Sport: the underrated educational powerhouse

Limited attention spans can be addressed by introducing sports as a context.
Most subjects can be enlivened through the lens of sport.

Sport has the power to change the world and I challenge educators to bring it into the classroom.

We live in an attention economy, and it is becoming tricky to engage students in higher education curricula. Research shows students are bored and disengaged because they can’t link theory to practice or relate to the context and the content is difficult. Social media provides a dopamine and online video games and TikTok come with enticing bells and whistles. It’s a tough match for traditional maths, literature, and science learning. Sport is exciting, unpredictable, and universally relevant and presents a unique context to distil lessons for from maths and science to economics and ethics.

The 2020 Olympic Games offer critical life lessons for survival and ready to be tapped in lessons. The soft skills sport participation provides are well known – optimising leadership tapping resilience, teamwork, compassion, and commitment, are on full display during these Games and sport. As a platform instantly resonating with youth, sport content is also a ready-made to be brought into every classroom.

As an educator, I appreciate how difficult it is to engage young undergraduate tertiary students, especially in this COVID-19 era, and can only imagine the challenges faced by teachers holding the attention of pre-schoolers through to pubescent high school students. There is no reason why hard or technical skills need to be communicated in a vacuum. The context of sport can bring to life otherwise dry subject matter and prove the relevance of the curriculum to the field, the arena, and the podium. These lessons translated well – whether it be to school and university students, or executives. The pandemic-induced need to convert to virtual and hybrid learning environments only serves to elevate the need to provide more engaging educational content, and sport is the answer.

In maths we can be analysing using high performance, injury prevention, probability modelling and longitudinal statistics in fascinating lessons for statistics, probability, modelling, data analysis, coding and prediction or the physics of the skate and BMX bowls, the surf, the velodrome, and pole vaults are easily a handy backdrop in gravity, linear motion and waves, sport offers a plethora of content.

In legal studies, we can consider integrating legal, ethical and governance issues canvassing the strict liability doping regime and some of its unintended consequences.

We can shine the spotlight on diversity and inclusion in sport and human rights and safeguarding of minors – now so critical in sport. The complexity of contracts and international conventions attached to mega-sporting events also provide rich insights into civil law, criminal law, negligence, anti-discrimination, and human rights.

Sport diplomacy, demonstrated by collaborative negotiations by participating countries, international sports federations, and the IOC, or by diplomats in tracksuits highlighted by the sharing of a gold medal by two high jumpers, or the participation of a refugee team, provides a valuable lesson in international relations. Three different nationalities of athletes on a winners’ podium visibly embody peace and celebration, and the logistical collaboration needed to permit the Games to proceed in Tokyo is a terrific study in not only diplomacy, but crisis management, that should be compulsory curricula. “Write an essay on how athletes or sport have promoted international relations, providing examples.”

In economics, we can calculate the economic and social legacy of the Olympics, and undertake a cost-benefit analysis, some macroeconomic modelling and draw on longitudinal data from other

Games to determine the most and least successful Games, critique policy formulation and extrapolate to the New Norm Games in Brisbane for 2032. I rest my case.

While these sporting lessons can fill out an exciting and engaging curriculum, the leading story in sport is just that – leadership education is accessible in athlete humility in victory and defeat, courage in a fallen athlete finishing the event, sharing a gold medal, the pride in flag bearers, and the honesty of perseverance. Let’s never forget the grit of these athletes after waiting five years to compete, in tough COVID restricted conditions only to quarantine. The stories give us all optimism and perspective, and hopefully motivation to engage with sport. So why not integrate these lessons into our classrooms?

What a powerful educator sport is. 

Sarah Kelly is an Associate Professor in Law and Marketing at the University of Queensland Business School and an experienced commercial lawyer. She is globally known for her research, speaking and consulting in the sports field and is also co-leading a research hub at UQ in Trust, Ethics and Governance. She teaches Sports Law and Marketing, has won awards for her teaching, and provides strategic mentorship to sports technology start-up companies. Sarah is a visiting fellow at Loughborough University Institute of Sport, London and OP Jindal University, Delhi. Her current research projects are focused upon esports, women's sport, sports integrity, and mega-event legacy.