Swimming through Life: Individual and Team Sports Help Student-Athletes Develop Personal Attributes in Ways That May Not Be Available during the School Day

By Richardson, Joan | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Swimming through Life: Individual and Team Sports Help Student-Athletes Develop Personal Attributes in Ways That May Not Be Available during the School Day


Richardson, Joan, Phi Delta Kappan


Waking up in the chilly dark of a Michigan morning, stoking themselves with chocolate milk and a granola bar, snuggling into the thickest hoodie they could find, and then driving to school in time for a 5:30 a.m. swim practice--that was a significant part of the high school lives of my three children.

And they say being on the swim team was one of the best parts of high school.

Mostly, I think, they remember the fun of being on the swim team--the friendships, the pizza, the chlorinated hair, the shaving parties. But I know the lessons they learned on the pool deck have sustained them through some personally difficult times and laid the groundwork for the professional relationships they are building today. With the increasing attention to so-called soft skills, I'm surprised we don't hear more about high school athletics and how they build character. The reason to include sports in a student's high school career is precisely because the experience adds to a student's socialemotional portfolio. How well the football team does on Friday night is irrelevant to the quality of a child's education--and certainly provides no reason for taxpayer support. But if you want kids to develop a growth mindset, help them make the link between what they do in practice and what happens in competition. Want them to learn to set goals and develop plans for achieving them? Get them into an individual sport like swimming, running, or tennis. Want them to develop grit and resilience? Let them experience the thrill of their own victories and the agony of their own defeats.

Do you want them to learn how to work with others? Any sport will teach that. "The sport is irrelevant. Whether you're on a big team sport like basketball or an individual sport like swimming or tennis, you are still part of a team. You still ride the bus together. You still have to get along on the pool deck and in the locker room. You are still negotiating with people all the time," said my youngest daughter.

"There's an accountability that's built into being on an athletic team. …

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