical education teachers and coaches view agency-sponsored sports as the source of their problems in program retention and job security, there is little opportunity for compatibility between the groups. Harmony, and the essential cooperation to achieve common goals, depend on several concessions.

Physical education teachers must redefine their objectives to focus on health-related physical fitness and mastery of fundamental motor patterns and sports skills. Concentration on objectives that can be achieved, rather than exposure to activities in which mastery is impossible, would do much to re-establish the credibility that physical education programs seem to have lost in the last two decades.

Definition of activities that lead to greater prowess in specific skills is another contribution that physical education teachers could make to the motor development of children. Leadership in defining content and teaching methods should come from physical education programs and be shared with agency-sports programs. Sharing information about teaching and learning styles and achievement levels of students would also lead to a smoother transition between school and agency programs.

Lack of qualified leadership, the feature that tips the scales in favor of agency sports on the cost side of the ledger, is also their greatest obstacle to reaching program objectives. Agencies must develop their own educational programs for coaches or subscribe to those already in existence if they are to have a significant role in the sports education of children.

Physical education teachers and coaches are an available source for such information. As more information about sports for children becomes available, parents will also demand greater competence form coaches. Local ownership or control of programs, in lieu of affiliations with national or regional coaches training programs, will also increase as parents become more knowledgeable about children’s sports.

The conflict in children’s activity programs revolves around whether sound physical education, intramural and sport programs in the public schools should be sustained in lieu of support for competitive sports conducted through non-school agencies. Financial constraints have increased the dependence on non-school agencies through the reduction or elimination of physical education, intramural and sports programs once offered in the public schools.

Because of their common objectives, schools an agencies could work together for the physical education of children. A redefinition of their respective roles would indicate that both groups have unique, as well as common content and clients.


About the AuthorDr. Vern Seefeldt, director of Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State UniversityDr. Vern Seefeldt, director of Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University

As professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Vern Seefeldt, Ph.D., has directed extensive research in many aspects of youth sport, including a study of the sports activities of nearly 100,000 youngsters in Michigan. A former high school teacher and coach, he has written and spoken widely on youth sports topics, and has presented more than 100 workshops for youth sports leaders in Michigan. He is active in numerous professional organizations. 

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