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LET'S GET THE BALL ROLLING HERE--we've all heard and used sports metaphors. These sayings are par for the course when it comes to daily communication, and one must roll with the punches or risk being left on the sidelines. Sports metaphors help to provide context to unfamiliar situations, but they also come with loaded messages that we must consider before we drop the ball on the development of children. This is especially important in academic settings in which engagement is crucial to learning outcomes.

Teaching core skills with sports


Nelson Mandela famously said, "Sport has the power to change the world." Without a doubt, sports are one of the most powerful forces in our world. Played under sets of rules that bridge language and cultural barriers--and enjoyed by people of all ages and various classes--sports unite people.

There is also no question that soccer is the world's number one sport. With an estimated 3.5-4 billion fans (roughly half the world's population), soccer is in a league of its own when it comes to popularity. The biggest soccer league in the world is the Premier League. Last year's championship team, Manchester City, comprised players from 19 different countries. That's the kind of diversity we dream about. That's the unifying power of sports. And the majority of people on this planet know the core principle of sports: competition.


Cambridge Dictionary defines a sport as, "a game, competition, or similar activity, done for enjoyment or as a job that takes physical effort and skill and is played or done by following particular rules." defines a sport as "an athletic activity requiring skill or proven prowess and often of a competitive nature, [such] as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling wresting, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc."

Sports offer a competitive challenge to their players in several ways. They often pose physical challenges of skill, athleticism, stamina, or endurance. And sports always provide mental challenges by requiring quick and effective decisions, the ability to assess opponents (and teammates) and react to their strategic decisions, and emotional strength in the form of confidence, determination, flexibility, and persistence (Cudd).

These challenges can be used to describe how students go through school. There is a physical challenge that comes with waking up early in the morning, sitting through long class periods, and enduring the prodding of standardized testing. The parallel to the mental challenges sports present compared to academia is crystal clear. Academia is all about determination, persistence, and competition.

Competition describes a situation that determines a winner (and therefore, non-winners), under commonly known criteria for winning and losing. It usually awards some prize or recognition to those who succeed. Sports are competitive by definition. Their constitutive rules determine the winners. They are what Alfie Kohn calls structurally competitive, because the whole point of their structure is to determine a single winner--or at least give up trying to select one and declare a tie. Competitive sports pit players against each other, while solo sports present a competitive challenge by setting difficult criteria for success that relatively few can reach (Kohn).

Academic concepts such as an honor roll, valedictorian, and advanced-placement classes create similar structurally competitive dynamics for students. Nothing screams competition more than the class rank, which is a measure of how a student compares to other students in his or her class (Ballingit).


A metaphor represents more than its original meaning. It creates new meanings that have not existed before (Thornborrow and Wareing). Thanks to metaphors, mental connections between unrelated things are established, while the underlying meanings of the concepts remain unchanged (Kovecses). According to Lakoff and Johnson, conceptual metaphors structure our thinking. They enable the transfer of meaning from one object to another on the basis of a perceived similarity (Taggart and Wilson).

As I previously established, sports have tremendous social and cultural currency, making them a natural source for metaphors. The English language is full of metaphors that use sports to describe daily life as a kind of game. A 2016 study by Faith Dervent examined the metaphors that were used by athletes, coaches, faculty members, and sports managers to describe the notion of sport. Twenty-two metaphors were analyzed by content analysis, and five conceptual categories were identified for correlation, with participants mostly correlating sport to "Life" (31%). The second most cited conceptual category was "Emotion" (26%).

Many of our American sports metaphors date back to when the most popular games were games of chance, such as poker. In the latter part of the 19th century, the team sports of baseball and football (to be followed by basketball and hockey and, later still, by lacrosse and soccer) began their ascendancy to the top of the American imagination. At the same time, capitalism was becoming the dominant economic system in America. As capitalism became more industrial, team sports gained in popularity. These sports are face-to-face and hard-hitting, emphasizing quick, strategic decision making; athletic moves; and team play (Mandelbaum).

What message are we sending to students through sports metaphors? This question is answered through the lens of how we view competition. Ann Cudd argues that, in a sports competition, if the players are trying to play at all, they are necessarily trying to win and not to lose. Since there can be only one winner and the others must be losers, there is a zerosum aspect to sports. Competition in sports tends to breed a psychology of intensity and self-perfection bordering on narcissism and egotism. This explains the often-quoted Vince Lombardi statement that "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." But if it is the only thing that matters, then morality or decency does not matter. Maximizing participation and contributing to education do not matter either. In such an atmosphere, it makes sense to try to get away with breaking or hedging the rules whenever it gives one an advantage.

However, you have the opinion that competition is about the process and not the outcome. Robert Simon states that sport is best described as cooperative competition. Although there can be only one winner in many games, there must be competitors who adopt a lusory attitude--i.e., agree to play by the rules and compete at their best in order for there to be a meaningful sporting contest. There must be athletes and officials who agree to the rules that will govern the sport. There must be cooperation (even while there will also be competition) among team members in team sports. In individual sports, competitors often critique each other's performances and help coach them to better performances. Simon's concept of sport as a mutual quest for excellence helps explain why cooperation is as important as competition. Without the cooperation of a community of players, coaches, and supporters, a sport cannot thrive and, thus, neither can the athlete who participates in it. Although athletes and sports commentators may occasionally forget this, they cannot successfully continue to participate without some willingness to cooperate for the good of the competition.


I began this piece by using some common sports metaphors:

* Get the ball rolling--to start an endeavor

* Par for the course--typical, what is expected

* Roll with the punches--to take adversity in stride, to adapt to difficult circumstances

* On the sidelines--remove from participation

* Drop the ball--to make an error, miss an opportunity

Did seeing these metaphors spark something in you that made you want to read more? Did they conjure up some sports memories? If you're like me, the idea of winner-takes-all does not come to mind when I see sports metaphors. My mind does not go to the zero-sum aspect of sports, but rather to the spirit of competition.

I moved to the U.S. from Nigeria at age 5. Assimilating was especially tough for me as a kid with a bad temper growing up in the Bronx. I would often get into fights, and the only friends I had were my five siblings. One day during third grade, I came home with a flier for the local Little League baseball team and asked my parents if I could join. I don't know what moved me to do this, but my parents saw a kid crying out for "organized socialization" and said yes.

So, I joined Little League baseball with almost no knowledge of how to play baseball. I eventually learned the rules, but the lessons I learned from the game were so much more valuable (such as stepping up to the plate with confidence). Despite trying to do that--I would walk up to the plate with a huge smile on my face to mask my fear--I still struggled to hit a baseball. One day, my coach pulled me to the side and told me that the great baseball players bat .300. That means that they get a hit three out of 10 times and fail to get a hit seven out of 10 times. Let that sink in for a second. Imagine playing a game in which you know you'll fail more than you succeed.

After that talk, I changed my mindset. Rather than focusing on getting hits, my goal became to do whatever my team needed. I became the biggest cheerleader from the bench. I helped keep the scorebook. I became the designated pinch-runner because I was the fastest guy on the team. I wanted to see my team win, but, more importantly, I wanted to be a part of a team. Baseball helped me break those social walls that kept me alienated as a young immigrant.

Academic competition is beneficial when it challenges students to work harder on their studies and helps them get excited about academic content. They might retain more as they prepare for what otherwise seem to be laborious and boring activities (such as standardized testing). It's no wonder teachers often use team-based competitions to make academic material more interesting and engaging. According to education professors Thomas Good and Jere Brophy in their book Looking in Classrooms, "team-centered competitive activities often benefit students as long as they all have a chance to win" (quoted in Tucker).

When I think of sports metaphors, I think of, for instance, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take (don't be afraid to take chances), and make sure you go down swinging (put your best effort forward, even if you fail). These are metaphors that draw on what makes sports so powerful. It harkens to the words Nelson Mandela uttered in 1995, a year after becoming South Africa's first black president: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand." If using sports metaphors will engage and motivate students, then let's use them. Let's find those threads of commonality to communicate and then bring it home with what needs to be taught.


Ballingit, M. "High Schools Are Doing Away With Class Rank: What Does This Mean for College Admissions?" The Washington Post, 13 July 2015, highschools-are-doing-away-with-class-rank-what-does-that-mean-for-college-admissions.

Cudd, A. (2007). "Sporting Metaphors: Competition and the Ethos of Capitalism" Journal of Philosophy of Sports, 34, 52-67.

Dervent, F. (2016). "An Examination of Conceptualization of Sports Metaphors" Journal of Education and Training Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4, 259-268.

Kohn, A. (1992). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kovecses, Z. (2002). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mandelbaum, M. (2004). The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball, and What They See When They Do. New York: Public Affairs.

Simon, R. (2004). Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Taggart, G.L. and Wilson, A. (1998). Promoting Reflective Thinking in Teachers: 44 Action Strategies. California: Corwin Press.

Thornborrow, J. and Wareing, S. (1998). Patterns in Language: An Introduction to Language and Literary Style. London: Routledge.

Tucker, K. (2018). "Positive and Negative Effects of Competition on Academic Achievement" The Classroom, 25 June 2018,

Chi Nwogu is the co-founder of GameFlo, an education-technology company that is creating engaging sports-based games to teach and reinforce math and data analytics skills, with a current focus on children ages 11-15.


Let me use my own educational technology company, GameFlo, as a case in point.

At GameFlo, we have placed our bet on engaging sports-based games to teach and reinforce math and data analytics skills for children. We are developing a suite of games and game-based workshops that teach or reinforce math and data analytics skills starting with children ages 11-15. Our current focus is on basic statistics: sample size, unbiased data, probability, expected value, and regression, since these are the skills the next generation will need in their data-driven world.

We like to say we are "teaching common core standards with a sports twist." That's because--and based on everything I have said in this essay--we believe students will be more engaged when math and data analytics concepts are presented to them as a game and through the lens of something they care about: sports.

Our probability workshop focuses on teaching students the principles of probability and expected value through the lens of shooting in basketball. In our Expressions & Equations workshop, students learn the power of mathematical modeling by breaking down popular measures of basketball player productivity and working together to create their own models. Ninety percent of the students we've worked with say they feel more comfortable with data and problem solving, as a result.

In addition to our workshops, we are working on a basketball card game. The game simulates the roles of general manager, coach, and player, interweaving chance and strategy, with success derived from a dice-based probability model. For more information, get on the ball and visit
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Title Annotation:EDTECH
Author:Nwogu, Chi
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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