With second semester beginning and the spring season approaching, many of my school friends have asked me to join a school sports team. As an international student, I am continually surprised by the interest, variety and wide availability of athletic programs in high schools. A typical high school in the States has three sports seasons --fall, winter, and spring--with different sports played each season. For example, in the fall, students can participate in golf, tennis, volleyball, and cross country; in the winter, there is basketball and soccer; in the spring, students take part in softball, swimming, and track & field.
Before each sports season begins in the U.S., there are tryouts open to all students, and as a result, many participate in one or more sports during the academic year. These athletic experiences are considered valuable extracurricular activities. The administrators at American high schools believe the opportunity to participate in a variety of student selected athletic activities is a vital component of a comprehensive educational experience. Students learn teamwork, diligence, and leadership as a member of an athletic team. Though some student athletes will continue on to become professionals, many simply participate for fun.
In contrast, the expectations and perceptions of student athletes in Korea are quite different. High school is an academically grueling time for Korean students. Those who aim to attend college and enter the work force prepare for national tests. Those who play on the school’s sports teams are set on a completely different path; the athletes are set apart. Although all high school students in Korea receive basic physical education as part of their school curriculum, only a few select students join sports teams. These select students intend to become (or already are) professional athletes. In most cases, these individuals have trained and practiced since they were very young. There are no open tryouts at the beginning of each season. Rather, high schools in Korea recruit students from junior high schools, just as professional sports teams in the States recruit their players from college.
Even though Korean student athletes receive an academic education, it is mutually understood that their main priority is their sport. As a result, their presence and participation in class is minimal. In some cases, athletes go to class only when there is a mid-term or final examination. They spend most of their school hours practicing for meets with their teammates and coaches. Even after school and during vacations, they continue to train like professionals. Since their careers are already set, Korean schools allow them to focus on their training rather than their academics. Regular students who wish to play a certain sport will find it very difficult to join the school team as the expectation and perception of their participation can be burdensome. However, this does not mean that Korean students do not play sports at all. It simply means that rather than play for the school team, they play sports on their own time.
In the United States, athletic activities are promoted to all high school students as a means of building leadership, teamwork, and diligence. Sports are an important extracurricular activity and a part of many students’ school experience. In Korea, however, school sports are dedicated to a few students with professional athletic aspirations. The difference between the American and Korean perceptions of student athletes shows how differently education is perceived. Americans tend to be broad in their definition of knowledge, whereas Koreans tend to focus on the traditional understanding of academic study. Regardless of the present differences, however, sports continue to be widely enjoyed by students from both countries. As we continue to learn from and engage with those who are different, perhaps the different views of education will also see change.