Arshay Cooper, the author of A Most Beautiful Thing, captures the best of sport in a true story about America’s first all black high school rowing team. Arshay details the importance and impact of rowing on his life while growing up on the west side of Chicago in the 1990’s. Not only was it a phenomenal book but the story highlights the importance of access to sport amongst other themes. I loved every chapter and anecdote and I’m confident the book will still be one of my favorites by the end of 2021. Arshay shares wisdom about “catching crabs” and staying resilient, the significance of hard work, and why his unlikely involvement in rowing inspired his devotion to service. Truly, the novel is a testament to how sport can change lives for the better. If you’re interested in reading the book, watching the movie, or learning more about the story, check out these links.
Programs like the one at Manley High School that introduced teenage boys and girls to rowing is what I’m particularly interested in as a future practitioner in sport and exercise psychology (SEP). Yes, stories like The Boys in the Boat reinforce similar SEP theories surrounding “flow”, cohesion, and competition, but I enjoyed this book just as much. The more I read about examples of Positive Youth Development (PYD) like this, Life Development Interventions (LDI), and the resulting and lasting impacts of sport, the more enthusiastic I feel about getting involved. I’ve known my whole life that sport has the power to change lives, I just didn’t know there was a science behind it too.
There were a handful of SEP topics I thought about tying to Arshay’s story. Concentration, self-efficacy, other-efficacy, self-determination theory, and group dynamics, were some just to name a few. Instead, I think highlighting the four dimensions of emotional valence will best serve this review.
Emotional Valence and Education Settings
The American Psychological Association defines emotional valence as, “the value associated with a stimulus as expressed on a continuum from pleasant to unpleasant or from attractive to aversive”. I have recreated the dimensions of emotional valence and affect below.
As you can tell, the four dimensions are quite structured. Individuals can expect happy emotions when they perceive something as pleasant and they have the energy (arousal) to enjoy it. Conversely, low arousal and a negative perception (valence) tie to feelings of depression, boredom, and tiredness. It is important to note that culturally competent interpretation is needed when considering behaviors in any of the four dimensions. Now, let’s consider these emotional valence dimensions within the context of K-12 education.
Arshay routinely references his time at Manley High School, writing about the teachers, gangs, associative feelings, and norms all too common to many schools in the Chicago inner city. The reader becomes intimately aware of the danger kids like Arshay are in because of his personal experiences. High school is already an environment that causes most students high levels of arousal. This is true even when students aren’t being threatened by looming gang pressure, exposures to addiction, all while attending a school that is under-resourced. Sports, and rowing in particular, meets these kids where they’re at.
On more than one occasion, Arshay talks about how sitting on the ERG rowing machine or how being on the water changed his mood. Although more research needs to be done when it comes to “green and blue” exercise (exercise in nature), this might be a potential intervention to consider. When students go to school they hold expectations. Maybe they are routinely bullied or leave feeling uninterested from their classes. Day after day the perception of their environment reinforces their beliefs. This can lead to disengagement, burnout, and emotions consistent with dimensions II and III. A Most Beautiful Thing reminds us, sports offers people change.
As a society, we should be more understanding when students demonstrate emotions and behaviors that align more closely with dimensions II and III given these challenges. This isn’t just a challenge to teachers for using more empathy in the classroom. Educators are subject to these same emotional valence dimensions when we consider the shared spaces. This is a call to action for empathetic and compassionate supporters. In Arshay’s story, this person is Ken Alpart. When Ken and a team of coaches introduce rowing to students at Manley, they are met with understandable apprehension. Ken’s goals went beyond sport and competition.
“I would love to have a fast boat, but I am more interested in using rowing to keep kids in school, increase their self-esteem, and help us get admitted to colleges with good financial aid packages.”Ken Alpart, A Most Beautiful Thing
As Ken develops a relationship with Arshay and the rest of the boys on the team, they discuss racial bias, stereotypes, and find communal support. It is my belief that sport inherently creates spaces for these types of conversations and learning. As a society, we have to find ways to create understanding and find a common humanity. Whether that’s through shared experience, supportive / motivational cultures around sport, or just open-mindedness, it has to be a priority. Again, it is the life skills we can take from sport that I am most interested in exploring more. Arshay touches on this too!
I feel like the coaches develop them too much as athletes and not as good human beings. It’s almost as if their existence is about basketball skills and not life skills. I realize now why all the traveling, classes, mentoring, and exposure was more of a priority than rowing. If this program were shut down, I know exactly what I want to do next.Arshay Cooper, A Most Beautiful Thing
Sport has the capacity to teach us so much about others and ourselves. Sport is inherent to change, transition, learning, and overcoming challenge. Researchers are interested in studying life skills like teamwork, communication, leadership, and more. Stories like Arshay’s remind me we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to the implications and science behind life skills, sport involvement, and growing together.