Sports in Middle Grades

What percentages of middle schools have interscholastic and/or intramural sports programs? What effect does “cutting” have on young adolescents? Should middle schools have interscholastic and/or intramural sports programs?

During the last few years there has been a steady decline in the number of middle schools implementing intramural sports programs. Data from a 1993 national survey of 1,798 middle schools reported 63% of schools offered intramural sports programs for sixth graders, a decrease of 5% in 5 years. At the seventh grade level, 58% of grades 6-8 middle schools had intramural sports programs as compared with 67% in 1988, a decrease of 9% in five years. Similar decreases were found at the eighth grade level (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996). The same study found the higher the middle grade, the less likely students were to have access to intramural programs. The general trend seems to be toward smaller percentages of schools offering intramural programs.

Virtually all senior high schools and approximately 80% of middle level schools offer competitive, interscholastic sports programs (Berryman, 1988; McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996) with the remaining offering only intramural sports programs. A comparison of the Alexander and McEwin 1988 study to the McEwin, Dickinson, and Jenkins 1996 study shows the following increases in interscholastic sports in middle schools. The percentages of interscholastic sports programs in grades 6-8 schools increased between 1988 and 1993 at the seventh grade level (72% to 77%) and remained the same at the eighth grade level (77%). The percentages of such programs for sixth grade, however, declined over the same period from 30% to 26%. When the total of 1,798 middle level schools in the 1993 study were considered, approximately 25% of schools provided interscholastic sports for sixth graders, 77% for seventh graders and 79% for eighth graders.

A 1992 national study of 570 middle level schools reported the percentages of grades 6-8 schools having interscholastic sports programs at the seventh and eighth grade levels as 89% and 92% respectively (Valentine, Clark, Irvin, Keefe, & Melton, 1993). The longitudinal study NEL’88 reported 47.9 % of eighth graders participated in school varsity sports and 42.5% in intramural sports (National Center for Education Statistics, 1990).

The issue

Although progress has been made in creating teaching and learning environments which are developmentally appropriate for young adolescents, these efforts have been centered primarily on the academic programs while co-curricular programs, such as competition sports, continue to follow practices designed for older adolescents and adults. There is a widely accepted belief in the advantages of such competitive sports for young adolescents. However, recent research showing increases in injury rates, psychological stress, and unqualified adult leadership in middle level sport programs (Goldman, 1990; McEwin & Dickinson, 1996; Micheli, 1990; Micheli & Jenkins, 1990; Smith, Zane, Smoll & Coppol, 1983) are focusing attention on the advantages of intramural sports rather than interscholastic sports programs. (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996). Other factors being studied are long term psychological effects: being cut from the team (Vaugh, 1984), anxiety and depression (Ogilvie, 1988), gender-specific attitudes (Harrington, 1982), and the message that sports are not permissible for girls (Priest and Summerfield, 1994).

Many positive benefits for young adolescents may result from participation in sports which can enhance their self-esteem and increase their interest in sports. However, when young adolescent needs and interests become secondary to pressures and unreasonable expectations from coaches, parents, the community, and even themselves, sports often have the opposite effect. Young adolescents’ psychological well being should be a priority in developing middle level sports programs (Vaughan, 1984). Of particular importance are the following:

  • Physical and psychological readiness to participant
  • Cutting young adolescents from participation
  • Emphasis on winning
  • Unrealistically high expectations from adults
  • High youth dropout of sports programs by age 15
  • The almost nonexistent chances of becoming a professional athlete (Swaim & McEwin, in press).

The focus of middle level competitive sports should be on helping young adolescents set goals which reflect their current interests and abilities. This focus will make it easier for them to emphasize improvement rather than focusing on the highly competitive aspects of sports which frequently pit one athlete against another (Swaim & McEwin, 1997).

Middle level sports programs which are developmentally inappropriate deserve attention because the health and welfare of young adolescents are at stake. Although competitive sports programs are popular with young adolescents, it does not necessarily mean it is in the best interests of young adolescents (e.g., football, wrestling). Some difficult and courageous decisions regarding offered sports and the rules and conditions for these sports are a few of the many factors to be considered by those in decision-making positions.

Related Articles
  • McEwin, C. K. & Dickinson, T. S. (1996). Placing young adolescents at risk in interscholastic sports programs. Clearing House, 69(4), 217-221.
  • McEwin, C. K., Dickinson, T. S., & Jenkins, D. M. (1996). America’s middle schools: Practices and progress: A 25 year perspective. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association. Chapter 9: Intramural and Interscholastic Sports.
  • Smith, J. W. (1994). Interscholastic athletic programs: A positive factor in school reform. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 78(559), 93-98.
  • Chambers, S. T. (1991). Factors affecting elementary school students’ participation in sports. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 413-419.
  • Dexter, R. H., & Gartside, J. T. (1992). Moving from interscholastics to intramurals. Middle School Journal, 24(2), 51-53.
  • Cicatelli, P. A., & Gaddie, C. (1992). An intramural program that fits middleschool. Middle School Journal, 24(2), 54-55.
  • Taft, T. N. (1991). Sports injuries in children. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 429-435.
References
  • Alexander, W. M., & McEwin, C. K. (1989). Schools in the middle: Status and progress. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Berryman, J. (1988). The rise of highly organized sports for preadolescent boys. In F. Smoll, R. Magill, & M. Ash (Eds.), Children in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.
  • Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Corporation
    Chambers, S. T. (1991). Factors affecting elementary school students’ participation in sports. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 413-419.
  • Cicatelli, P. A., & Gaddie, C. (1992). An intramural program that fits middle school. Middle School Journal, 24(2), 54-55.
  • Dexter, R. H., & Gartside, J. T. (1992). Moving from interscholastics to intramurals. Middle School Journal, 24(2), 51-53
  • Goldman, J. (1990). Who’s calling the plays? The School Administrator, 11, 8-16.
    Harrington, W. (1982). What do we know about what we do: Equity and curriculum research. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (Houston, TX, April 22-27, 1982).
  • McEwin, C. K., & Dickinson, T. S. (1996). Placing young adolescents at risk in interscholastic sports programs. Clearing House, 69(4), 217-221.
  • McEwin, C. K., Dickinson, T. S., & Jenkins, D. M. (1996). America’s middle schools: Practices and progress: A 25 year perspective. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Micheli, L.(1990, October 29). Children and sports. Newsweek, p. 12.
  • Micheli, L., & Jenkins, M. (1990). Sportswise: An essential guide for young athletes, coaches, and parents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • National Center for Education Statistics. (1990). National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988: Base Year Student Survey. U.S. Department of Education: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Report: NCES 90-458.
  • Ogilvie, B. C. (1988). The role of pediatric sports medicine specialists in youth sports. In J. A. Sullivan & W.A. Grana (Eds.), The pediatric athlete. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  • Priest, L., & Summerfield, L. (1994). Promoting gender equity in middle and secondary school sports programs. Washington, DC: OERI.
  • Risk to students in school. (1995). Washington, DC: Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Government Printing Office, pp 71-82.
  • Smith, J. W. (1994). Interscholastic Athletic Programs: A positive factor in school reform. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 78(559), 93-98.
  • Smith, R., Zane, N., Smoll, F., & Coppol, D. (1983). Behavioral assessment in youth sports: Coaching behaviors and children’s attitudes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 15, 208-214.
  • Swaim, J. H., & McEwin, C. K. (in press). Middle level competitive sports programs. In J. Irvin (Ed.), What research says to the middle level practitioner. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Taft, T. N. (1991). Sports injuries in children. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 429-435.
  • Valentine, J., Clark, D. C., Irvin, J. L., Keefe, J. W., & Melton, G. (1993). Leadership in middle level education: A national survey of middle level leaders and schools (2nd ed.). Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
    Vaugh, L. K. (1984). Psychological impact of organized sports on children. In L. J. Micheli (Ed.), Pediatric and adolescent sports medicine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Copyright 1999 National Middle School Association. Used on NCMSA web site with permission of NMSA.

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