Fixing behavior in sports requires reconsidering how we measure the return on investment


— Anne Marie Anderson’s son was 7 years old when he told her he wanted to die.

Anderson, who has more than 30 years experience as a sports reporter for various national networks, was the keynote speaker on Monday night at the Behavior in Sports Summit hosted by the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis.

Her son’s story helped set the tone for why high school sports stakeholders from across the nation are meeting for three days searching for solutions to the behavioral crisis in youth and high school sports.

It’s been well reported that behavior in youth and high school sports has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of official conducted by the N.C. High School Athletic Association last year found that more than half considered quitting since the pandemic, and 63% said bad behavior by fans, coaches, and players made officiating less rewarding. 66% said they believe spectator behavior is worse than ever.

The NFHS organized the Behavior in Sports Summit to address these concerns. The summit is a search for solutions. Anderson began the discussion on Monday.

People desire a sense of community

Anderson believes it all comes back to community, and during the pandemic, as people were isolated from one another, the sense of community broke down. This meant kids weren’t playing sports, they weren’t going to school, they weren’t with their friends. Their parents were not able to go to games and cheer with other parents, they weren’t able to spend time in the school.

“When we came back together and we were again in proximity, people didn’t really know how to behave,” she said, adding that she has seen this play out in other countries as she has traveled covering sports. “There’s all types of different communities and you’re either in or out. Well, in or out can be a trigger for some people.”

That’s where parents come into play, Anderson says.

“They don’t want their kid to be left out. There’s all kinds of different parents that I’ve observed in all these years sitting in the stands for my three kids,” she said.

The first type of parent Anderson identified was the emotionally over-invested parent. This is the parent who has spent a lot of money on their child playing sports before middle or high school, and now they’re looking for the return on investment.

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“They get really frustrated when a coach doesn’t play their kid because it’s hurting their investment. They think when an official makes a call against their child, they’re not letting them shine. It hurts their investment,” Anderson said.

Another parent Anderson identified is the one who didn’t make the team themselves in high school, and now they see their kid as their chance at redemption.

“Now is their chance. Their kid is playing, so their kid’s a reflection of them,” she said. “See, if their kid is good, then they prove, ‘Yeah, see, I’m athletic’ … They’re literally looking for their child’s success on the court, in the pool, in the field, wherever it is, to validate their own experience and heal a wound that’s been sitting there forever.”

Finally, there’s the parent that Anderson calls “the super athlete parent.” This is the parent who had many athletic accomplishments growing up, won championships, was considered an all-star.

“We have to address these parents, and we have to figure out what the trigger is for them,” she said.

Bringing it home

According to the NCAA, fewer than 2% of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships in college. And most athletic scholarships that are awarded are not full scholarships. That simple fact helps frame why high school sports are important.

More than 98% of all high school athletes will not earn a college scholarship to play a sport. That means most high school athletes will end their competitive athletic careers when they graduate high school. But the skills, lessons, and strategies they learn by being part of a team.

Anderson has seen this play out for her children as well. She has a child who has been very successful in athletics and is part of the fewer than 2%. But her son who has faced mental health challenges since he was a young child has had a different experience.

Her son struggled to create community for himself, but going into his freshman year of high school he decided to try out for the water polo team. He made it.

“I didn’t expect what happened after that. All of a sudden, (her son) had a place to belong. He was part of something … He went to everything in that school — every play, every concert, every football and basketball game, whatever it was. He went along,” Anderson said. “He was thrilled as he could be because he was part of something.”

During that semester, Anderson’s son had the best grades of his life. There is research that demonstrates high school athletes do better in school than students who are not participating in athletics. That was the case for Anderson’s son.

After water polo season, Anderson’s son made the swim team. It wasn’t quite the same though. The team aspect of water polo was much different than swimming.

“He started to slide down, became less invested, wanted to quit the swim team. I didn’t let him do that, but he really didn’t enjoy it, and his grades started to suffer badly. I kept trying, and teachers were trying to help … but I just saw him spiraling down,” Anderson recalled. “He was angry. He was uncomfortable. He was isolated. He didn’t have his team anymore.”

Anderson’s son ended up failing biology class, which meant he would be ineligible to play water polo the next season. His water polo coach called him and he said, ‘I really need you to be part of this team next year, and in order to be part of this team, you’ve got to remediate that course. You’ve got to take biology again, and you’ve got to pass it.’

Her son ended up washing trashcans in the neighborhood to earn enough money to pay for his summer school classes. He got his eligibility back too.

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Recently, Anderson called her son’s water polo coach — something she said she never does.

“I said, ‘Can I ask you a question? Why do you care? Just one kid. Why did you care?’ And that coach said, ‘I saw how happy he was last year being part of this team. I seem him on the campus, he eats lunch alone. I wanted him to be on the team again, and I knew that he wasn’t eligible to play. He wouldn’t have his teammates. If he didn’t have his teammates, his depression gets worse, and if his depression gets worse, he wasn’t going to do schoolwork. I was afraid that he would become a statistic,'” Anderson said, recalling her conversation with the water polo coach.

“We certainly know what isolation does — the rise of anxiety, and depression, and isolation, and suicide during COVID. We know. I know. I know exactly what he was saying,” Anderson said. “And (the coach) said, ‘So I saw a kid that I could help, and I wanted him to be part of the team.'”

The coach didn’t make the decision to help Anderson’s son because of his athletic ability, but because there was something more that her son could get out of participating on a team. That was the return on investment for Anderson and her family.

“That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re trying to figure this out,” Anderson said about the NFHS Behavior in Sports Summit. “It’s never been about the score. It’s never been about the parents who make it about that. It’s creating these experiences for our kids that help them develop.”

HighSchoolOT Managing Editor Nick Stevens is in Indianapolis this week at the NFHS Behavior in Sports Summit. He will be participating in a panel discussion about the role of social media in sports behavior. Look for more coverage of the summit throughout the week on HighSchoolOT.

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