Student Athletics Helps Improve Grades and Graduation Rates

While much of the current focus on high school athletics is on the impact of concussions in football and other contact sports, given the potential for injury, it is worth examining whether or not engagement in high school athletics leads to improved academic performance and graduation rates.  A few years ago, a comprehensive study of high school student athletes in Kansas demonstrated that despite no statistically significant difference in ACT scores (i.e., student athletes are not necessarily smarter), student athletes had significantly better grades, higher graduation rates, and lower drop out rates.  Of significant interest is the fact that these academic gains were shown across race and gender.

My closest observation of student athletics is through my son who participates in high school soccer, hockey and track & field.  While there are certainly times that I have concerns that his participation in athletics leads to insufficient sleep, as he comes home late from games or practices with homework yet to do, I also notice that he is more disciplined during sports seasons than during the off season.

One of the challenges in high school sports is how to deal with student athletes who do not maintain minimum academic standards.  While student athletes certainly should not be given a free pass to fail academically, the documented academic benefit of participation in student athletics suggests that school districts should provide more tutoring and social work resources towards enabling student athletes to continue to participate in the sports they love, leading to long term academic success rather than dropping out of high school.

My personal anecdotal evidence for the importance of student athletics is also strong.  I have watched some of my son’s teammates work harder academically in order to be able to play on his teams.  While others have had to drop out of sports due to academic failure, I do not believe these sports drop outs have led to improved academic performance.  After all, they have been forced to give up something they loved and kept them physically healthy, when tutoring or social work services could have kept them involved in sports and improved their academic performance.

My son’s high school hockey team has a tradition of hosting a Staff Appreciation Night during one home game each year.  Each player and student manager invites a school staff member  who means something special to them.  The staff wear the players’ away jerseys and receive a new appreciation for how hard their student athletes work.  Most important is the knowledge that both students and staff receive that they appreciate each other.  As my son’s teacher told me last night,

It is a privilege to be invited by your son to watch him play hockey.


One of my son’s teammates told me that he invited his teacher because that teacher,

always takes time to help people.

These relationships cannot be measured through grades or testing, but pictures such as these speak volumes as to the value of high school student athletics.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.