Bias in High School Sports

Article by Liz Sunga

Photographs by Manapo Ishikawa

Sports is a fundamental part of many students’ high school career. In a school where a large emphasis is placed on varsity teams and IASAS medals, it’s not surprising to see why students often stress over team decisions—at the beginning of the season, especially, when tryouts are in full swing and it’s time to impress.

The team-making process for all ISM’s sports are undeniably very selective and thorough. Most times, however, this leaves athletes anxious and very curious. “Trying out for the varsity running teams this year, I was given a running plan by coach and I followed it as closely as I possibly could, so I was very hopeful I’d be ready for varsity but I still didn’t make the team,” an anonymous Bearcat athlete says when asked about her experience with tryouts. “It was obviously quite disappointing and a little discouraging.” Despite this, she says she is still working towards her goal of getting faster and being a good team member on her respective team.

As expected, some students are less gracious about not making varsity teams. “I really thought I had [varsity] in the bag, and so did my teammates, but instead, the coach took athletes that weren’t pegged to make the team before I did. Even they were surprised,” another anonymous athlete said. Her disappointment is clear and leaves her questioning the coaches’ decisions. “It’s hard not to be deflated and discouraged from the sport and think that there was some sort of bias I missed but I still do the sport I do because of my love for the game. I know it’s not the end of the world,” she remarked optimistically. This poses the question: what is coaches’ bias and to what extent does this affect team selections?

As defined by an unnamed ISM athlete, “Coaches’ bias is when a coach favors athletes for reasons other than their skill and ability to play with the team. I think sometimes coaches have an ideal image of a team in their head. Maybe they want their team to have x number of freshmen and y number of sophomores or maybe they prefer this type of personality on the team over another.” He doesn’t think, though, that this is necessarily intentional or bad. “Sometimes coaches are just doing what’s best for the team.”

When asked her opinion, varsity golf coach Valerie Birchenall quickly defended against the prevalence of coaches’ bias in ISM. She thinks that calling it “coaches’ bias” is very emotive and inaccurate. “The coach’s professional judgement is definitely an influence in the selection process as well as the scores, skills and commitment shown by the players,” she said. “Coaches are appointed by the school because of their knowledge, passion and expertise.” She also believes that teams are coached in such a way that its composition is not solely up to one person, so there is a very low chance that any personal bias will prevail in selections; according to Mrs. Birchenall, ISM’s sports teams are a reflection of the mission statement. “Coaches all act with integrity through honest, respectful and open communication.”

High school athletics can be very stressful and intimidating, but this should definitely not take away from the core purpose of sports—to promote camaraderie and sportsmanship, and allow individuals and groups to develop their personal strengths through challenging activities. It is important not to be blinded by labels, jerseys and other superficial aspects of sport that can ultimately retract from the fun and enjoyment.