September 5, 2023 / Idea File Magazine

It’s Time to Elevate Your Sports Writing

Written by Joanna Chadwick

After spending 20 years as a high school sports news writer, I entered teaching with the expectation that students would love writing all kinds of stories, including sports. After all, sports is where the emotions are – the intense thrill after winning, the tears that flow after losing, the work that’s put into the sport for months on end, the agony of a season-ending injury.

But my students do not share my love of writing sports features. I get a handful of athletes solely interested in writing about their own sport. And while our school usually succeeds in sports, winning multiple state titles each year, most of the students are not sports fans, so they fear the jargon or are intimidated by the players and coaches.

I don’t think I’m the only adviser dealing with a lack of interest in writing sports.

But sports brings most communities together, so how can you get your students excited about writing sports features?

Talk about how sports bring the community together.

Football is an excellent example because it doesn’t matter if a program is expected to win a state title or lose every game, the interest level in the students remains high through at least the midpoint of the season.

As a result, there are a ton of stories to write that aren’t directly related to football.

  • The art students painting faces before games
  • Drama kids volunteering in the concession stand
  • The student section, which could include the leaders of the section, the fans who get their chests or faces painted, the students who sit at the top and never cheer but are still included, the ones who don’t wear shirts even in the coldest weather and any others showing off their school spirit with signs, clothing and more
  • The student football managers, the athletic trainer, the parents who blow up the big helmet the players hang out in before racing onto the field
  • The dance team, color guard, marching band, cheerleaders
  • The alum who takes photos at every game just because he bleeds your school colors

Sports aren’t that different from other stories.

I don’t think my students are alone in the fear of writing sports stories. Even at the newspaper I worked at, if the cops/courts writer had to delve into sports at all, we worked to help them with phrasing, etc. So if you write about a high-level gymnastic student who only attends school half the day, who can relate to her skill and situation? Not many.

But maybe they actually can.

Not too long ago, students attended school online part-time or even all year. They know what it takes to be self-motivated, just like that high-level athlete. Ask what it takes to be great at anything, whether it’s art, music, dance, cooking, construction. After brainstorming something they know about, think of questions that can connect to the athlete.

Students can pull from their own experiences to connect with athletes and teams.

Maybe they played a sport when they were little or they’re involved in their church and don’t have time for anything else.

Consider these ideas:

  • How do kids with jobs/church/family expectations balance school? This can now be asked of an athlete – how do athletes get time off in the summer when they have daily workouts, how do they handle missing class for competitions during the season and then spending late nights doing homework to stay on top of their academics?
  • When I was a 6-year-old playing soccer, we always had oranges at halftime – this can translate to asking how athletes recover during halftime of a brutally cold or physical game.
  • My mom still talks about the team dinners her brothers had the night before football games. Does the school have team dinners for any sports? Where are they held? Who feeds the players? Does the school have a team breakfast before postseason competition? Is there a group who makes treat bags before state? Who plans the banquets?

A lack of knowledge about sports often holds students back from pursuing sports stories.

Encourage the students to do a little research about the sport with a friend or even online. No one wants to sound stupid, so here are some quick tips and phrases for a variety of sports:

  • Track athletes and cross country athletes are not players. They are runners, and for those who jump, they’re jumpers. Those who throw, throwers. It’s wrestlers, bowlers, golfers, swimmers instead of players.
  • In timed sports, such as track, cross country and swimming, write that they finished in 1:02.
  • Football players score a touchdown, soccer players score a goal, baseball/softball players score a run, basketball players make a basket.
  • In bowling, they roll a 287, finish with a 737 series.
  • In golf, the golfer shot a 1-over 74 to win individual honors.
  • In cross country, add up the team’s places and that’s their score (if the runners finish first, third, fifth, 10thand 12th), that’s 41 points for their score.
  • In wrestling, she pinned her opponent, he won by tech fall.

Athletes and coaches are just like everyone else – they love to talk about their passions.

While the student assigned to the golf feature may not even know where to start to ask questions about the team or the top golfer, do basic research and ask open-ended questions.

Softball questions – ones that aren’t super specific, not the sport – can get the athlete or coach talking, which allows the interviewer to follow up with more detailed questions.

I would start with the coach simply because they should be willing to talk about the team, but if not, go to the assistant coach or even a younger player to provide some basic background information.

Softball questions:

  • What are your expectations for the season? This can lead into a follow-up question about why they believe they’ll win a state title, have a lot of depth or be searching for leaders.
  • How has your team progressed from last season?
    This allows the coach to tell you about how Johnny Smith has taken 10 seconds off his mile time and Suzy Jones has been in the weight room all summer working or even team information about the camping trip to build chemistry.
  • Who do you expect to stand out this season? Those returning players will likely be mentioned along with newer or younger players you might not have known about.
  • What didn’t I ask you about that you want to share? Maybe you entered the interview with a plan to talk about the top bowler, but the coach is dying to share about the kid who just moved up from JV despite recovering from chemotherapy.

Don’t wait to do your interviews until after the season.

You should be following their social media, going to games, keeping track of wins/losses/scores/standouts.

I insist on weekly online articles from my students who design sports spreads. The worst-case scenario happens when a student tries to do a feature after the season is over. How can you find out the real emotions of that athlete after they broke their leg in week two or found out they qualified for state …. and then finished 38th at the state meet if that athlete has moved on? The joy of qualifying for state is diminished by finishing lower than expected.

When Jenny rolls a 300, talk to her that week. When that freshman breaks a school record, talk to him that week. Maybe you won’t use this information for a more in-depth feature, but maybe it can be in a caption or an infographic or simply online.

For those stories that are in-depth sports features, talk to the athlete – and the coach.

Talk to a teammate. Look for concrete details, as well as stats to include. If an athlete has overcome a lot, whether it’s mental health or a torn ACL, maybe a parent would be a good person to interview.

The key to quality sports writing is the interviewing. Just asking a few questions likely won’t get you past their initial feelings about how they’re playing or why they play.

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Joanna Chadwick

Joanna Chadwick, a distinguished figure in Derby High School, Derby, KS, boasts eight years as a journalism adviser and two decades as a high school sports reporter for the Wichita Eagle. She's a decorated professional, with accolades such as the 2021 JEA Rising Star, 2016 KSHSAA Sportswriter of the Year, and recognition from various coaches' associations. Outside her career, she's a devoted sports mom, passionately supporting her sons in their athletic pursuits and her husband in his coaching endeavors.