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High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

The Case for Athletic Participation

We have all heard the centuries-old proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Clearly, somewhere along the line, Jack got the idea that doing nothing but studying, even to the point of eliminating athletic pursuits in order to focus on his school work, would result in higher academic performance and lower stress. Poor, misguided Jack!

Jack, like many high school students, operates under the misconception that physical activity and athletic pursuits have no bearing on academic performance. Luckily for us, it is 2017, as opposed to the mid-1600s when the proverb first emerged, and we now have the benefit of evidence-based research to show us that not only does constant work make Jack dull, it also probably makes him perform worse on the work that he seems bound to.

Studies show that today’s high school students experience significantly more stress than in previous generations. In their 2015 Stress Report, the American Psychological Association showed that Millennials are the most stressed generation. The reasons for that are many, but the factors I hear most from students have to do with pressure to perform well in school, get into a “good” college, and things of that nature. Interestingly, however, in the vast majority of those cases, that pressure to perform does not come overtly from parents or teachers. Instead, for most kids, that pressure is intrinsic. The problem is widespread, which you can read more about in this recent New York Times article.

Since we are aware of the problem, it is thus important that we help make our kids aware of some strategies to combat it. This is where physical activity and athletics can serve a valuable purpose. We often hear about the “life lessons” that sports teach, but I would take that a step farther and bring up the “life conditioning” that sports provide. Though it is not a panacea by any means, athletic participation can absolutely have a positive impact in a few areas.

Stress Relief

The connection between physical activity and brain activity is well documented. As the American Psychological Association states in this article, “Work in animals since the late 1980s has found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response.” The article goes on to state that, “exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress.” This stands to reason: when you practice something, you get better at it. Thus, dealing with the physical stress of exercise prepares your body to take on other types of stress as well.

Resilience and Grit

It is important to remember that some stress can be beneficial, as it causes the body to be alert and ready. This is, of course, different than chronic stress. Whenever I was playing a game, for example, the butterflies I felt in my stomach told me that I was ready to perform at my best. At times, I felt the same way before a test in school, and so that feeling let me know that I was ready to take on the challenge that lay before me. As an adult, I can say that I have also felt those butterflies prior to a public speech, presentation, or job interview. They let me know I am ready, and through sports, I have learned to embrace them.

Sports also helped me understand the reality of incremental improvement. Success does not come overnight, of course, and it takes constant work and the ability to deal with setbacks. Perhaps the beneficial aspect of incremental improvement is that it requires self-evaluation. If kids can learn how to say, “I can do better” and respond rationally and productively, they are less likely to say, “I am a failure.”

Academic Improvement

I have spoken with many people who have looked at the positive benefits of athletics and exercise and say, “While that is all well and good, my kid needs to get into a selective college!” Though I am of the opinion that health and general well-being are their own rewards, there is good news in the area of academic performance, as well.

As part of this publication from 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information provides an overwhelming amount of evidence that physical activity leads to improved brain function and academic performance. As stated in the publication, “When physical activity is used as a break from academic learning time, postengagement effects include better attention (Grieco et al., 2009; Bartholomew and Jowers, 2011), increased on-task behaviors (Mahar et al., 2006), and improved academic performance (Donnelly and Lambourne, 2011).”

This is at the heart of the dilemma facing Jack, our protagonist. The research shows us that his commitment to studying—and only studying—is most likely hurting his overall academic performance.

Our MCDS extracurricular and club sport offerings take place after school, and so they specifically provide that necessary cognitive break between the end of the school day and the start of any homework. As you can see, kids need that in order to perform at their best in the classroom.

I hope all of us will continue to encourage athletic participation in our kids. They need not be the best athlete in order to benefit—in multiple ways—from the experience.

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