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Taking on a win-at-all-costs society in the classroom

Teacher David Guy was about to set two-dozen first-graders loose in the Simla School gym to play “capture the cones,” when he asked, “How do you treat people when you win?”

In unison, a chorus of high-pitched voices replied, “Nice!”

“It’s not just nice,” said Guy patiently. “It’s about treating them fairly, right? It’s about treating them respectfully. We always have to do that.”

The lesson took only five seconds, but it hit on one of the essential messages of TrueSport, a curriculum created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs. It’s that message, among others, that appealed to Guy and several other teachers from the Big Sandy school district when they attended an informational summit on the program last February.

It also appealed to the Big Sandy School Board, which adopted the curriculum at a meeting that same night, after technology teacher Sue Snyder rushed back from the summit to present on the topic.

“It passed with flying colors,” she said. “We were using it the next day with our junior high kids.”

While the overnight adoption of TrueSport is perhaps unique to tiny districts like the 360-student Big Sandy, the creators of the curriculum, are eager to see its widespread use, not just in Colorado but across the country.

“Broadly, we think of it as a movement,” said Erin Hannan, communications and outreach director for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA.

What is it?

At its most basic, TrueSport is an effort to promote health and ethics among youth.

“It uses sport as the vehicle to deliver that,” said Hannan.

Eight core principles, such as “Be Courageous” and “Fair Play or No Way” anchor the program, which includes a K-12 curriculum that is aligned with Colorado’s state physical education and health standards, a pre-K activity book,  an online training for coaches, a parent handbook, and code of conduct forms that can be printed out and signed by players, coaches and parents. The program also enlists well-known athletes like Olympians Peter Vanderkaay and DeeDee Trotter to visit participating schools as “TrueSport Ambassadors.”

A sign in the gym at Simla School.

A sign in the gym at Simla School.

The goal, Hannan said, is to shift the prevailing winning-is-everything attitude to one where healthy choices and integrity govern behavior on and off the sports field. Given USADA’s role as the country’s enforcer of anti-doping rules among Olympic and other high-profile athletes, the push to imprint the sports heroes of the future with a strong moral compass makes sense.

But, in a hyper-competitive world where three-year-olds can play team sports and some parents redshirt their five-year-olds in the hopes it will give them an athletic advantage in high school, no one thinks it’s going to be easy.

“We recognize we’re absolutely going against the tide,” said Hannan.

Still, among the teachers and coaches that use TrueSport materials, enthusiasm runs high. In addition to the emphasis on character education, they like that it’s got a contemporary feel with real-world examples, often taken straight from the headlines of the past few years.

Perhaps best of all, it’s free.

“To be honest, that’s what we need. We don’t have a big budget,” said Caroline Weinberg, a health teacher at the 1,400-student Mesa Middle School in Douglas County. “It’s nice to get something new and fresh.”

Already this year, she’s used her classroom set of TrueSport workbooks to talk about decision-making and role models, and she plans to use it for upcoming units on nutrition and performance-enhancing drugs. The alternative, she said is an ancient textbook that few teachers use.

Weinberg said she also appreciates that TrueSport talks about the dangers of super-caffeinated energy drinks.

“Obviously, that’s not in our textbook,” she said. “I see kids all the time with their Monster drinks.”

While TrueSport curriculum is often covered in health or physical education classes, and perhaps less formally in after-school sports, it has found its way into other kinds of classes, including biology and language arts.

Snyder, who also coaches girls volleyball at Simla, uses the program in her high school computer applications class. Students use TrueSport content to practice with blogging platforms and create digital presentations. On a recent morning, she led a discussion from chapter three of the TrueSport workbook on maximizing mental and physical performance in a healthy way.

“There’s a lot that you can do to be mentally tough,” she said to the 10 students sitting around the computer lab. “Set specific measurable goals…So, measurable goals would be what?”

“Gain ten pounds during the season,” said one boy.

“Win state,” said another.

“Catch the ball,” said a third.

For most of the students in the class, which was mostly boys and included several student athletes, the discussion seemed to touch on both their interests and personal experience. Nevertheless, TrueSport leaders stress that students don’t have to be athletes to benefit from the program’s focus on healthy choices and lifestyles.

Simla High School senior Cheryl Clonts, doesn’t play sports, but said she enjoys the TrueSport discussions during computer applications class.

”I think they can apply to more than just sports, but real life as well.”

Brett Smith, a senior on the girls volleyball team, doesn’t take any classes that cover TrueSport this year but said the presence of the program pushes the school’s athletes, coaches and even spectators to have higher standards.

“There’s just sportsmanship, even in our crowd, where we’re not yelling at the refs or we’re not arguing a lot….We don’t get in the face of refs and we don’t try to change their opinion as much as other schools.”

“TrueSport’s helped with that,” she said. “It’s kind of like a motto for us.”

Small but growing

While TrueSport officials have ambitious plans for the program, only about 10 Colorado schools currently use the curriculum. Nationally, the numbers are harder to come by. USADA has received requests from schools in 47 states, but does not track whether the curriculum is actually implemented. A few districts in Texas, as well as others around the country have implemented the curriculum in a robust way, according to TrueSport officials.

One district that doesn’t use TrueSport is Colorado Springs  11, the largest district in the vicinity of USADA offices. District Athletic Director David Eichman said the district uses a newly revamped physical education curriculum that has been written by district staff over the last couple years to align with state’s physical education standards. In addition, the district uses the “SPARK” physical education curriculum to augment the district’s program. Eichman said teachers are welcome to use TrueSport materials, but he doesn’t know of a single one who has.

One factor contributing to TrueSport’s relatively small footprint may be its youth.  Although USADA  began offering a similar curriculum targeting a narrower age range called “100 percent Me” in 2006,  the full K-12 program and TrueSport brand didn’t come out until early 2012.

“My perception is they’re kind of feeling their way…There hasn’t been a big hard launch,” said Judy Sandlin, an associate professor in the college of education and human development at Texas A&M University. She helped create parts of the TrueSport curriculum and now serves as one of TrueSport’s “educational ambassadors.” Some day, Sandlin hopes TrueSport will become as well known as Race for the Cure.

In the case of Weinberg, who works in the 65,000-student Douglas County district, she made a personal decision to use TrueSport in her classes because she heard about it through a casual friend who works for USADA.

“I wouldn’t have ever known about it unless I was friends with this girl on Facebook,” said Weinberg, who hopes to introduce the curriculum to other health and p.e. teachers at her school as well as to the district’s health education coordinator.

In addition to being a young program, TrueSport also faces a market crowded with physical education and health curriculums.

Eichman said while he thinks TrueSport is “all really good stuff,” he added, “You can go on the Internet and get tons of resources.”

A good illustration of this may be the California Healthy Kids Resource Center Library, an extensive online compilation of health-oriented curricula and programs. While TrueSport earned a listing, it is among a whopping 179 programs listed in the “nutrition” category and among 124 listed in the “alcohol and other drugs” category. It is not among the 32 “research-validated” listings in the nearly 800-item library.

Rewarding sportsmanship

Back in Dave Guy’s p.e. class, the first-graders, thirsty and flushed, finished up their game and lined up in the hall. Before Guy, who also teaches high school science and coaches boys basketball, sent the kids back to their classrooms, he did something that has become an after-class ritual this year: He picked the TrueSport of the day.

Guy explained that during “capture the cones,” he thought he saw a student tag opponents a couple times, but more than once, the tagger admitted that he’d missed.

“For that honesty and playing the game the right way and being respectful, Trevyn is the True Sport of the day,” said Guy.

With that, there was a sing-song chorus of “Trevyn” and a jumble of kids crowded around a little boy in an orange hoodie to deliver a spontaneous group hug.

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