What Role for Middle School Sports?

Safe and developmentally appropriate play may be difficult to achieve when schools move into the interscholastic arena by C. KENNETH McEWIN and THOMAS S. DICKINSON

As school district leaders in Hillsborough County, Fla., Paradise Valley, Ariz., or any other community that recently has taken up the issue of middle-level interscholastic sports can attest, many coaches and parents believe sports competition ought to be available to all students, no matter what their age or developmental stage.


These advocates passionately support comprehensive, highly competitive interscholastic sports programs for young adolescents while rationalizing and dismissing the problems typically associated with such programs for youngsters who are 10 to 14 years old.

On the other hand, proponents for modifying middle-level sports want to make them safer and more developmentally responsive to the needs and interests of young adolescents--even when that means eliminating competition among schools. This situation sets up a crucial and difficult decision for administrators and their governing boards.

Ongoing Debates
The proper role of interscholastic sports for young adolescents has been an intensely debated topic for several decades, and it remains as emotional an issue today as ever. During the past year, an organized parent group has been pressing a reluctant school board in Paradise Valley, a Phoenix suburb, to restore the middle school sports program it dropped two years ago in favor of intramural competition that includes instruction by high school coaches. In St. Johns County, Fla., the school board last year approved a limited interscholastic program for its five middle schools in a 3-2 vote. So far, the competition is restricted to basketball and volleyball because of the limited capital outlay for equipment.

Meanwhile, in Tampa, Fla., the board rejected a community task force proposal last year to revive interscholastic competition at middle schools but approved a more limited recommendation in May. The latter measure restores competitive play in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track but only if the annual cost of $186,000 could be raised privately. Thanks primarily to a single donor, the funding goal was met.

This is not a middle school issue. The real issue is what school-sponsored competitive interscholastic sports programs, if any, should be available to young adolescents no matter what the names or grade organizations of the schools they attend.

The interscholastic sports debate is associated routinely with middle schools, however, since the establishment of new middle schools often is accompanied by careful study of what programs and practices best serve young adolescents. This study reveals the serious dangers associated with interscholastic sports programs for 10- to 14-year-olds and builds an awareness of other problems common in middle-level interscholastic athletics.

With the exception of a relatively small number of districts, equal percentages of middle and junior high schools have maintained competitive sports programs for many years. Several national studies, including one we conducted in 1993, have revealed that approximately 80 to 90 percent of all middle schools have some form of interscholastic sports programs. The real question, then, is how can administrators at the school and district levels make their interscholastic athletics programs as safe and developmentally appropriate as possible?

Common Problems
A prerequisite to administering middle-level sports programs effectively is to be keenly aware of the problems associated with them. The five problems most frequently identified include: (1) the predisposition of young adolescents to physical injury, (2) the question of psychological readiness, (3) the high attrition rates, (4) the question of proper coaching and (5) issues of liability. (See resource list.)

The most dangerous time for youth to participate in organized sports is between ages 10 and 14, the middle school years. As documented by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies, significant numbers of debilitating injuries and deaths occur every year for this age group. Sports injuries sustained by children and young adolescents have increased substantially in recent years with the highest injury rates being for those playing football (an increase of 50,000 injuries in a four-year period).

These injuries do not all occur in school-sponsored sports programs. However, the limited research results that are available reveal that the injury rates for in-school and out-of-school sports programs are approximately the same. For these and related reasons, careful steps should be taken to protect young adolescents from participating in unsafe interscholastic programs.

Interscholastic sports frequently are credited with promoting socialization skills, building character, enhancing personality development and "preparing participants for adult life." However, little actually is known about the long-term psychological effects on participants. For example, sports psychologists, among others, question the readiness of children and young adolescents to cope successfully with the powerful pressures of experiencing instant successes and failures, in very public ways, during sports events.

Others argue that involving young adolescents in highly competitive sports before they are psychologically ready often eliminates the enjoyment of sports because of the regimented practices and pressures to win at all costs. Also, the practice of cutting team rosters in most sports programs has negative effects on young adolescents. Steps should be taken to ensure, to the extent possible, that interscholastic sports programs are organized in ways that take the psychological characteristics of the age group into consideration.

Coaching Quality
Even if competitive sports programs offer positive opportunities for young adolescents, only a small percentage of them are able to benefit. This is because the inappropriate nature of such programs, in combination with other factors, has resulted in high "burnout," or attrition, rates. The majority of youngsters now quit organized sports by age 15. Chief among the reasons they cite are "not having fun" and dissatisfaction over the ways practices are conducted.

The level of success attained in interscholastic athletics relies heavily on the actions of the coaches who have the daily responsibility for sports programs. They make the majority of decisions that determine the quality and safety of middle-level programs. As a result, coaches with no specialized preparation in physical education or coaching only compound the problem.

Unfortunately, this common circumstance can lead to decisions that do not reflect what is known about appropriate middle-level sports programs. Some coaches exhibit behaviors and attitudes more typical of those who run collegiate and professional sports. These negative behaviors, attitudes and actions toward young adolescents should not be tolerated.

In addition, the number of lawsuits filed against coaches, school districts, school administrators and others in child-serving organizations has increased significantly in recent years. Although not limited to middle-level sports, the rise in litigation has powerful implications for this level considering the significant number of injuries experienced each year by those in this age group while participating in sports. The size of monetary awards in cases involving permanent disability or death now reach the $10 to $15 million range.
Addressing Needs
In spite of these sundry concerns, interscholastic sports programs continue to operate at the middle level in most school districts. Thus, school leaders should take steps to ensure these programs are as safe as possible and are based on what is known about the psychological and physical needs of young adolescents.

The following recommendations may prove useful in exploring the important and sometimes emotional issues regarding middle-level sports. These suggestions are intended to stimulate thinking rather than provide concrete solutions.

  • Improve adult supervision of all middle-level interscholastic sports activities.

    Quality supervision of middle-level sports programs is essential if safe and developmentally responsive programs and practices are to exist. This means that middle-level sports should receive the same level of supervision as high school programs and no middle school should be permitted to field a team unless qualified coaches are present and held accountable for the effectiveness and developmental appropriateness of the program. This responsibility extends to principals, athletic directors and central-office personnel.

  • Tighten restrictions on the qualifications of middle-level coaches and provide close supervision and performance evaluations.

    This recommendation implies that middle schools that cannot find qualified coaches should not be permitted to compete. This would likely be an unpopular decision, but the option of using unqualified coaches sacrifices the well being of young adolescents--an option that should not be allowed.

  • Institute a districtwide plan to review all programs and practices at the middle school level.

    The individuals responsible for this review should be representative of the major stakeholders. The recommendations generated by this group should follow a thorough investigation of the knowledge base rather than simply reflecting personal preferences. Those involved in the review should commit to the best interests of young adolescents as the first priority. The end product should be a series of data-driven decisions, such as which sports should be played at what grade levels and what steps are going to be taken to ensure the middle-level interscholastic sports are safe and developmentally responsive.

  • Implement a risk management plan that reduces the risk of lawsuits.

    These plans have the potential to reduce lawsuits and lower the risk of injuries for youngsters. The most important objective of the plan is to help make participation in sports programs as safe as possible.

  • Review the systemwide process for ensuring the safety of sports equipment and sports facilities and for providing quality care for injuries.

    All ill-fitting and worn equipment should be eliminated and the condition of all sports facilities should be monitored. Quality medical care should be provided for all athletes at games and practices.

  • Keeping a Balance
  • Examine the relationship between academics and interscholastic sports at all middle schools.

    All involved must recognize the top priority at middle schools is the academic program. Practices that disrupt the instructional program should not be permitted. This includes missed instructional time due to game travel or participation in pep rallies.

  • Maintain a balanced approach to physical education, intramural sports and interscholastic athletics.

    A high priority should be placed on the human resources and funding for physical education, intramural sports and interscholastic sports. Too often at the middle level, the preponderance of resources are bestowed on the interscholastic program, which serves only a small portion of young adolescents.

    Recent trends suggest an increasing number of middle schools are adding interscholastic sports while those with intramural programs are declining. As these trends continue, fewer young adolescents will have opportunities to reap the benefits that result from well-planned, developmentally responsive sports programs.

  • Develop a comprehensive campaign to help educators, community members and other stakeholders understand the unique developmental characteristics and needs of young adolescents.

    A long-standing barrier to change in educational programs for young adolescents has been a widespread lack of understanding among educators and the general public about the age group. Helping larger numbers of people to better understand the developmental realities of early adolescence and celebrate the diversity among these youth will improve the athletic program and other components of the middle school curriculum.

  • Essential Duty
    If administrators and other decision makers can muster the courage to address the emotionally charged issues associated with middle-level interscholastic sports, large numbers of young adolescents will reap the benefits that are possible in carefully planned and closely supervised programs.

    To shirk the responsibility for reviewing and improving these programs is to invite serious problems for both the school district and the middle school students who participate in school-sponsored, competitive sports.

    Kenneth McEwin is a professor of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C. 28608. E-mail: mcewinck@appstate.edu. Thomas Dickinson is an associate professor of education at Indiana State University.