With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Matt Bowers is a clinical assistant professor in the Sport Management program at the University of Texas at Austin. Bowers also works extensively in the field with a range of sports organizations in both research and consulting capacities. Bowers earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Sport Management from the University of Florida, where he also worked with the Gators football and women's basketball programs. Foregoing a career coaching collegiate basketball, he earned his doctoral degree in Sport Management at UT-Austin. Bowers’ research study on the impact of participation in youth sport on creativity was recently published in the Creativity Research Journal.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Can you describe your research about how sports involvement impacts creativity in kids?
Matt Bowers: We did a study looking at leisure participation of people throughout their childhood. We asked them to reflect on everything from playing sports in an organized setting to playing sports in a neighborhood with friends. We also look at things like music and homework, with a real emphasis on whether or not sport may have an impact on creativity. What we were able to find pretty clearly was that the time people were spending in organized sports was inversely related to creativity. In other words, the more time they spent in organized sports as kids the less creative they tend to be as adults. The opposite was true for informal, unorganized sports.
We found that if you look at about a 12-year timespan of childhood, playing an average of three hours a week of unstructured sports settings was enough to produce a shift in creativity. That took people from being average in their creativity to above average. That is an interesting relationship.
My research generally looks at how sports can impact kids through participation. When you talk about what organized sports can do for kids you think: they build character, they teach values and leadership — actually when we test that, we find the benefits are not often that clear-cut. So I really focus on the difference between organized sports and kid-run sports, where adults are not involved.
Trib+Edu: What is the value of creativity, in regards to child development?
Bowers: What’s fascinating about creativity, when you look at how quickly the world is changing even at a policy level, people are really starting to emphasize developing creativity, so that we can have the cognitive skills to deal with whatever curveballs come our way. There is potential value in trying to understand if sports can play a role in fostering creativity.
Within the sports realm, there has been a real dramatic movement toward more organized sports for kids at younger and younger ages, so we are seeing less opportunities for kids to play in unstructured settings, like kids did in generations past. As I study this, my concern is, what is lost if we move to such a hyper-organized model for youth sports?
Trib+Edu: Considering that hyper-organized trend, have you been able to tell what level of cognitive impact that might have on kids?
Bowers: That remains to be seen. I hope to use this study as a launching point to really be able to pursue long-term studies. Looking at sport development, how we design programs and policies to develop kids through sports. I am trying to understand the value of unstructured play that people are not recognizing. These results say that letting your kids play with friends in the neighborhood isn’t frivolous, it is something that is contributing positively.
Many parents these days as they try to put their kids in the best position possible to get college scholarships and have all these opportunities, they are opting for more piano lessons, more organized sports practices. Everything becomes so structured that there isn’t time for these other settings. I think, implicitly, people act as if those settings don’t have the same value. This demonstrates there is value in that setting. Outside of a school setting there can be benefits to letting kids get out and play.