Friday Night Lives

NPR’s All Things Considered is running a series called Friday Night Lives. I’m using it as an excuse for my one and only back to school homage and reflection on high school sports—good and bad.

Two-a-days marked more than the end of summer, they were an incredibly grueling physical challenge, a rite of passage, and an intense social caldron that all played out on a hot 10 acre parcel behind the school. By the third morning, the whole-body “I must have been in a train wreck” soreness was unbelievable—and we went back and did it again. Upper classmen tortured the newbies. In a Darwinesque drama, cuts eliminated the small, slow and less able. Leaders emerged. By September, 40 young men were a team.

Football brings out the best and worst in young and old men. It teaches discipline, teamwork, and the value of effort. Good coaches make good role models. But it is a terribly violent game. After five years of college football, I didn’t watch it for 10 years because I didn’t like the person I became on the field. Playing linebacker is a sanctioned Jekyll and Hyde existence.

Sports were everything to me in high school—occupation, identity, motivation. School was just what we did between practices. As a result, I have some appreciation for sports as a motivational hook and positive growth experience for young people.

As a school superintendent, I went to football games every Friday night. I enjoyed the school spirit and competition but worried that less than 25% of my students participated in sports, band, or cheer—all became so competitive in a big school that they left most students out. Interest in regionally competitive teams and division one scholarships are some of the reasons we have giant dropout factories.

Three lessons emerge as a former participant and administrator. First, school policies, culture and coaches should make academic preparation the first priority. Second, schools should encourage all students to participate in physical and extracurricular activities. On a big campus, that may include an active intramural program to augment interscholastic activities. And third, sports participation should reinforce a positive school culture including excellence, persistence, and teamwork.

I don’t miss two-a-day practices, but I do remember the lessons of high school athletics. As we attempt to double the number of students prepared for college and careers, it would help if we doubled the number of students that had positive life experiences on the athletic field.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Interscholastic and intramural sports programs are essential, especially in inner city schools - high quality coaching and rigorous standards as a requirement to participate motivates early teens ... perform to play ... competition in athletics, competition in achievement leads to success in college.

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