From "Acing the Test" to "Touching Base": The Sports Metaphor in the Classroom

By Offstein, Evan H.; Neck, Christopher P. | Business Communication Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

From "Acing the Test" to "Touching Base": The Sports Metaphor in the Classroom


Offstein, Evan H., Neck, Christopher P., Business Communication Quarterly


The use of sports metaphors to convey business lessons both within and outside the classroom is a common phenomenon. The sports metaphor, however, is prone to misuse and can often inadvertently exclude large segments of the student population. To address these issues, we put forth an innovative and novel pedagogical approach that attempts to capitalize better on the shared meanings between athletics and certain business practices. Using the sports of tennis and basketball, we demonstrate how sports metaphors can be responsibly used to aid in the understanding of business lessons, such as managerial decision making.

Keywords: Metaphors, sports, decision making

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INSTRUCTORS OFTEN USE METAPHORS to enhance the learning experience. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggest that metaphors are important because they can deeply influence a person's attitudes, perceptions, and world view. Because of the increasing popularity of athletics within US culture, sports metaphors are becoming more common (Palmatier & Ray, 1989). Unfortunately, these metaphors are often used without thought or consideration to possible student reactions. This article introduces a class module aimed at teaching important business lessons through the responsible use of sports metaphors. First, we briefly discuss the needs and benefits of using sports metaphors within the classroom. Second, we draw attention to some potential pitfalls of misusing these unique metaphors. Finally, we demonstrate how the sports of tennis and basketball can aid students in understanding aspects of managerial decision making.

Needs and Benefits of Sports Metaphors

As many researchers have noted, metaphors are linguistic devices that can improve communication and enhance learning (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Morgan, 1986). To begin, metaphors can simplify difficult concepts. For instance, researchers have found that using sports can assist children to learn difficult math problems (Freedman, Hanvey, Lindsey, Ryan, & Bell, 1995). Also, metaphors can often communicate more efficiently than other forms of expression. For example, Archer and Cohen (1998) argue that court judges often use sports metaphors in their judicial opinions to capture a point quickly. Finally, listeners usually respond to metaphors. This is particularly important when the subject matter is viewed as dry or overly technical. Metaphors, then, are unique because they trigger an individual's memory and sensory capacities and thus increase the motivation to learn regardless of the subject area (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995). Because many people participate or have participated in athletics, sports metaphors are often likely to generate listener interest. So sports metaphors are of educational value because they can simplify difficult concepts, shorten communication cycles, and generate listener interest in many subject areas.

Problems with Sports Metaphors

Despite their apparent value to the learning experience, there is growing evidence that instructors should exercise discretion when using sports metaphors within a classroom. To begin, sports metaphors can alienate segments of the student population. For example, women and international students may miss or misinterpret lessons that use the uniquely American and male-dominated sports of baseball or football. Consequently, these types of metaphors are likely to produce an out-group, which often results in feelings of awe, awkwardness, and detachment (Archer & Cohen, 1998; Katz, 2001). Thus, a professor using specifically targeted metaphors may produce a classroom atmosphere of exclusion.

In addition, an element of fit is needed between metaphor and classroom lesson. Instructors do not always choose the appropriate lesson to accompany a sports metaphor. For metaphors to work they must demonstrate some qualities parallel with the target lesson. These shared meanings are less likely to form if application to the classroom material is misdirected, inaccurate, or inappropriate to the given situation (Barr, Stimpert, & Huff, 1992). …

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