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”She’s a good sport.” It’s something you might say about a person who makes the best of a bad situation, a person who works well with others, or someone who believes in fair play. Not surprisingly, these qualities and other important psychosocial developments in young people are some of the many benefits of integrating sports into our educational framework. Yet since the 1990s, we have witnessed serious declines in physical education programs here in the US and around the world.

The basic purpose of education is to ready young people to meet the challenges of the real world. Providing many different outlets and opportunities in which they can be successful is one way that educators can help every child realize and reach their full potential. Organized sports, both recreational and competitive, are one such opportunity and one that has proven its effectiveness in creating and promoting key values in youth such as: honesty, teamwork, fair play, respect for oneself and others, and adherence to rules.

Just considering the benefits reaped from an early encouragement of life-long health activity habits, one can realize the value of physical education beyond the schoolyard and its impact on public health. At the same time, sports provide a unique opportunity for young people to learn how to deal with competition, both as winners and losers. What more important lesson can we teach to our children that will serve them better as adults?

Sports also frequently serves as an attractive “hook” or “gateway” that draws many young people to school, kids who might otherwise be delinquent. It helps establish relationships with authority figures in a positive way. And sport-based programs have been shown to improve the learning performance of children and young people. So, more than just improving motor skills, it’s helping to provide a non-threatening framework for young people to create relationships and friendships with both peers and adults.

But despite the recognition of it’s value, more and more schools have decreased the amount of time allocated for physical education, reduced the number and/or training of staff, and cut available resources to meet budgetary shortfalls. Whether it’s fewer opportunities for involvement in organized sports or a reduction in the amount of time allocated for regular physical education classes, the marginalization of sports has continued to limit its potential as an important educational component in our schools.

Two World Summits on Physical Education, one held in Germany in 1999 and a second in Switzerland in 2005, produced an Action Agenda to international Ministers affirming sports as a key component of a quality education. The United Nations has developed an Inter-Agency Task Force on Sports for Development and Peace. The Task Force advocates the use of sports to achieve development goals on an international level.

As educators, we must provide the leadership that is crucial to achieving the benefits sports have to offer. Context and values matter. For example, research has demonstrated that martial arts taught with a philosophy that valued honor, respect, responsibility and patience produced significantly decreased delinquency compared to the same material taught as merely a self-defense mechanism. Sometimes adults, including coaches and parents, push young athletes with excessive and intensive training for competitive sports that can actually act as an obstacle to fulfilling academic pursuits.

Sports is a valuable tool for education, a tool whose use we must not only encourage but also strive to understand. Simply handing the kids a soccer ball and calling it sports is no more the right answer than just handing them the textbook and calling it teaching.