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March Madness

The NCAA basketball playoffs started with 65 of the very best college basketball teams in the nation. As this article is being written, the field is down to the "Sweet Sixteen." After next weekend the remaining survivors will be known as "The Final Four." The whole tournament is sometimes called March Madness. To me March madness covers much more -- the college women's basketball playoffs and boys' and girls' high school district, regional and state basketball tournaments. This is a very exciting time of the year if we care about what our young people care about, or if you just care about basketball.

One question a non-sports person might ask is why an educational program includes a sports program. Why not just stick to the basics like reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and the rest? After all, students in America don't lead the world in many important categories of academic skills and achievement.

Specifically, why should basketball (or football, hockey, track, baseball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, etc.) be included in a school program? Admittedly, sports sometimes get over-emphasized and get out of perspective in the big picture of education. In some countries, sports programs are all outside school systems and conducted through private clubs. I believe there is value in having interschool sports as part of our public school programs. (Music, drama and arts programs have value as well, but that is another article.) When sports are outside the schools, fewer are able to participate for various reasons including family and financial limitations.

For those who do not participate in sports there is still the value in pulling the student body together as a community. Social skills and the spirit of community probably develop more outside the classroom than in it. Students who understand and appreciate community tend to be those who show up to stack sandbags when the floods threaten.

Those who do participate gain obvious health benefits. Exercise, coordination and physical conditioning can become habits of a lifetime. Obesity is a national health hazard and a shameful disgrace in this country, but not among those who participate in sports. There is more to good health than just diet and medicine. Fitness is a major factor. The more students who participate, the healthier the student body. Besides, exercise helps release those endorphins, the "feel good" hormones.

Obviously, everybody likes to win. If winning is a team goal, planning ahead becomes part of the process and goal setting and planning must include the players as well as the coaches. Goal setting and planning can and should be lifetime habits as well.

There is even value in sitting on the bench. Substitutes work hard at practice, then sit and wait during the games. They're learning about patience, waiting their turn, maturing, developing new skills and understanding that we can't all play leading roles. Some have to work their way up to that level and some never get there. Lots of growing up takes place on the bench.

That growing up may include the recognition that more dedication and hard work may be necessary to get more playing time. It may even be the recognition that the skill level is not there and another sport or activity may be a better choice. I had a friend in high school who had hands like boards. He couldn't play basketball if his life depended on it. But he was quick, strong and agile. He was a wonderful football player -- as long as he never got his hands on the football.

Students who are successful on teams are usually genuine team players. If a team doesn't work together, it doesn't work. Those who don't understand that the team is more important than its individual members eventually are shuttled off to the sidelines, and they will stay on the sidelines until they learn the value of teamwork. That may be forever. On the other hand, learning the value of teamwork can be a "forever" skill.

A winning team requires many different skills and roles. In basketball, scoring is important, but everybody must play defense and some are required to rebound, make assists, steal the ball and some just lead by showing poise and leadership without any other outstanding skills.

The final factor is the fun factor -- the spirit and joy of healthy competition have value. Life can't all be economic woes, worry, homework, hard work and misery. We all need to take a break and enjoy something outside the box of our daily duties. We can do that with music, art, drama or sports. But in March, the main madness is basketball.