Education for P.E. and Sport Coaching

Recently an excerpt from a piece on the lost continuum between Physical Education and Sport was linked on the NSCA Long Term Athletic Development SIG page in Facebook.  You can check it out here .  Basically it reviewed the bifurcation of physical education and sport coaching and the current state of affairs which finds youth sport coaches embarking on their pathways with little formal education and possibly providing hazardous consequences for youth athletes. 

This brought up some thoughts that have been running around in my head for a while so I thought I’d put them out there. 

Some Historical Thoughts:  The U.S. was predominantly rural from its founding and did not become 50% urbanized until the 1920’s.  People living in rural areas more than likely made a living by engaging in demanding physical labor.  Consequently the U.S. as a whole did not develop a cultural appreciation for P.E. since most of its citizens were engaged in physical jobs.  Europeans, on the other hand, had an extensive history of living in cities and realized the need for proper physical activity.  As a result Physical Education was respected as a legitimate academic major and if you look at some of the literature of that period on the subject, P.E. experts were referred to as “Professor”. 

The Soviet Model:  I was fortunate to be able to attend a presentation at the Central Institute of Physical Culture of the Soviet Union in 1989.  Doctor Popov, the head of the institute, explained the course for students.  Applicants had to take a two day admissions exam in math and science.  Only the highest scorers were admitted to the institute.  For the first two years all students took courses in math and science.  At the conclusion of the second year they could choose one of three career pathways: physical education teacher, sport coach or sport scientist.  The great thing to come out of this was these groups had a common educational experience and hence a common language.  Moreover once they set out on their career pathways they could communicate so that sport scientists had access to physical education students and athletes for research purposes, and physical education teachers and sport coaches could consult with sport scientists about possible solutions within their specialties.  Note that candidates to become sport coaches did not have to have any credentials as athletes. 

The Diminution of P.E.: Beginning in the early 20th century, the U.S. did something that no other nation has done.  We began conducting sports programs through high schools and colleges.  Scholarships were given to athletes who were academically unqualified for university work.  In order to maintain eligibility administrators made these “scholar-athletes” into P.E. majors and removed much of the rigor from the P.E. curriculum.  This had the immediate effect of reducing the cachet of the discipline.  In the 1970’s, school districts began removing required P.E. courses from their high school requirements and hence the number of P.E. jobs was significantly reduced.  Most of the positions cut were based on seniority so only the old guard was left to teach high school P.E.  Realizing this sudden drop in the job market was looming, many universities eliminated their traditional P.E. major and replaced it with some version of Sport Science. 

Differentiation:  The general public needs to differentiate between P.E. and Sports.  They are not necessarily the same, but they both have a common educational base.  Both are involved with the practice of modifying the functionality of protoplasm so both should have some educational background in the nature of protoplasm not to mention physics, chemistry, biomechanics, anatomy and sport psychology.  The two disciplines are basically working at different portions of the spectrum.  The P.E. instructors are concerned that all of the population is functioning at certain minimal levels of physicality and ideally inspired to improve.  Sport coaches are mostly involved with teaching sport specific skills, and the ability to perform them upon demand while simultaneously developing the capacity of the body to deal with increased stressor levels.  Both can have a marked effect on the psyches of the participants. 

What now? It appears as though more and more of youth sport activities are taking place outside of schools.  This is not of itself a problem.  The best thing I can see about conducting sports programs in schools is that the schools are legally empowered to do a more thorough job of vetting the coaches, which they may or may not choose to do.  More and more youth sports activities are taking place through the auspices of private clubs.  This is so that the parents can have more input on the organization of the program and the hiring of coaches. 

Right now one of the few protections that I see is sports leagues requiring certifications from a sport governing body.  This is in no way foolproof, but it might be a deterrent for those coaches interested in continuing as a coach in the sport. 

And so….As a nation we are in need of cultural leadership in the physical education and sports participation of youth (and of adults too—another topic for another day).  What is really needed is a coalition of medical, healthcare and mental health professionals, parent groups, educators and major sports organizations demanding a system of standards, guidelines, practices, education and enforcement regarding physical activities for youth.  Unfortunately we all too often don’t do things because they’re the right thing, but rather the profitable thing.