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Why Do We Play?


Guest Essay by Jody Redman, Associate Director
Minnesota State High School League

High school education-based athletics are a valued part of our culture. We value them because we know that the students who participate have the potential to acquire something incredibly meaningful. Decades of research shows that participation provides students with experiences they can draw upon for a lifetime. Valuable life lessons can be learned from participation—lessons such as:

• learning to work with others toward a common goal;

• finding the courage necessary to move outside of one’s comfort zone to learn something new;

• overcoming failure; and

• developing confidence and growing as a human being.

However, the potential for this growth only exists IF the adults who are in charge of these experiences are aware of their role in this process and are intentional about making it happen.

WHY DO WE PLAY? We play to give students more than physical skill development in a game that will end when they graduate. We play to give them more that leads to a place of belonging for every student, opportunities for courage, experiences that lead to failure, confidence that results from trying, and ultimately the growth and development of every student’s inner life.

A Place of Belonging for Every Student
When students are connected to an experience and have a relationship with a caring adult, belonging and a sense of security follows. When we intentionally create a place of belonging we create a TEAM where the conditions are right for deeper, life-changing experiences; where work can be done collectively to reach a common goal; where everyone has a role; where students can be themselves and are also aware that they are part of something greater than themselves; and where learning, growth and connection are the purpose.

Opportunities for Courage
It takes courage for students to show up every day in this public arena called high school sports. It takes courage to be the students who wait for their turn to get into the game, to take the last shot, or to be put in to throw one pitch with the bases loaded. It takes courage to show up and perform knowing mistakes will surely occur, to enter into a public arena where failure is inevitable, and to move outside of one’s comfort zone and risk something new.

Experiences that Lead to Failure
When did students learn that mistakes and failure are negative and should be avoided, that somehow they should achieve without failure? Much of their willingness to risk trying something new is determined by how we as adults respond to their efforts: the point guard’s risk to drive the lane with the left hand instead of the dominant right, or the goaltender who takes the risk to leave the comfort of the blue-painted crease to challenge the oncoming shooter. Each of these risks take the student out of his or her comfort zone to the land of uncertainty, where there is a good chance that failure will occur. Our response to their efforts, and to their risks and their failures will either encourage them to try something new or convince them to stay locked safely in a risk-free comfort zone.

Confidence that Results from Trying
Confidence is born out of trying. Trying is attempting something new; it is the struggle to overcome difficulties; it is striving for something more. A willingness to try is what puts students into the arena. The skill development of students occurs when they try and fail, and then try and fail again, sometimes hundreds of times. We need to celebrate, not discourage, a student’s willingness to try.

Growth of the Student’s Inner Life
We have to define our coaching purpose. We have to focus on more than our goals and surface-level outcomes. We have to shine the light brightly on the deeper reasons of WHY WE PLAY—the human growth and development of the students who participate. We have to become intentional about developing the student’s potential and providing them with skills that will sustain them for a lifetime.

Participation in high school athletics has to provide students with more than the outcome on the scoreboard or physical skill development. When done right, it will prepare students for more than playing a game. Being intentional and coaching with a PURPOSE that centers on human growth and development will provide students with the skills necessary to be prepared for life.

WHY DO WE PLAY—we play to give students more. We play to develop the human potential of every student who participates. 

Reproduced from the February 2016 Kansas State High School Activities Journal