When study gets tough, the tough play sport

Daphne Pirie (nee Welch '49)
Daphne Pirie (nee Welch ’49)

Ms Sally Northcroft, Director of Sport

Underpinning sport at Brisbane Girls Grammar School is the fact that academic progress and achievement is a pre-cursor to following any sporting dreams. Daphne Pirie (nee Welch ’49), no doubt the best athlete in the School at the time, was reminded of this when she was banned from representing the School in the Interschool Athletics  and Interform Athletics because Lady Principal, Miss Lilley, believed that “Daphne was in too many sports to the detriment of her school work.” (Harvey-Short, 2011).

One could forgive Miss Lilley for not understanding how much of an impact this would have on Daphne, but also because the absolute expectation was that academic work took priority over sport. In 2011, Daphne was awarded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Women and Sport trophy for Oceania in recognition of her life-long commitment to women and sport. Upon reflection, given Daphne’s passion for her sport, it could be argued that in this case, her sport and her schooling were of equal value. Or perhaps, it may have in fact been that Daphne has achieved so greatly in life as a result of her sport participation, and not because of her improved results in French!

In the same year that Daphne was recognised by the IOC, Brisbane Girls Grammar School awarded the Dux of the School prize to Caitlin Clifford, who interestingly, was also the QGSSSA School Sports Captain. However, had Caitlin been at school with Daphne, she may not have had the opportunity to be given such a significant leadership position in the School, and neither may she have been given the absolute honour of representing her school in both Swimming and Water Polo, all while achieving the ultimate academic prize. So, if we apply a similar line of questioning — we could ask, was it because Caitlin played sport that she was able to achieve so much academically?

What is the impact of playing sport on academics? Is there a case for encouraging the participation of sport alongside the pursuit of academic excellence? We know that there are certain benefits to being physically active, but is there a case for actually pursuing sport in order to benefit your academic and future career aspirations?

The health benefits of physical activity are well documented and accepted. The Mayo Clinic (2014) explains many of them and they extend to include improved sleeping patterns, improved concentration, healthier self-image and improved overall health-related fitness components (aerobic and muscular endurance, flexibility and muscular strength). It is well accepted that a baseline level of physical fitness has the potential to provide students with the best platform upon which to achieve better grades due to improved overall health (Trudeau & Shephard, 2008, and Chaddock, 2012).

In addition, the link between brain function and improved physical fitness has been published worldwide (Rosewater, 2009). The inclusion of physical activity is now seen as one of the accepted treatments for Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients in order to alleviate memory loss and improve brain function (Blondell, Hammersley-Mather & Veerman, 2014).

Now let us consider the impact of engaging in the structure and competition associated with playing a sport compared to simply being physically active. Some benefits of playing sport have been well publicised. The psycho-social benefits such as increased self-esteem, an increased feeling of connectedness to the School, an improvement in self-identity, and a provision of a connection to social groups — this last benefit being a highly-desired outcome for adolescent girls (Rosewater, 2009).

There are also a number of life skills that girls learn from playing sport. Some girls learn communication skills by overcoming their shyness and others learn to listen better by being less outspoken. Organisational skills develop and girls learn to work together on the playing field — they also begin to understand that being successful also means many failed attempts. Girls learn to deal with adversity and to put the situation into perspective when a match is lost in the last minute due to the uncontrollable factors that are presented on the court. The persistence and discipline displayed in activities such as getting up in the cold early hours of the morning and staying behind at the end of training to work on a particular skill, are invaluable life skills that will transfer to the next stage of their journey (Kniffin, Wansink & Shimizu, 2014, Holt, Tamminen, Tink & Black 2003, and IOC, 2014).

Finally, there are the leadership and service opportunities that exist in the sporting environment and honing these attributes can make girls better prepared for university and their future careers. Recent research has highlighted the fact that ‘student-athletes — captains and non-captains alike — tend to be exposed to important pro-social values through experiences that provide them with generalizable and persistent skills and lessons for life and work outside of sports’ (Sitkin & Hackman, 2011). The most remarkable report that has been released on the link between leadership skills and sports participation is by Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons. His research showed a major contrast between the childhood experiences of male and female CEOs. All but two (out of 30) of the male CEOs that Fitzsimmons interviewed had captained football teams (Fitzsimmons, 2011). They had learned leadership and other skills broadly applicable to work life prior to entering the workforce. In her 2011 article, The Secret To Being A Power Woman: Play Team Sports, author Jenna Groudreau states:

Playing team sports in school not only helps women succeed in business, it sends them straight to the top. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in her native India; Kraft Foods CEO Irene Rosenfeld played four varsity sports in high school and college basketball at Cornell University in New York; and SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro played lacrosse and field hockey at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. A sports background instilled in them valuable lessons for the boardroom, a mental and emotional toughness and the ability to speak a key business language obscured to those who don’t ‘get’ sports.

It seems there is sufficient evidence, therefore, that sport participation should be encouraged and promoted for the duration of girls’ time in school. The unfortunate trend is that girls’ participation in sport is declining as they age from 14 to 17 years. In the USA, girls’ participation in sport decreases by 23 per cent as they go from middle school (Years 6, 7 & 8) to high school (Sabo, 2013). In 2012, Brisbane Girls Grammar School reflected similar reductions: in 2012, 55 per cent of the girls in Year 9 were involved in sporting activities and in a cross-sectional comparison, 28 per cent of the girls in Year 11 participated in sport. Participation data from the United Kingdom reflects a similar trend in that between the ages of 5-8 and 17-19, girls’ activity drops by 66 per cent — from 91 per cent to 31 per cent (DCSF, Children and Young People’s Participation in Organised Sport Survey, 2009). Similarly, the 2012/2013 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reflects a decrease in the percentages of girls participating in organised sport as they age from eight to fourteen years old. Unfortunately, the ABS does not gather the same statistical data for children aged 15 and older.

Over and above the social capital and the health benefits, perhaps the positive relationship between playing sport and academic performance will be the determining factor that keeps girls involved in sport — particularly as the growing body of evidence presents the benefits of playing sport in order to improve at best, or maintain at worst, academic performances while in school.

Hobsons Research Agency released a report that identified: ‘ … There is a correlation in the data suggesting that student performance in regards to grades increases as their participation in sporting activities elevates in secondary school’ (2014). Further research has identified the future potential economical value of participating in sport (Kniffin, et al 2014). In this particular publication, two studies examined how the participation in competitive youth sports appears to be relevant for early-career job prospects as well as late-in-life outcomes. A well-documented trend identified that student-athletes ‘tend to earn significantly higher incomes than people who do not play sports’ and these athletes also learn a set of skills (identified earlier as life skills) that are highly valued as bargaining commodities in the workplace.

Multiple studies (Eccles, 2003, Hartmann 2008, Marsh & Kleitman 2003) have reported on the relationship between sport participation and academic performance. Structured activities, especially sports, have a positive relationship with school grades and interscholastic team sports produce stronger academic effects due to their formalised rules, level of commitment required and the competition associated with the activity (Broh, 2002). Marsh and Kleitman (2003) also reported that participation in high school sports had positive effects on many Grade 12 postsecondary outcomes. Both Feijgn and Broh had reported these outcomes previously. In his fixed-effects approach to evaluate the extent to which ‘extracurricular involvement increases human capital’, Lipscomb’s (2007) research indicated that the benefits of playing sport is associated with a 2 per cent increase in math and science test scores. In addition, participation in sport is associated with a 5 per cent increase in Bachelor degree attainment expectations.

As we digest these findings, it can be argued that the sport itself may not be solely accountable for the causal linkage to the likelihood of improved academic results. The health benefits and the life-skill acquisition contribute to the teenage girls’ set of tools in order to create the best sculpture of her envisaged self.

Had Miss Lilley known about this research, I am sure she would have reconsidered allowing Daphne to compete. Or perhaps, the life lesson of persistence and overcoming adversity was a life skill that Daphne needed to motivate her to be the irrepressible role model she ultimately became. And what of all the girls who decide to stop playing sport to focus on their schoolwork?

Perhaps it is worth reconsidering how their participation in sport could help them achieve the grades they are looking for. Perhaps they will be more organised and more determined because they play sport and perhaps the physically, socially and emotionally challenging aspects of sport stimulates our girls’ brain function so they are able to produce their best work — both on the field and in the classroom. Perhaps, they may also need the experience of playing on a sporting team to demonstrate to their future employers that they have the leadership skills that will get them the promotion they deserve!

Next time, if your daughter discusses the idea of stopping playing sport, you might want to quote the title of this article to her — or better yet, take her to training yourself; secure in the knowledge that you are contributing to her academic performance.


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