When Jim and Nora talk about the social groups in their school, they matter-of-factly categorize almost every fellow student into stereotyped pigeonholes. There are the nerds, the rockers, the cools, the goths, and of course, the jocks.
The assumption, naturally, is that none of these groups intersect. Jocks are dumb, nerds are smart, and cools could be smart if they cared about grades. But what of this “dumb jock” stereotype? Does it actually pan out in real life?
Herbert Marsh and Sabina Kleitman have conducted an exhaustive study of the records of over 12,000 American students, following each student for seven years, from eighth grade to the second year after graduation. Previous studies had shown trends that contradicted the dumb jock stereotype, but they suffered from methodological flaws. They tended to study only a cross-section of data, or a limited geographical region. It’s possible that good students tend to participate in sports, rather than the sports themselves leading to academic success.
Marsh and Kleitman claim that their study resolves some, but not all of these methodological problems. Though a longitudinal design — following the same students for many years — can show if a student’s academic success is associated with athletic participation, it still can’t demonstrate that some other factor isn’t responsible for both athletic participation and academic success. It can, however, control for many other factors, such as race, socio-economic status, parents’ educational level, and even earlier academic success. Marsh and Kleitman controlled for dozens of such factors, and still found a significant — though small — positive correlation between athletic participation and academic achievement.
Achievement can be measured in many ways — grades, homework, attendance, standardized test scores, and enrollment in college. In all of these areas except standardized test scores, even after controlling for economic status, race, and other background variables, athletic participation was significantly correlated to academic achievement. Even after controlling for academic success in 8th and 10th grade, athletic participation was still associated with positive academic outcomes in 13 out of 21 measures in 12th grade and 2 years out of high school. This suggests that athletic participation itself may be responsible for some academic achievement — the later achievement isn’t completely explained by earlier academic success.
But what if a student is overcommitted — if he or she participates too heavily in sports, won’t grades suffer? Not according to Marsh and Kleitman’s data: only one measure, number of college applications submitted, was negatively associated with extremely high athletic participation.
One important point to realize is that all of these correlations are extremely small, with beta values typically less than 0.1. This means that less than 3 percent of variance in academic performance can be explained by athletic participation. So simply encouraging athletic participation is not likely to lead to a very large increase in academic performance.
Even with these small effects, however, Marsh and Kleitman were able to make some more specific statements about the relationship between athletics and academics. Competing with other schools had a larger impact than intramural sports. Team sports had stronger associations with academics than individual sports.
Marsh and Kleitman had hoped to find some other connections between sports and academics. For example, some schools claim that athletics can help lower-performing students increase their self esteem and connect school with a source of pride, eventually leading to better academics. But the data did not support this claim: lower-performing students showed the same academic gains due to sports participation as everyone else.
But back to the “dumb jock” stereotype: with more and more studies demonstrating that athletic participation is associated with higher academic performance, why does the stereotype persist? I have some ideas of my own, but I’d like to hear yours first. Let us know in the comments.
Marsh, H.W., & Kleitman, S. (2003). School athletic participation: Mostly gain with little pain. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 25, 205-228.