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Are jocks jerks?

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donald-gibb-ogre-revenge-of-the-nerds-thumb-250x220Newsweek is asking that musical question in the first installment of a three-part series looking at sports and childhood development.

I can answer: jocks are jerks. So are nerds. So are stoners. So are cheerleaders. So are heathers. So are the religious nuts. So are the mean girls. So is every representative from every social caste in school and in life. All those representatives have nice people, too (even the mean girls). It’s just that jocks are often given the top rung in the social order, making that jerkiness more pervasive and difficult to stomach, just like how a nice jock seems as strange and wonderful as a gift from the Lord Almighty sent via the planet Zork. As long as jock culture is cited as an issue when some troubled teen shoots up his school, people are going to ask, are jocks jerks?

Kate Dailey — the writer of the Newsweek blog “The Human Condition,” host of this planned triptych of young jockdom, seems like she’s found science that proves, yes, jocks are jerks, but not before starting with a Karate Kid lede that makes me wonder if she’s related to Bill Simmons.

Depending on one’s high-school experience, there are two distinct philosophies about the role sports plays in a child’s development. There’s the idea that youth sports teaches kids discipline and respect, keeps them off the street, and helps them mature into adults: it’s sports that turned athletically gifted but insecure Daniel Larusso into The Karate Kid.

But just as pervasive is the opinion that jocks are jerks, and kids who play sports are mean bullies who will do anything to win, who need to dominate their opponents and who carry that aggressiveness streak off the field. Kids who play sports, this line of thinking goes, are more like Johnny Lawrence, star athlete (and big-time bully) from the Cobra-Kai dojo.

A recent study in the journal Developmental Psychology suggest that jocks really are jerks—if they focus exclusively on sports at the expense of other more-well rounded programs. But kids who both play sports and are exposed to youth-development program like scouting or 4-H show the most markers of personal growth and maturity.

Why cite farm-intensive 4-H? As Dailey points out, it helped pay for the study. In the grand tradition of drug companies footing the bill for medical journal research, we got the shocking revelation that the sugar daddy is a force for all that is good and right.

Maybe 4-H is as wonderful as the study says. But I’m not going to take it on face value that America’s fifth- through eighth-graders (the group studied) are future wedgie-givers if they concentrate on sports to the exclusion of all else. To be fair, neither are the study’s researchers, who say more study is needed to assess exactly how different out-of-school activities affect children’s development. Well, at least that’s what they said in the study. Here is one of the authors, Richard Lerner, director of Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development talking to Newsweek:

“Kids who are just involved in sports are focusing in on what it is to be competitive with other kids. To dominate and win and not lose: that life is a zero-sum game[.]” … That’s because more often then not, the positive lessons that one can learn through sports are often drowned out by a focus on less transcendental issues. “When you just teach kids here’s how to take a set shot, here’s how you take a jump shot … you don’t use the opportunity to work with the kids as a context how to make it in life, not just on the playing field,” Lerner says.

I agree. It’s important to tell the kids you coach that if you can hit your set shot and your jump shot, you can really make it in life!

One of the reasons youth development programs are so successful is that they provide adults who can develop a “positive and sustained relationships with that young person,” says Lerner. “A mentor.”  Having a consistent authority figure who can provide support and guidance—and who is more concerned with a child’s development then the team’s record at the end of the day—goes a long way to instilling the right values in child athletes. Prior to the beginning of a season, parents should work with coaches to ensure that kids are taught not just athletic skills, but lessons on teamwork, cooperation, and playing by the rules.

So if the coach is a win-at-all-costs asshole and parents aren’t concerned mostly about their kid’s pro prospects, that child is more likely to be a jerk. This is apparent to any of us who have spent, oh, more than two days around youth sports, even those of use who don’t have a PhD.

The mistake is assuming because it’s sports, there is a special predisposition toward jerkdom. You can see jerkiness developing among kids in any endeavor where young people are put on a pedestal at an early age by parents and mentors who believe those kids are reflecting well on them and improving their own social (and perhaps, someday, financial standing). You also can see it when any child is focused on only one activity to the exclusion of all else.

You also can see it when a kid is, well, just a jerk, no matter whether they’re in basketball or scouting.

So are jocks jerks? No more than anyone else. Now where science can do us some good is to see what subgroup is most likely to give the rest of us swirlies.

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Watch out for the church kids.

Written by rkcookjr

August 18, 2009 at 10:38 pm