Where Should Parents Draw the Line Between Sports and Education?

So, you’ve noticed that your child is having difficulty reading or performing in math.  At first, you think the school will be able to remediate the problem with their resources. However, with various trials, no positive outcome is forthcoming and your child is getting frustrated. When you were young, you had similar problems, but were able to overcome them. It worked out fine for you. Your child should be okay with time, and besides, he’s way too busy with soccer practice and the new travel team to try to fit anything else into his schedule!  But, it’s been several years, and the gap between his and his peers’ academic performance is getting wider.  Mikey is a really great soccer player and his travel team coach said he shows great promise for not only making the high school team, but for getting a scholarship to play in college. Do you hire a Speech Pathologist/Cognitive Specialist to work on his learning struggles or do you use that money to pay a coach to help your kid “go to the next level”?


Before you answer that question, let’s consider the percentage of athletes that actually play high school sports and then move on to play college sports.  Here are two charts found on the NCAA.org. The actual page on which the charts can be found is: https://on.ncaa.com/1QRZOA2.





Reviewing the charts, it seems obvious that the percentage of men that move on to college level sports is less than 15% and is more often, in the single digit percentages. With women, there is a higher percent that if, they played in high school sports, they could move on to participate in college level sports. But, the percentage is still less than 25%, and more often, in the single digit percentages.  These percentages drop significantly when these athletes try to move on to professional sports. The likelihood of an NCAA athlete earning a living as a professional athlete are between .9% and 9.5%. The full chart and methodology can be found at: https://on.ncaa.com/21wK3jx  . In contrast, the likelihood of an NCAA athlete earning a college degree is significantly greater; graduation success rates are 86% for Division I, 71% in Division II, and 87% in Division III.


What is it that determines if your child gets to play at the college level? Surprisingly, it’s not all raw talent. If you listen to several college coaches, they are not interested in athletes who are all about themselves, rather than their team. They want athletes who are passionate about the game or competition, want to help their team, want to be a better player and are willing to give their heart and soul to the sport and team. As a former NCAA DII Cross Country coach, I (the author) looked for athletes who loved the sport, had their heart in it, wanted to do the things that were best to keep their bodies in top form, and performed academically. As you can see from the charts above, there are thousands of runners that we can consider bringing into our program with athletic scholarship money.  Your kid is just one of them.


To get a scholarship and practice in the first year at a NCAA Division I school, incoming freshman must meet a series of academic requirements outlined in the table below (found at https://on.ncaa.com/1CxbYmm) . These academic requirements were changed to help make students more prepared to do college-level work and to improve graduation rates. If this minimum is not achieved, the athlete will not be permitted to participate in their selected sport regardless of how good they are.



What I’ve observed with my runners is that the ones that are focused, with great organization, study and time management skills, tend to be successful at athletics and academics.


Is academic scholarship money more valuable than athletic scholarship money since there is a limited number of athletic scholarships that a school can give?  According to the NCAA, only 1 - 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships to compete in college.  U.S. News & World Reports (https://bit.ly/2KjBxVv) found that there are approximately 138,000 athletic scholarships available for Division I and Division II sports. While that may sound like a lot, consider these two facts: (1) there are only 19,500 football scholarships available, but over 1 million high school football players; and (2) there are only 4,500 women’s track and field scholarships, but nearly 603,000 girls competing for them.  There are similar statistics for all college sports.  However, you may be surprised to find that The Wall Street Journal reported that Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, shows colleges and universities hand out more than nine times more money in academic merit scholarships than in athletic scholarships - $9.5 billion, compared with $1 billion for athletic scholarships.  (https://bit.ly/2KjBxVv)


It shouldn’t even be a question of if you are going to get your child the speech language therapy or cognitive skill development he needs; it should be a question of when.  Your child needs to make it competitively through academics to be successful in life. After high school, your child will need to pick a college, regardless of whether or not he or she participates in sports. After college, your son or daughter will need to have a job that can support his/her expected lifestyle. The chances of making it into professional sports is minimal, so it’s important to ensure that their education and the ability to present themselves to obtain a good job is of paramount importance. I know you see your child as a star, and he/she may be. But, chances are low that their selected sport will be their vocation. Many people get to do the job they LOVE; but not many are sports stars.


Jennifer was a Division 1 runner at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated in 1992 and had dreams of running in the Olympic Marathon one day. Unfortunately, Jennifer was hit by a fuel tanker truck while she was on a training run in February 1993. She was fortunate in that, if you have to be hit by a big truck, at least a Police officer saw it happen, the EMT station was right across the street and the Trauma Center was only 10 minutes away. Those circumstances probably saved her life. At that time, she was an Assistant coach at Duquesne University, but soon had to resign the position because the recovery from the traumatic accident required 16 operations and nearly 5 years of physical therapy. The doctors said she would never run again; Jennifer said she would and does! Not at the competitive level she once ran, but at least she has gotten back to the sport she loves!


Jennifer coached track at Hickory Ridge Middle School for 2 years (2011 – 2013). She followed her daughter to Hickory Ridge High School and was the Assistant Coach for one year (2012 – 2013), then promoted to the Head Coach position for both, the Cross Country and Track teams, for 4 years (2013 – 2016). Jennifer also coached Cross Country at Catawba College, a Division II college, for 3 years (2015 – 2017).


Jennifer was the Head Coach of a USATF (USA Track and Field) club team, Harrisburg Runners, for 4 years (2011 – 2014). The team was ideal for athletes between 6 – 18 years old , who wanted to run Cross Country and/or Track and Field.


Jennifer is a Level 1 Certified Coach with USATF, she’s attended many classes and has done research on how to train athletes in an effort to be a better coach.

Trying to Understand the Educational Gap Between the USA and Other Countries

Vicki Parker, Ph.D. CCC-SLP – The Brain Trainer

In 2016, I read an article on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) https://bbc.in/2gaAzN5.   It was a summary of the results of the testing of academic skills for teenagers around the world; 70 countries took part in the testing.  The report (https://bit.ly/2haYbNw)  has been turned over in my head many times since I initially read it and recently, it popped up on one of my newsfeeds.  So, I didn’t want to let it go this time without starting a discussion about the academic standing of the USA and why I think it is important.  The test is given every three (3) years, to 15-year-old students, and it focuses on science, math and reading abilities.  It also has questionnaires that ask questions about the students themselves, their homes, schools and learning experiences.  Measures of knowledge, economic equity and gender correlations were made.

Many people assume that lack of funding is one of the primary problems in the educational disparity between the nations. However, the report revealed that spending, or lack-there-of, is not why we have such a large gap between the USA and the top performing countries.  For reference: The Washington Post reports that in the USA, a range of $6,555 to $19,818, or an average of $10,700, was spent by municipalities and local governments on education per student ( https://wapo.st/2rurPoz) .  CBS news reported that the USA spends 7.3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per student, on education; world-wide the percentage was 6.3% of the GDP (https://cbsn.ws/2uMaIm4) .  I have been unable to find a specific amount or percentage for the top 10 academically achieving nations.  Since our Governmental spending does not appear to be the source of the problem, it seems possible that the cause may be our curriculum, how we teach, our personal priorities and investments in education, or our children are simply not as smart.

As I read this report these questions came to mind:

  1. 1. Our reality is that this is a global information-based job market, so why aren’t American’s concerned that we are not in the top 25 performing countries in science (25), math (35) or reading (tied 23)?

If our children will be competing for those jobs, then our academic benchmark truly becomes the global rankings.  We want our kids to be competitive so that they will be able to get into colleges, globally and nationally, and become graduates of these institutions. Who doesn’t want their child to win that big job in a competitive global market?  It is hard to come up with secure, high paying jobs that are only competitive locally. Try to come up with 10 jobs that are only competitive locally. That is nearly impossible to do in today’s world.

  1. 2. Can cognitive and academic skills change or are they what they are?

The answer is yes.  Cognitive skills can change when exercised in an appropriate hierarchy and correctly. Research at the cellular level shows that reorganization and neuro-response is possible (Seil, 2014). Tracy Alloway, Milton Dehn and many others have documented that cognitive skills can improve; there are multiple research studies on the neuroplasticity of working memory.  Besides memory, the cognitive areas that can be improved are attention abilities, auditory and visual processing, and logic and reasoning (Jaeggi, 2011). Thankfully, Countries and economies used grade repetition less frequently in 2015 than in 2009.”  Interesting to note that globally, we seem to realize repetition without any intervention is not advantageous, so we are not typically holding children back a grade to repeat the same information.  The questions that come to mind with regard to this information are: how are we providing interventions?  And, which interventions change a child’s skills, especially their cognitive skills? Why haven’t we focused on improvement of cognitive skills in grades K-3 instead of information-based curriculum?

  1. 3. We are similar to Canada in so many ways. What are they doing differently that they consistently rank in the top 10 for science (07), math (10) and reading (03)?

The small amount of research I completed on this topic showed that curriculum is consistent across providences in Canada and education is not decided on the local level.  Singapore, who is at the top of the list for all subjects, (Science, Math and Reading), also has a centralized curriculum.

The USA is a leader in neuroscience, yet our curriculums at critical developmental periods are not cognitively based.  We hold on to a traditional calculus curriculum over the more relevant problem-solving and comparison math of statistics.  The trends reported on: “How much time students spend learning?" and "How science is taught" are even more strongly associated with science performance and the expectations of pursuing a science-related career than how well-equipped and –staffed the science department is, which extracurricular science activities are offered at school and science teacher’ qualifications, OECD 2016).”  What I pull from this paragraph is that how we teach matters.  So, the questions we need to pose to those training teachers and shaping curriculum are: "How are we training teachers?" and "Do we spend enough time on science in our schools to give students exposure?"

Research around the world supports “early intervention and education” yet, in America, we don’t have initiatives that support this.  Currently we are backing away from early start programs such as Head Start.

Another area to explore would be the emphasis and heavy pressure to participate at high levels that we (Americans) put on our students to play after school/school sanctioned sports and weekend travel sports.  In my own experience working with students in elementary school through college, this passion is often prioritized over academics and with some parents is a goal to progress their child on a sports long-term career path.  Parents often get caught up in the dream instead of working the problem backwards in reality: where will their child end up spending their most time? The simple answer: in the work force. In September 2017, USA Today Sports reporter, Adam Shell, found that “20% of families spent $12,000 a year or $1000 a month on youth sports per child.”  TD Ameritrade also found that “most American families (63%) spend anywhere from $100 to $499, per child, each month on youth sports.  Another 18% fork over $500 to $999 monthly.  Roughly one in 10 (11%) spends $1000 to $1999.  On the high end, 8% spend $2000 per month or more, or $24,000 – plus per year.” This may actually be a contributing reason for the academic gap between the children in the USA and other countries. Parents choose to spend their money on athletic endeavors, hoping their child will be the next LeBron James, Tom Brady or A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) rather than giving their children a great education that will last a lifetime and help them in the way that the majority of people spend their adult lives… in the work force.

What are your thoughts on USA’s ranking on the PISA test and why we can’t move the education needle forward as a country for the majority of our students?

In two weeks, cross country and track running coach, Jennifer Duft, will share her insights about sports and education.



The Organisation for Economic Co-operational and Development (OCED) 2015 report.

Alloway, R. and Alloway T.P. (2013) The New IQ: Use Your Working Memory to Think Stronger, Smarter, Faster. Fourth Estate Ltd

Alloway, T.P.  (2010) Improving Working Memory: Supporting Students' Learning.  SAGE Publications

Dehn, M.J.  (2011) Helping Students Remember: Exercises and Strategies to Strengthen Memory.  Wiley.

Doidge, N. (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.  Penguin Group. NY, NY

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Shah, P. (2011). Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(25), 10081-10086.

Seil, FJ. (2014) The changeable nervous system: studies on neuroplasticity in cerebellar cultures. j.neuobiorev. Pg. 212 – 32


Valeo, T., (2008) Dyslexia Studies Catch Neuroplasticity at Work.

Dana Organization. http://www.dana.org/Publications/Brainwork/Details.aspx?id=43755

Coughlan, S. (2016) Pisa tests: Singapore top in global education rankings. www.BBC.com/news/education-38212070

Gurria, A. (2015) PISA 2015: PISA Results in Focus. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf

The Associated Press (2013) U.S. education spending tops global list, study shows. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-education-spending-tops-global-list-study-shows/