Newton dad champions push to add social-emotional learning to athletics

Mental health and social-emotional learning are two of the most widely discussed topics in education right now.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and some heavily publicized bullying-related teen suicides, educators and parents have been working to improve the psychological health of students.

But one area is often overlooked: athletics.

Newton resident, parent, and former Newton sports coach Mitch Lyons hopes that can change. He’s particularly hopeful about the legislative bill “S.247/H.516, An Act to Remodel Public School Athletics through Social Emotional Learning”.

The proposed bill would not create a mandate, but it would provide school districts with guidelines about how to structure their athletics departments.

Newton legislators Cynthia Creem, Kay Khan and Ruth Balser have all signed onto this.

A lot of discussion of sports and teen mental health is positive, focusing on its ability to promote leadership and teamwork, to provide an outlet for pent up energy, and to be a place less-academically inclined students feel they belong.

Lyons, however, thinks this is missing a key element: the issue of abusive coaches. “Constant criticisms drives people to say, I don’t want to play for that guy,” he said. He founded the organization End Abusive Coaching to try and fight this.

“We’re going to be providing people with a science-based curriculum for sports teams,” he said about the proposed bill. “It’s going to provide an alternative to school districts of the 19th century model of all powerful coaches and voiceless students.”

Part of the text of the bill says that the new structure will “provide students age-appropriate leadership roles in making decisions and carrying out responsibilities within the team framework, including empowering students to speak up and report behaviors that are contrary to a safe, supportive and bias-free culture.”

In no state does the department of education get significantly involved with high school athletics, which Lyons, who previously served on a committee to remodel athletics in the Boston Public Schools, hopes will change.

While some high schoolers play for independent teams, the majority of high school athletes play for a team run through their public high school. It should receive the same oversight and regulation as every other aspect of public education.

“The culture of sports is so strong,” he said. “It becomes the bully.”

He sees it as a problem everyone is aware of and nobody will do anything about. “Everyone has seen this bad behavior – coaches getting angry at children, or parents yelling at a coach. Both at odds with referees, who are leaving sports in droves, because nobody will control the situation.”

Legislators have put forth bills attempting to address this before, such as “Bill H.569/An Act to authorize codes of conduct for players, coaches, officials and parents in athletic settings” in 2019 and “Bill H.1825/An Act relative to enhanced penalties for those who commit assault and battery against school sports officials” in 2023.

In a 2023 reader poll, numerous readers wrote in to share the negative behavior they’ve seen at games. Youth sports referees all over the country are leaving because of the treatment they receive.

Lyons thinks an issue is that there’s no guiding principles behind the arrangement of high school athletics. “What’s the unified message?,” he asks. “How are they teaching sportsmanship?” He thinks this new proposal will improve performance, but also skills for emotional well-being for student athletes. “Children need every coping skill they can get,” he added. He also wants to see meditation added, something professional athletes often partake in.

He also thinks that the 19th century model of unquestioning obedience is unhelpful to prepare students for their future careers. “Employers aren’t looking for blindly obedient employees,” he said. It’s been shown that former college athletes earn more than their non-athlete peers, so if students leave sports in high school because of the poor treatment they’ve received, they’re potentially missing out on a lot.

Both Newton North and Newton South offer over 15 sports for girls and boys.