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How Can We Justify Intercollegiate Athletics?

I believe that the purpose of a university education is to teach students to learn how to learn, and to learn how to take responsibility for their own development. There are other things that take place of course, the memorization of scientific tables, learning how to write a readable essay, the reading of great and not so great literature, the socialization that comes with living in dormitories, fraternities and sororities and the introduction of the arts and music through required attendance at recitals and exhibitions. But all of this to me is secondary to the idea that idea that a college education is one place that we can go to learn different ways we can take accountability for our own development.

For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that you agree with me. If so, what is the purpose of intercollegiate athletics? How can we justify spending millions of dollars on a small percentage of the student population?

Some might argue that we can justify football and men’s basketball because they provide entertainment for the university and local communities, and in some cases generate revenue that allows other students to participate in the competitive arena.

If revenue is the primary justification for an athletic department, universities, we would be better off taking the football budget and investing it in Berkshire Hathaway, Apple or Google. If entertainment is the primary goal then we could take the money and have cirque de sol troupes visit the campus quarterly and provide free tickets to every student, faculty member, administrator and donor.

The best justification that I can find for the amount of money that we spend on intercollegiate athletics is to come back to my original premise:if a university education is where we go to learn how to learn, then an athletic department can be a laboratory for that endeavor. Intercollegiate athletics can be not only a cauldron where we learn about ourselves, but where we learn to take responsibility for our own development, where we learn the principals of leadership and teambuilding, and where we learn how to take action based on those principals.

My vision is that coaches have the potential to build a culture that promotes self-actualized leadership, one where student athletes progress from being directed and coached to becoming situational leaders who become passionate about their own development. The first step in the process is to give student athletes a framework for making better decisions.

Hear is a list of values that a coach or athletic department might consider when developing a compass for decision making:

A strong work ethic
Tolerance and respect for our teammates, opponents, and people outside our community.
A willingness to be uncomfortable in our pursuit of excellence.
The last value interests me in particular. Given the nature of contemporary culture where many incoming student athletes have had even their smallest problems solved by their parents, we have to begin by changing the mindset that accompanies the people we are coaching. We have to educate both them (and their parents) that if we are doing our job we are going to create a supportive environment but one that continually challenges student athletes to take responsibility for themselves and their personal development.

Our first task is to teach our players how to make better decisions. Imagine that the values that I listed above were like the directions on a compass, and that we taught our athletes hold each decision that they made up to those values. (Imagine a wristband that each player wore that listed the core values; a compass for making decisions.)

At the end of a tough practice the head coach decides that he will push the team through a series of shuttle runs to develop fitness and mental toughness. The player has a decision to make. Do I glide through the exercise, working hard enough to stay ahead of a few other players so as to not draw attention to myself, or do I push myself as hard as I can? Which decision is consistent with the values and behaviors that my teammates and I have committed to?

Is there integrity in giving less than my best effort? No.

Do I have respect for my teammates if I do not work hard? No.

Am I honoring my commitment to be uncomfortable? No.

It is more likely that team members (and coaches) will hold themselves accountable to difficult tasks if they have already committed to specific behaviors before the challenge is before them.

Does this mean that everyone wearing a wristband will automatically become a great teammate? No. Does it mean that everyone will automatically give his best effort in every drill? No. But even when they do not choose the behavior that is consistent with our sense of purpose, they will be aware of it. Our first goal is awareness. Our next goal is not to be perfect but to be better. What we are trying to do is to move from directing a player into the appropriate behavior to coaching a player who has already committed to specific values and behaviors that give her the best chance to get better.

As coaches we tend to see our most difficult challenges in physical terms: blocking footwork, defensive pursuit, a strong left side attack in endgame, etc. . . . but every behavior that we hope to create on the court is preceded by a decision in the brain. Leadership is making decisions based on predetermined values. We have to train leadership as consistently and as passionately as we do transition footwork or any other sophisticated response that leads to success. Leadership cannot develop until we first teach our team members how to follow a commitment to healthy values and behaviors.

Terry Pettit is the author of Talent and the Secret Life of Teams which can be ordered at (

One Comment

  1. Hello,

    I agree with everything. I challenged my athletes this spring season to take a look at our college’s mission statement. I then asked what they stood for as a program. This is what they came up with.

    Mission Statement:
    The Mount Women’s Volleyball Program provides the opportunity to pursue potential academic and athletic achievement guided by core traditional values of integrity, commitment, and respect.

    Integrity: We strive to develop the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) in accordance with the MSJ Mission.
    Commitment: We are dedicated to achieving academic and athletic goals. We are not just athletes. We are student-athletes. And as such, recognize the value of continual growth and will remain lifelong learners.
    Respect: Players who complete this program recognize and respect the responsibility we have in the contribution of the lives of others. The significance of being a valuable teammate and member of the community resonates within us. We appreciate the benefits of learning teamwork, self-discipline, accountability, setting big goals, and the success of achievement.

    Just thought I would share.

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