Dr. Tom Martinek, professor of kinesiology, has been at the forefront of a growing movement of scholars and practitioners who see sports as an underused method to build stronger societies and help individuals be more resilient. The Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) Alliance, a community of practice for practitioners and academics interested in teaching personal and social responsibility through physical activity, normally holds their annual conference in New York City, Chicago, Boston – and this year it’s in Greensboro. Why? Dr. Michael Hemphill explains that UNCG Kinesiology has been one of the universities instrumental in the TPSR youth development model, largely through Martinek’s work. “This conference will be, in part, a celebration of the 25th year of Tom’s Project Effort program,” he explains.
TPSR, Project Effort and Dr. Martinek’s work are featured prominently in this spring’s UNCG Research magazine:
The Long Game
As a young education professor in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Tom Martinek was interested in the impact of teacher expectations on students — the Pygmalion effect. He was preparing future PE teachers and working to understand how things like “learned helplessness” might affect students.
“That research was a stepping stone for me to begin to try things out, to take that research and try to apply it to programs in the community,” says Martinek, now a professor of kinesiology.
His early work helped at-risk kids through after-school programs that involved physical activity. They were mostly short-term efforts that ran for a year or two and provided Martinek with fodder for journal articles.
But Martinek wanted to do more. And he thought a framework called Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility through Physical Activity, or TPSR, was the key.
TPSR was developed by Don Hellison, a now-retired professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The framework sees sports and physical activity as a way to teach children important skills and values — self-control, respect for each other, trying your best, setting personal goals, and helping others.
Martinek’s opportunity came when the principal of Greensboro’s Hampton Elementary School approached him in 1991 for help.
“She thought the students were really vulnerable to dropout and different kinds of risk behaviors later on,” Martinek says. “She also knew that a lot of these kids didn’t have much to do after school.”
Most of the kids who attended Hampton lived in the nearby Morningside Heights public housing community. With a little funding from an NC State University grant program, Martinek began bussing 24 third, fourth, and fifth graders to UNC Greensboro twice a week after school.
It was the birth of Project Effort, a program that still operates more than 25 years later and has become a national model for using sports to help kids who are at risk develop critical life skills.
A typical after-school session includes reviewing goals, physical activities in small groups, and then discussion and reflection on their activities.
For the students in Project Effort, grades improved, but more important were the changes in in-school behavior. Martinek and two graduate students reviewed four years of data to measure changes in how often students were reprimanded by their teachers or were referred to the principal’s office.
Over the course of a year, the average number of referrals to the principal’s office dropped from 11 to 9 per student. More striking was the reduction in teacher reprimands over the same period — from an average of 41 during the first quarter to 28 during the last, a 31 percent decrease.
Students stayed in the program through elementary school and middle school. When they reached high school, they started directing some of the activities themselves, learning valuable leadership skills.
Story written by Mark Tosczak. Photo of Tom Martinek by Mike Dickens.