The growing presence of sports in China may hold more than just entertainment value.
Notable tycoons like Jack Ma of Alibaba and China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin of Dalian Wanda Group, have invested heavily sports teams and young athletes. China President Xi Jinping himself is a avid fan of soccer.
But if you ask former Harvard football running back Cheng Ho, sports is also the key to sparking innovation and leadership in China’s next generation of workers. That’s why he started his company, Choxue, in 2013. It promotes sports in Chinese high schools in hopes of helping students learn leadership and teamwork, values that aren’t normally stressed in Chinese classrooms..
After all, mastering those values helped everything work out for Ho.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Ho moved to America after his father died and his mother was hospitalized for schizophrenia. As a 13-year-old with no knowledge of English, Ho carried an electronic translator around with him to school. He took well to sports, participating in basketball, track, and football — which would eventually lead him to Harvard University.
A local reporter took an early interest in Ho’s athletic career, teaching him how to create a highlight reel and send his information to every single Division I school. Out of 30-some colleges, Harvard was one of the only ones that really showed interest, Ho said.
Ho attended Harvard to play football, while studying economics and psychology. After graduation, he joined the National Football League to try and bring football into China. That’s why he started Choxue.
The name Choxue (球学) is supposed to indicate the combination between sports and academics. Qiu (which phonetically sounds like ‘cho’), the first character, means ‘ball’ and Xue, the second character, means ‘study.’
Although China has always been a competitive contender in the Olympic Games, Ho said many people still think of sports in China as one-dimensional. The problem originates from a lack of education available to student athletes. Once they graduate, they have very few job opportunities, in sports or elsewhere.
Ho believes that emphasising sports could not only provide more opportunities for students, it could create the future leaders and independent thinkers that China needs.
“In the classroom I was taught that I need to protect my intellectual property,” Ho said. “But in a team you have to identify your strengths and weaknesses and put them together. That’s a lot more sustainable.”
The education system that has long produced China’s workers can no longer keep pace with changing economic demands. Missing from the equation are risk-takers and innovators, who can create jobs within the economy and solve problems in new ways.
Ho said he has seen more and more students use sports while applying to U.S. boarding schools. As parents lose faith in China’s economy, they increasingly want to send their children overseas. Many applicants believe that this is the path to a better education and a better life.
But with the pipeline to Ivy League colleges fixed, and with more student opting out of the national college entrance exam, Ho believes there’s room for change within the country.
“The system is so test score driven, it’s one individual that has to compete with all other students,” he said. “The problem is that once you get the score and go to college, you realise there’s more you need to do to be successful in life.”
Susan Brownell, a professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on Chinese sports, said she’s sceptical of Choxue’s ability to change an ingrained culture. Parents still highly value academics and see sports as too dangerous.
She said some people in China have tried to approach this issue in the past, either by persuading parents of the value in sports education or opening up their own small schools and initiatives.
“Physical educators in China and Taiwan really believe that if they could successfully get more kids involved in sports, it would be the counterbalance, it would be the corrective for the overemphasis on testing,” Brownell said.
One initiative that would effectively turn over the cultural perception of sports is the implemention of sports scholarships at universities, Brownell said. But some change has already started to happen.
“I think it’s a growing phenomenon in both China and Taiwan, probably in part due to globalization and internationalization of sports values,” she said. “But it’s still somewhat limited.”
Right now, Choxue offers analytics, sports consulting and performance training services. Although Choxue is currently based in Taiwan, Ho wants to build the platform to become the main infrastructure for knowledge of sports in China. He sees it becoming an information base for coaches and players to learn about exercise, diets, recovery and training.
“Its very idealistic and very abstract, but that’s what I believe in,” Ho said. “This is not going to happen overnight. This system cannot be changed, but people can choose a path that can make them a better person.”