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Opinion: Varsity Sports Not All Bad

Kristi Adamo, PhD, Research Scientist, CHEO, Ottawa

Kristi Adamo, PhD, Research Scientist, CHEO, Ottawa

Given the rather enthusiastic response to yesterday’s post on how the focus on varsity sports may undermine efforts to get the whole student population moving, here is a guest post from Kristi Adamo, one of my colleagues from Ottawa:

Just thought I would chime in as an ex-varsity athlete. My husband and I were both University varsity athletes (that is how we met) and it is in part what made us who we are and the type of parents we have become. Because we played high level sport most of our lives we are quite realistic in our expectations of our children and we feel we have insight as to what is important for them to learn and what can wait. We are knowledgeable enough to recognize that our children may never be like the ‘great one’.

While we both believe a certain level of competition is healthy, our experiences have taught us that encouraging active behaviour and the development of motor skills through a variety of fun activities is much more important than knowing all the rules of a complex game, or scoring the most goals, baskets etc… We have made efforts to teach our girls that physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle- just like eating green leafy vegetables! They recognize that mommy and daddy both play sports because they are fun and keep us fit so that we can live healthy longer. My 4 year old could tell you at length why this is important …

While I do not condone the American model regarding the elitism of varsity sport and the gift of graduation to those who contribute to a National championship (let’s be honest we know this happens and there are some dumbasses who get a degree because of their ability to draw in the crowds), in my opinion doing away with varsity sport in order to encourage more for the masses is NOT a viable solution and may further ostracize those who are not ‘talented’ if we pool all skill levels together… thus we should not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.

I can say with some degree of certainty that the Canadian athletics scene is far different that that south of the border but any PE teacher who focuses on one sport is clearly not trained to be a PE teacher and all and herein lies the problem. I understand why children, like the one quoted, would opt not to participate.

Unfortunately, I think that the popularization of professional sport and the money and lifestyle tied to this has done us a severe disservice. While I am no expert, I understand that in the US some of the college coaches make more money than any other employee of school- and that often team endorsements are higher than the grant funding brought in by all research departments. Perhaps we need to think about this aspect and what kind of message this is sending…

While I will not deny that there are drawbacks to elite sport, high level sport can positively influence many aspects of one’s life and contribute to the development of very fine individuals who have leadership skills, a great work ethic, who strive for excellence, are diligent team players who know how to compromise when necessary, have a degree of humility (recognizing there is always someone more talented) and obligation, and can be an excellent role models.

Kristi Adamo, PhD, is currently a Research Scientist with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and an Assistant Professor in Human Kinetics and the Department of Paediatrics at Ottawa University. Her research interests include prevention of childhood obesity and its metabolic consequences, lifestyle intervention, and life course of obesity, specifically early determinants. She is also an avid athlete (hockey, soccer, volleyball, running).

Regina, Saskatchewan


  1. Thanks for the posts, Dr. Sharma and Dr. Adamo. I read yesterdays and I think this is a good follow on to that one.

    I do agree with Kristi that we should throw out competitive sports. Some competition can be fun and healthy, but I feel the problem we have here in the US is that, like many things, it is taken to the extreme. At the elite level one can understand this, but in youth sports the extreme competitiveness has no place.

    But competitive sports teams do serve a larger role for any community, be it a school district, city, or nation. Sport has the ability to transcend many common barriers, and the best example I can think of is when South Africa won the 1995 rugby world cup in South Africa. Although the “new” South Africa had just been born hardly a year earlier with the first universal elections, one can imagine that there were still many de facto aspects of apartheid that were still in place. Yet when the team won, and in dramatic fashion, the country as a whole cheered them and celebrated together.

    Again, the issue for me is that we don’t teach our children perspective. Put into any “game” situation, most adolescents will exhibit some degree of competitiveness. That is healthy and normal. But we don’t teach kids that it is really just a game, and that what matters in life is a whole other list of things, not whether or not you beat the pants off your competitor.

    The glorification of both high school and college kids (and yes, let’s be realistic, they are really still kids), and the disproportional and often exorbitant salaries of coaches warps our perspective. I think the sporting club model most other countries adopt is more balanced. Although football (soccer) players are some of the highest paid athletes in the world, the competition and sport lies outside of traditional youth development structures like schools.

    And something else not often considered about elite sport and encouraging children to pursue such high level sporting interests is that those professions can carry unusually high risk for debilitating injury or early death. As much as I enjoy my competitive cycling, I would never wish for either of my two sons to become a professional cyclist. Or any NFL player, or any other professional sportsmen, for that matter.

    Fortunately the probability that either of my children become professional athletes is miniscule, and for that I am truly grateful, although I will continue to encourage them to engage in a variety of activities as well as leading by example.

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  2. I agree that there are advantages for many kids to pursue high-level sports, just as there are advantages to opening up opportunities for kids capable of pursuing higher-level academics than their peers. The problem to me doesn’t seem to be so much with varsity sports themselves, but when a focus on them marginalizes and discourages students who cannot perform athletically at that level. At my high school we had standard, remedial and honors classes for academic subjects, but only one gym class. I remember vividly (and painfully) when we did volleyball in gym being told by a classmate to stand in the corner of the court and not try to hit the ball. Yes, I was terrible at it, but this was a meaningless game in a class that was supposed to be teaching us physical skills. If I told a classmate in an English class to shut up and sit down because they were stupid, I’m guessing there would have been consequences, but it was apparently OK to dismiss students’ needs to learn physically if they weren’t already good at it. It took me until my adult years to realize that I’m actually reasonably athletic — just not good at team sports. And it took some encouragement.

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  3. of course Dr. Adamo thinks varsity sports are “not that bad” — she and her husband both benefitted from them….

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  4. Lets keep competitive sports for those kids who enjoy them and benefit from them.
    (That’s not me, I’m the klutz, but I wouldn’t want the athletic kids to lose their sports anymore than us musical kids to lose our choir and orchestra.)

    What exactly, would a “PE” class consist of if it wasn’t sports? Go for walks? Do exercises? Dance?
    If PE is supposed to provide something for everyone, how does it do any one thing consistently and over a long enough time to develop muscle memory and skills?

    In trying to do a little bit of something for everybody PE does nothing well. Doing just a few weeks of each activity keeps everybody at such a low skill level that nobody likes what they’re doing.

    That’s like taking violin for a semester, then sax for the next semester, then singing for a semester – useless. When our school switched from year long courses to semesters it was understood that music couldn’t be taught in a 3 month course then skip one or two semesters. Music courses go all year, because consistent lessons and practise is absolutely necessary.

    The problem with PE outside sports is that it doesn’t provide real skill development in anything.
    It makes more sense in any town that’s big enough, to give students credits for physical activity they do on their own, developing skills with specialized instructors and constant consistent practise over a long time.
    If you want to learn to dance, it’s better to join a salsa club than do a 2 week “dance rotation” once every 3rd semester with a PE instructor who learned a few steps as an elective in teachers college. (Not to be insulting – he is a brilliant basketball coach)

    If walking is enough as a healthy exercise, you don’t need expensive teachers (except for students with disabilities, and they’d probably need more specialized help than a PE teacher).
    All you need is some way of measuring that students have actually walked. It would have to be consistent and long term and it could be done outside school hours, freeing timetable space.

    If PE is going to help the non-sporty, it needs a whole new approach, maybe being totally outside the current format – ie not school classes with an intermittent mishmash of activities and no long term skill development in anything.

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  5. For a brief time in the 1970s, PE moved to helping students find physical activities that they could enjoy for a lifetime. Horseback riding, bowling, rock climbing, tennis, and many other activities were offered for students to try to see what turned them on.

    This should be the model for PE programs. Team sports are important, and there are people who continue to play their sport for decades. It takes time and effort, but it is possible for adults to find or form teams for basketball, football, etc., but that barrier keeps most adults from continuing. Perhaps more community effort to establish adult teams would also be beneficial. There are lots of teams for kids, but little effort to meet adult needs.

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  6. “What exactly, would a “PE” class consist of if it wasn’t sports? Go for walks? Do exercises? Dance?”

    Um, yoga? Tai chi? NON-team sports (they do exist)? Aerobics? Step classes? How to lift weights safely? Punk rope? Stair climbing? Or maybe basic skills training? How to choose a good shoe for running, how to lift safely, how to stretch so you don’t damage yourself? These are all things that everyone needs to know, and that we can all continue to do well into adulthood and old age. There’s a million things that non-athletic adults do to keep ourselves in shape that don’t involve outscoring anyone else or beating someone up physically or throwing a ball at someone — and we all discover them ourselves, long after we leave the worthlessness of gym class several decades behind. People pay money to run up the stairwells of skyscrapers. Look at the things most adults spend time doing to stay healthy — there’s no reason why kids can’t do them too, and learn that moving one’s body and staying healthy and trim isn’t just for bullies and elite jocks.

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  7. Just one thing to look at that is the difference between the Canadian and American systems. Academically and medically–within the Candian education system (Alberta for example: any student taking subject one will have the same skillsif they have the same marks.) The US system has practically a different level of skil sets for each county. Meaning that a wealthy county or region would have access to maore money to teach and provide services to the student that does not mean they get the professional education they need for any university scholarship attained.

    The medical differences are night and day different an individual who would qualify for baratric surgery but not have the funds (or insurance) there would be no chance for surgery. All this considered there are nearly no simularities on the two fronts. So publishing American stats for Canadians is somewhat foolish because the same reality does not exist here.

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  8. Nothing against varsity sports – although I don’t think they should continue to be funded while the art, music, theater, debate, and journalism programs in schools are destroyed – but maybe they shouldn’t be hardwired to PE? Maybe PE should actually teach kids about how their bodies work?

    And, I actually disagree with the person above who says there should always be a focus on developing skills in one sport or activity. I think breadth over depth in PE is fine. It makes for adaptable bodies and makes it more likely that kids will find activities they enjoy and want to pursue further.

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  9. Great comments here, and I guess it comes down to a philosophical question about what is PE and what should it be. I was trained a a physical educator, although I pursued graduate work instead of working as one.

    But my interpretation from the curriculum I was exposed to is that PE was a way to each people to be physically active. That meant learning how your body works but also learning how to play different games and sports. Naturally, some will excel at team sports and specific skills while others will not. If competition and winning were the sole outcome of the games and activities in PE class, then yes, some teams would be better served by having the less skilled students “sit in the corner and try not to hit the ball.”

    However therein lies one of the key problems in our system here in the US, as I mentioned in my comment above. The emphasis is placed on winning and competition, both overtly and covertly, in pretty much all aspects of life but also in the school setting. And perhaps more importantly, the emphasis is NOT placed on participation. Although I was always a “good” athlete, I was fortunate enough to be raised valuing participation over competition, and took much pleasure in giving less athletic classmates full opportunity when playing with with them, i.e. passing them the ball even though I knew they would miss a shot or flub a play.

    If only we would let PE remain a place for participation, and let the”good” athletes satisfy their desire to compete elsewhere where it is more appropriate, PE might be a more enjoyable experience for everyone. The old adage, “There is a time and a place for everything” very much applies here, although I am not convinced PE will change unless we experience a a seismic cultural shift in this country first.

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  10. SS, there is still a vast chasm between what natural jocks think of as “physical activity” and what the vast majority of people think of as “physical activity.”

    Think of the many things that working adults do to stay fit and active:

    Run (and not competitively, but just marathons and halfs for their own sake).




    Aerobics classes.


    Rock climbing.

    Spin classes.

    This is what people do after work and before. This is what they buy gym memberships to do. This is what they join noncompetitive clubs to do. This is what they spend their money and time on. And NOT A SINGLE ONE is a “game” or “sport.” Not one. They can be done competitively and are — but the enormous majority of people who pay real money to do these things DO NOT DO THEM COMPETITIVELY.

    Clearly, there are vast numbers of things that can be done and that people will spend hard-earned money and free time on that have nothing to do with passing a damn ball. Most runners and cyclists I know don’t even aim to hit the tape first; they just try to beat their own best times.

    This inability to grasp the difference between physical activity and games/sports is just preposterous to me. I don’t want a stinking ball passed to me, okay? People do not spend money on gym memberships to get balls passed to them. I cannot fathom why this concept of physical activity without Us vs. Them attached is so hard to grasp!

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  11. I would suggest that some hockey parents around here are just as crazy, if not crazier than anything that Americans could conjure. Also the writer refers to phys-ed teachers which only exist, except in rare instances, at the high school level.

    Our obession with standardized testing in Canada and the time required to instruct kids to pass these tests have eliminated phys-ed classes (as well most music and art) and the specialists who used to teach them. My step-son gets phys-ed only on Fridays and often not even that.

    For me, the concern isn’t so much that there is an inordinate amount of pressure on kids to participate in sports but a decided lack of pressure. The rise of “democratic” parenting and a challenge by choice generation that can be loathe to do things they don’t want to is alarming. I think that pressure to do anything is largely missing from this generation.

    When I was growing up playing hockey I think all my peers wanted to go to the NHL but, for most of us, it was the day to day stuff of making the playoffs and trying to win that was compelling and important.

    I think it’s fine and well to encourage participation in sports when younger children are involved but I would have been hard-pressed as a minor atom hockey player to accept that winning or at least trying to win was unimportant in compared to participation. Participation was assumed. It wasn’t about being elite–which let’s face it is an expression that has taken on a whole lot of unwarranted negative baggage these day–but about striving to win and failing that losing with honour.

    I think young boys are particularly wired like this. During Middle School phys-ed I never keep score but I can assure you the boys certainly do.


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