SBJ/August 13-19, 2012/Opinion

Add service learning to classroom toolbox

Having recently launched the sports management program at Farmingdale State College, we spend a significant amount of time thinking about how we can provide the types of learning opportunities in and outside the classroom for our students that will prepare them for a career in the industry and for life in general.

Similarly, personnel with teams, leagues and colleges who are tasked with player and student-athlete development, including post-retirement activity, are challenged to provide equally relevant information, insight and opportunities to their constituents so they can better compete in an array of professional, most often non-sports, pursuits. Ultimately, we both want our “students” to make a successful transition from one comfortable aspect of life to one in which they will be challenged to do unfamiliar or more difficult tasks.

To best answer questions regarding our constituents’ preparation, we all must first evaluate the amount and quality of resources currently available in our field that can support efforts to prepare our students and/or athletes for success. In other professional industries, programs and resources exist to identify and nurture talent, offer practical training and provide ongoing mentorship — all keys to sustainable professional success. How does the sports industry compare to those fields?

Overall, we are doing well. Over the past several years, there has been maturation in how sports-related entities engage in this process of talent development, as well as an embracing of newer educational and professional initiatives. However, in light of the growing number of young people in sports management programs, the additional population that wants to get into sports, and the thousands of pro and college athletes, I’d like to suggest we do even more to better prepare these groups for success. Otherwise, we will have a shortfall in the type of talent needed to grow our industry.
Three areas of focus for the industry should be:

Internships. The proven program of bringing students in to get exposure to an organization and its operational underpinnings is going strong today. Students are interning with teams, leagues, companies and events, amongst others. While these programs are common, they can be further expanded to include fast-developing areas in our field, e.g. social media, international business, emerging sports and nonprofits.

Mentorship programs. Though often associated with internships, serving as a mentor to someone can be a stand-alone program. Mentorship is a wonderful opportunity to provide emotional and professional support for younger persons in any business. Often less involved than internships, a mentor program provides many of the same benefits and creates a “pay it forward” mentality amongst mentees, which is sorely needed.

Service-learning projects. A cross between internships and mentoring programs, service learning is ripe for additional activity from sports management entities. In service learning, the students use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems. They not only learn the practical applications of concepts written about in textbooks, but they also become actively contributing members of the industry through the services they perform. The model is one that can be replicated easily.

In light of the hundreds, if not thousands, of professional, college and amateur sports entities, there should be numerous opportunities for small groups of students in select classes to take on those real-life projects involving a sports entity’s business. For example, figuring out how to better use social media to drive ticket purchases among young fans, or helping a nonprofit market its services to middle and high schools around the country looking to hold on to their physical education programs. Considering the number of individual classes that could house service-learning projects, we are talking about thousands of opportunities for students to learn real business lessons while showing off their knowledge and skills, benefiting the organization.

An indicator of great potential in an industry is the number of enthusiastic, talented individuals who want to work in that field. Measured that way, the sports industry is sitting on loads of potential. As educators and developers of talent, we must make sure we match their exuberance with opportunities that challenge them to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill that potential. Service learning may be our best tool yet.

Sarbjit “Sab” Singh (sarbjit.singh@farmingdale.edu) is an assistant professor of sport management at Farmingdale State College.

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