Teens increasingly channeled into just one sports stream

March 25, 2017 by  
Filed under Canadian Sport Features

In high schools, teens increasingly channeled into just one sports stream

A gym class plays indoor soccer at Nepean High School. March 20, 2017.
A gym class plays indoor soccer at Nepean High School. March 20, 2017. ERROL MCGIHON / POSTMEDIA


In a snapshot from a local gymnasium, Nepean High School teachers Wayne Bifolchi and Scot Symes aim to spark athletic skills in their busy facilities. Part three of Wayne Scanlan‘s four-part series on sports specialization and youth fitness. 

At Nepean High School they take pride in breaking sweat.

Despite the fact Ontario students only require one high school gym credit, teachers here say registrations for phys-ed class are as strong as ever. Where many high schools only have a handful of phys-ed teachers, Nepean boasts 11 full or part-time teachers teaching phys-ed, a fitness program or outdoor education.

Yet, even in this 95-year-old building where the ancient gymnasium hums a busy tune, veteran teachers have seen a drastic change in the students they teach. Wayne Bifolchi has taught phys-ed at Nepean for 20 years; Scot Symes, 19 years.

In a roundtable discussion, the teachers explained how a wide disparity of skills has emerged in gym class. Nepean boasts many accomplished athletes, but also a vast number that don’t dabble in sport, or are locked into one only.

“Most kids knew all the games,” says Symes. “Some were better than others, for sure, but now you’ll have very elite kids playing with kids who may not even know the rules.”

Many lack fundamental movement skills.

“Throwing is one of the big ones,” Bifolchi says. “They can’t throw. They all kind of run and play. They have some agility. But throwing a ball, it’s wild, how it’s become lost.”

When Bifolchi was handing out baseball gloves for a recent gym class, one Grade 9 student didn’t know if he needed a left-hand or right-hand glove, which meant he also didn’t know which hand he threw with. Symes concurs this is not uncommon.

Learning to hit a baseball is another adventure. Of course, there are baseball players here who excel in the sport and play for the school team.

Over time, athletics in schools have become channeled into streams. An elite group that is focused on a single sport, a few dabblers, and then the non-participants. Increasingly rare is the athlete with the time and inclination to play for more than one team.

Team sports like hockey and soccer are the usual suspects for monopolizing players. Yet, Bifolchi and Symes make a strong case that athletes involved in intense individual sport – like gymnastics, swimming, skiing, are the least adaptable to other sports.

READ: The temptation and risk of being a one-sport, year-round athlete

More than once they have been stunned to learn that the boy or girl incapable of performing simple activities in the gym is actually a provincial-level swimmer or water polo player outside of school with a demanding training schedule.

The emphasis on early club sport has changed the culture at high school.

“You could come to high school and pick a sport,” Symes says. “Now they’re picking them at age 10.”

Good luck cracking the school basketball team as a walk-on when the majority of players have had a three or four-year head start from club play.

Rugby earns praise as one of the few high school sports that gives students a chance at learning a great new game, while earning a spot in the lineup, too. That’s because many players get introduced to the sport at this level, and then branch out to join local rugby clubs or play at university.

As for good old gym class, Bifolchi likes to promise parents of incoming students that their child will take part in 18 sports and games in the year ahead, including ultimate Frisbee and lacrosse.

“We make the kids do everything,” Bifolchi says. “Some things they will like, some they won’t, but they will at least get a lot of different activity.”

Get fit

A popular option – and in some cases a supplement to gym class – is the fitness credit course. It gives students a chance to stay active and build strength, but avoid some of the games with which so many kids lack familiarity. Here students do fitness activities and lift weights. One day recently, Bifolchi ran a little soccer program and a student was in tears – she signed up for fitness to avoid those gym games.

Sparks lights fuse 

In the past decade, numerous global studies have shown a link between exercise and improved brain function and academic scores (more on this in part four of this series).

At Nepean, they learned this first-hand a few years ago when they were among the Ontario schools to introduce the ‘Spark’ learning program. Identifying 12 to 15 of their highest-need students in Grade 10, the school altered their schedules to ensure they started the day – every day – with phys-ed.

The results were astonishing. Across the board, academic scores rose dramatically.


“If you get kids here, and active first thing, they’re going to stay for the day and have a bit more success,” Symes says. “If you’re bad at math and you have it first class, you want to go home.”

That Spark program has evolved to a more widespread application – all Grades 9 and 10 students at Nepean have gym or fitness in their first two classes of the day. Early circulation of cardiovascular systems continue to reap rewards in brain function.

Not every school is as active as Nepean.

PHE weighs in 

PHE Canada, the professional organization for physical and health educators, has reason to admire Ontario’s neighbour to the west. Manitoba is the only province in the country to have mandatory gym class from K-12.

Seems simple enough. A mere 30 minutes of PE per day. Yet, Manitoba is the outlier.

Stephanie Talsma, a PHE program manager with seven years of experience teaching phys-ed and youth sport in Inuvik, wishes the rest of Canada would take a page from Manitoba’s book.

“If that province can do it, why can’t everyone mandate that amount of time in the curriculum,” Talsma says. “Recognize the importance of health and physical education in terms of developing those transferable, fundamental movement skills for kids.

“We’re not doing a great job at getting the kids the quality physical education that is required.”

MORE: Senators strength coach alarmed over declining youth athletic skills

Talsma cites the 2015 declaration by UNESCO that physical education is a “fundamental human right.” In most high schools in Canada, school boards exercise their right to decline phys-ed, except as a single credit one-off.

In theory, providing quality phys-ed for 30 minutes a day is a no-brainer, especially with so much documentation about the merits of being active in an academic setting. Yet, Talsma says the true benefits of daily phys-ed for youth are often viewed in a longitudinal context. Chronic, long-term health care issues are not considered as urgent as Canada’s latest mathematics scores, even if math students need exercise too.

PHE cites the need for “quality” physical education. In Ontario, less than half the elementary school phys-ed is taught by trained PE teachers. Worst case scenario – a teacher who grew up loathing gym winds up teaching gym as an adult. What chance does he or she have of igniting a spark? Others take the initiative to get the qualifications needed to be a good gym teacher.

Movement skills. Social interaction. Life-long recreational opportunities. Improved academics. Active participation. Better sleeping patterns. Stress release. A break from screen time. All of these are promoted in physical education class.

“We are talking about developing the whole child,” Talsma says. “PE educators can instill attitudes and behaviours at a young age. We want them active for life and they need that early confidence.”

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