Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
In the late spring, we begin the “award season” at W-H. It’s not as lucrative as the motion-picture industry’s 7-week slog from the Golden Globes to the Oscars, but the awards at any independent school are nonetheless accompanied by tension, elation and disappointment.
The Athletic Department participates fully, naming “winners” of many awards, including the Wigton and Chambliss Awards, the Vietor Award, and six scholar-athlete or sportsmanship awards given by the NJSIAA and GMC. Every year, we try to distribute these honors to the most worthy of our senior (and 8th-grade) student-athletes, and every year we fail to do so perfectly. Some students and parents are disappointed, and other bystanders may criticize us for not picking someone they believe to be the “best” candidate.
If the charge is “emphasizing imperfect awards that add to the stress, and fail to make graduation season joyous for many students,” we would have to plead guilty. Humans make mistakes, awards have a subjective element in the judging, for every winner there are three or four losers. In that case, why do we continue to promote these career awards at the end of each school year? Our answer has two parts:
1.) A look at the real recipients of the “message” of award season
2.) A look at what remains in the memory banks 10, 20 or 30 ears later
1. Awards have two purposes: we certainly want to reward student-athletes who have contributed mightily to our program, but we also need to send a “message” to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen that “you can aspire to win this award in your senior year; embrace the virtues we are rewarding, and make them central to your performance, every day.” As a former headmaster of mine said every year at award time: “We honor the young men and women on stage tonight, but we also honor the notion of excellence itself.” That is, none of the award-winners are intrinsically better than anyone else; they are rewarded for their dedication to the ideals of the scholar-athlete, the great competitor, or the true sportsman. There is something very democratic in that notion. It also may lend a little humility to the “winners” while serving as a source of hope for the younger generation..
2. Since this blog post began with a comparison to the movie industry’s awards season, perhaps some well-known motion pictures can provide useful perspective on our awards, too. Now that the awards shows are over, and the newspaper stories have been written, does it matter that Moonlight won the Best Picture, rather than La-La Land? After all, audiences were moved by both pictures and both films made a lot of money for their producers, directors, actors, and assorted others.
If we still watch The Godfather 45 years after its release, we do so not because it won “Best Picture”, but because of the story, the beauty of the cinematography, and the memorable lines. People of my generation still sprinkle their conversation with “make him an offer he can’t refuse” or “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” After all, the Best Supporting Actor honors went to Joel Grey (Cabaret), rather than Godfather co-stars Robert Duvall, James Caan, or Al Pacino, but none of us today remember any memorable quotes from Cabaret.
In a similar way, the meaningful work a student puts in for a chemistry lab, like the effort he or she put into winning a soccer game, becomes part of their DNA, and, if it was really good, it affects the memories of others: classmates, teammates, teachers, and coaches. It lives on, regardless of whether they received an award for their work, or not.
My message to all the students who wonder why they are not given awards that they feel they deserve:
1. Remember what you did receive: a Wardlaw-Hartridge degree
2. Consider how outstanding Duvall or Pacino were in “The Godfather”
3. Consider the work that Duvall, Pacino, and Caan did in 1974, 1975, and 1976, after “losing” the Oscar.
4. Wherever you go to college, knock ‘em dead!
Entering my senior college football season, the coaching staff instituted some new conditioning drills. We were coming off two seasons in which the team had under-performed (5-3, 4-4) so, in addition to building our skills, the coaches knew it was important to enhance our toughness and competitiveness. Among the new drills was one that taught us that toughness and competitiveness could be better achieved as a team, than as an individual.
The drill was a variation of “gassers”, which require players to run the width of the field, over-and-back. This drill was called “Archers” (an explanation of the name will come later), requiring each player to sprint the width of the field 10 times. The squad is divided into sub-teams of 5, each of which contained Players A, B, C, D, and E. Player A is the first runner; on the whistle, he runs over-and-back (106 yards).
After his first trip, player A picks up B; holding hands, they run over-and-back (the second “lap” for A, the first for B).
By A’s third “lap” when he is running with B and C, fatigue usually sets in: C, being fresh, is usually able to pull the other two players to a faster pace.
After the 4-man team makes their lap, the 5-man group runs over and back. Player E is on his first lap, providing some “juice” to the group, while player A, although exhausted, is able to push harder, knowing it is his final lap. Thus, the 5-man group often takes the shape of an archer’s bow, being pulled by both A and E.
Just as the drill progresses from a 1-man gasser to a 5-man gasser, it then continues back to 1-man drill, as each player in turn drops off after completing his 5th “lap”. The players who have completed the drill provide verbal support for their teammates -- everyone wants their 5-man group to win, and no one wants their group to lose. Each group was typically composed of players from every position group, promoting a theoretically equal spread of speed and bulk. Thus, winning depends on effort, not just on physiology.
Among the lessons learned from this drill:
- A player can achieve more than he thought possible when he is doing it for a group of teammates: “Don’t let the group down!”
- New players (the substitute coming in off the bench) bring fresh energy, ego, and enthusiasm to the players who have been in the game, and may already be fatigued.
- Old players (seniors facing their final season, and their final chance to leave a legacy) also have the ability to motivate their teammates to try harder, because the results mean so much to them.
- Succeeding in a team sport requires more than individual effort; to get the most out of one’s teammates, it helps to have relationships based on trust and respect.
That football team went 7-1, winning a league championship. One of the marks of that squad’s toughness and competitiveness is the way we won:
Two of our most important wins were close games (3-point margin)
We won in all conditions: ankle-deep mud, snow, frozen mud.
The spring 2017 season will be the first in which Wardlaw-Hartridge has fielded a boys’ varsity lacrosse team. In order to do so, we have formed a “cooperative team” with players from both W-H and Union Catholic HS. Cooperative teams are allowed by the NJ Interscholastic Athletic Association to promote an emerging sports program. In this case, our goal is to grow the interest in this modern sport with ancient roots, so that both W-H and UC can have separate teams by the spring of 2019.
The roots of lacrosse were nurtured by our Native American predecessors, who developed several different versions of the game, depending on geography. While the tribes in the Southeast (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and others) allowed each player to manipulate the ball with two short (2 ½ foot sticks), one in each hand, the Great Lakes game (played by tribes like the Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, and Miami) allowed one 3-foot stick with a tiny pocket, barely larger than the ball. The tribes (Oneida, Lenape, Onandaga) in the Iroquois nation utilized a longer stick with a triangular head, resembling more closely the lacrosse stick we are familiar with. The number of players varied (up to 1,000 per team) as did the length of the field (500 yards - more than a mile).
For all the Native Americans, the sport (referred to by a number of names, including Baggataway or Teewaraton) was a way to prepare soldiers for battle, and to give thanks to the Creator. Modern enthusiasts of the sport will sometimes borrow the Native phrase “Creator’s Game” in linking it to its roots.
The French Jesuit missionaries and settlers were among the first to notice the sport, but the attempt to transform it into a sport for the North American white man included several innovators in our region: NYU was the first college to field a lacrosse team, in 1877, while the Lawrenceville School joined several other independent schools playing lacrosse in 1882.
From that point, the game grew unevenly; by the 1970s, it was popular in various parts of the country, notably Baltimore, Long Island, and upstate New York, plus Eastern Canada.
In the past 20 years, the growth of high school teams and youth teams has accelerated, and good players come from California, Colorado, Texas and the Midwest, as well as the game’s old East Coast strongholds. Nonetheless, across New Jersey, it is more firmly entrenched in some areas than others. For example, the Greater Middlesex Conference (our league) has 34 schools, but only 9 of them sponsor boys’ lacrosse. We continue to feel that our program will allow us to be in the forefront of growing a great game, requiring speed, skill, courage, and teamwork.
The fact that it is the sport that was played here before any white men set foot on the continent is an additional reason to make it part of our program.
For an interesting look at how one of the all-time winningest coaches in college lacrosse sees its relationship to its Native American past, check out this open letter from Dom Starsia:
Part of the myth of athletics in America involves the coach as an authority figure, controlling and dictating all aspects of team life. In this way of thinking intimidating one’s athletes can be justified in order to achieve unquestioned authority; after all, the players are “just kids" - so cowing them into accepting whatever comes out of the coach’s mouth is good for them in the long run, correct?
Not surprisingly, our coaches at Wardlaw-Hartridge take a more enlightened view of their leadership role. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than through their attitude regarding questions. Coach Lee Nicholls works to build a collaborative (as opposed to an authoritarian) process of growth on his teams, in which players’ questions indicate their trust in the coach. As Coach Jim Howard notes, even the standard question: “why are we doing this?” can be taken two different ways: as a challenge to the coach’s authority, or as an indication that the player is seeking more knowledge, to allow them to buy in to the coach’s scheme more fully. Nicholls notes that an athlete’s questions allow the coach to gain a better perspective in demonstrating which techniques are difficult for the player to master.
Coach Tim Head talks about how important it is for athletes to grow through their mistakes. He tells the story of last spring’s Middle School baseball team, which initially struggled to understand the infield fly rule. Encouraging players to ask questions about the different scenarios in which the rule might be invoked was essential to improving their understanding. Among the questions he would like to hear more are:
“What can I do to get better?” (from a player)
“How can I take responsibility to help us as a team?” (from a player)
“Can I take over this part of practice? I’ve got a different approach to teaching that.” (from an assistant coach)
In one memorable scene from the movie “Hoosiers”, the Dennis Hopper character “Shooter” Flatch is thrust into the head coaching role when Norman Dale gets ejected. In his first timeout, Shooter is initially unable to say anything, until he gets a simple question from one of the players (his son): “You reckon number 4 will take their last shot, Dad?” (at the 1:47 mark) which triggers his thinking, so that he quickly comes up with the game-winning tactics. Although their interactions with players are not always as dramatic as those in a Hollywood movie, Ram coaches clearly agree that having involved, committed athletes who ask questions can make their teams stronger.
Although he is the namesake of our town, Thomas Edison did not have Wardlaw-Hartridge in mind when he wrote, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Nonetheless, that mindset, which he credited for many of his ground-breaking accomplishments, is also a hallmark of many Ram athletes when they leave our campus for college and the wider world beyond. The way they overcame the challenges of high school athletics has given them the skills and the resilience to seize the opportunities they find in the world after W-H.
One Wardlaw-Hartridge alumna who is taking full advantage of college athletics is Camille Menns ’15. Currently a sophomore at Arcadia University, Camille is a playing a significant role on the Knights’ women’s basketball team. She recently tallied nine points in 15 minutes against Pitt-Greensburg and brought down nine rebounds in another early-season game against Immaculata. She credits her experience as a W-H student-athlete for much of her success, saying, “If I did not face challenges throughout my career at Wardlaw-Hartridge, I would not be successful at the collegiate level.” Knowing other college athletes who quit their sport because they couldn’t find balance, Camille is grateful for the time management skills, discipline and self-control that she took from her time with Coach Howell, Coach Arva and other mentors.
Menns, who also leads as a Peer Mentor in Arcadia’s Summer Gateway program, notes how the W-H “emphasis on community” enabled her to build genuine relationships that make her effective in that role. More generally, she relates to the self-esteem she took from what she accomplished at W-H as fuel that enables her to take risks in college:
“I take the most pride in my speech at Rams Recognition Night. I was truly humbled to be selected by my peers to represent them that night, and I often reflect on that speech from time to time.”
Other recent W-H graduates who have pursued non-athletic passions in college, share similar perspectives. Chase Levitt ’14 has thrown himself into journalism and leadership of student life organizations at Columbia University. Chase notes the most valuable lesson he gained from his four years as a Ram varsity baseball player: “W-H baseball taught me that there will be times when I fail. But there will always be later times in which I can find success. There will be another exam for which long studying can produce a good grade, and another cover letter for which well-thought writing can produce an interview.” Chase still competes – he has developed a love for squash, turning the lessons he learned from Coach Mulvey to good use in his friendly matches on that court.
One of the Rams who straddled the worlds of sports and the arts while in high school, Julia Linger ’15 continues to involve herself deeply in both performance and community service at Emerson College. Her pursuits range from Love Your Melon, which helps children with cancer, to her participation in a comedy troupe and her regular appearance as host on the college’s television channel. Like Menns, she credits her diverse pursuits at W-H, where she captained the varsity softball team, played the lead in The Miracle Worker, and served as the most entertaining mascot this side of the Phillie Phanatic:
“Spending so much time doing so many clubs, athletics, and extracurriculars at W-H, I have so much experience and many stories to tell. I feel I can relate to so many people and it just helps me expand my circles of understanding others. W-H athletics also taught me the discipline and importance of physical fitness. At Emerson, I try to continue to run and push myself harder everyday to improve.”
We want all of our current Wardlaw-Hartridge students to trust the value of their co-curricular pursuits, although they cannot now know exactly where their hard work will take them in the future. We would like them to accept what Abraham Lincoln knew: “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.”
It is a well-established mantra in sports that the team that works harder deserves to win the game. As America took that mantra to heart, thousands of Vince Lombardi wannabe coaches, who may have only grasped the caricature of the man, have berated their players with a constant admonition to “WORK HARDER!!” But, in the years since American business popularized the saying “Don’t work harder, work smarter” have our coaches smartened up and changed their ways? What does rigor mean in American athletics today?
One of the best ways to illustrate the concept of rigorous work in sports is to look at strength training, where many of the gains that separate the athletes of today from those of the past have been made. One of the ways that athletes push past the competition is by internalizing the notion of perfect form. We have all seen that athlete trying to impress his buddies with how much weight he can move on the bench press. With his elbows wide, he stops the bar six inches from his chest and jerks it quickly upward, wiggling his hips to get leverage. In contrast, the athlete who moves the bar through a complete range of motion, keeping a steady load on his muscles by moving it in a smooth, gradual manner, elbows close to his side, gains much more functional strength, reducing his chance of injury, and improving his play.
As opposed to the caricature of the coach, the real Vince Lombardi understood the value of perfect form, as he explained another old adage: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
The second way in which strength training teaches athletes about rigor is by teaching them how hard they can push themselves. Early on in a training regimen, the athlete confronts aching muscles, shortness of breath, genuine discomfort. When she learns that she can muster “one more rep,” she begins to make more significant gains in strength and endurance. Although there are many different variations of lifting programs, they all force the athlete, at some point, to push themselves to the point where the muscle fails, in order to generate maximum strength gains.
Again, our recent alumnus and former baseball captain Michael shows what it looks like when an athlete pushes himself to temporary muscle failure.
Although Vince Lombardi did not force his players into a modern weight-lifting program, he firmly understood the emotional benefits of a maximum effort: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hours – his greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear – is that moment when he has worked his heart out in good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
Past blog posts (September, 2015) have focused on the social laboratory that is an athletic team, looking at the imperative for every individual to be a better teammate, and the group goal of building a healthy team culture that will motivate and sustain the individual players. However, there is another community-building aspect of Ram Athletics, centered on the fans, and their support for the players who are “in the arena."
If we showed this video to the man on the street, he might focus on a bunch of adolescents, enacting the ritual of fandom that they had witnessed at professional and college games: painting their shirtless chests to spell out their team’s name, jumping around, fueled by testosterone, making lots of noise. However, there was much more to this display. Those W-H students, many of them members of our boys’ soccer team, had traveled to another school to watch and cheer for our girls’ soccer team at a GMC playoff game last year.
In several ways, this fan club exemplifies many of the best elements of the Wardlaw-Hartridge notion of community. They were celebrating their membership in a school community. The green and gold uniform was a symbol of their shared membership, but they were not cheering for the colors. They were cheering for a group of girls who attended the same Morning Meeting and faced the same required classes and Senior Speech expectation as they did. Living in different towns, attending different houses of worship, and taking very different family vacations, they reveled in their shared identity as Wardlaw-Hartridge Rams.
Sometimes our community unites in support of more significant cause than athletic victory. Such was the case last winter, when Brendan O’Brien took off on his 15-mile run from Edison to Sayreville, raising awareness of our commitment to our military veterans. From Lower School students to adults, we were all eager to let him know he had our support.
Men and women from very different political perspectives have contributed to our understanding of the importance of community, making the same points that our coaches seek to instill in their charges. Labor leader and Latino civil rights activist Cesar Chavez wrote:
We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.
In a similar vein, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said:
Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends on a community of persons working together.
An extended beauty of sports is its ability to include others, from outside the student body in the community that unites in celebrating a team’s accomplishments. This video, shot in Laidlaw Gym last month, illustrates how parents, family members, and assorted others can be drawn into the web of community that develops in the wake of a winning team.
According to the headlines, the 21st Century is not an easy time to be a parent, and some of that stress is affecting the way parents of athletes behave toward their children, their children’s coaches, teammates’ parents, and officials.
Carly Lloyd’s recently-released memoir, detailing how her alienation from her family was triggered by an inability to find a balanced approach in supporting her athletic aspirations, will also give some families pause.
Horror stories, such as the one about the Boston-area youth hockey coach, beaten to death at practice by another parent are easy to find. The HBO documentary Real Sports focused on the violence as a “growing trend” in this 2012 episode. Other observers have questioned the impact on the child from high-pressure sports parenting, as seen in the Netflix movie Trophy Kids.
Before congratulating ourselves about the fact that such behavior does not happen at Wardlaw-Hartridge, it is worth remembering that Ram Athletics exist within this larger American sports culture. Parents who want a healthy athletic experience for their child can legitimately worry about how to foster that sense of balance in a world where other competitors’ parents are obsessed with winning, disdainful of sportsmanship, or too focused on the brass ring of athletic scholarships. To help the Wardlaw-Hartridge community support student-athletes in ways that promote meaningful long-term learning through sport, we offer the following suggestions from experts in the field of sports psychology and athletic team dynamics.
Dr. Gregory Dale summarizes the role of the supportive sport parent as threefold:
- § Encourage fun
- § Motivate success
- § Work with coaches
He offers a host of resources on his website:
Having attended three of Dr. Dale’s presentations, I find him to be a particularly insightful authority on athletic performance and healthy living.
Parents might be interested in seeing the “Parent Pledge” promoted by the Positive Coaching Alliance. Recognizing that competitive sports have an immediate goal of winning, they stress that it is the job of the coach and players to compete; while it is the parents’ job to support the athletes and the mission of the team. A big part of the PCA message is the value of what they call a “full emotional tank.” All of us have seen athletes who were “fired-up and ready to go” and conversely, we have all seen athletes who were distracted, sad, or anxious. We all know which emotional state produces better performance. Positive coaching also stresses that worry about the scoreboard usually produces more anxiety and worse performance than focusing on the process. In particular, they ask coaches and parents to direct young athletes to focus on the aspects that they can control, which they call “the ELM tree of mastery”:
Exerting a maximum Effort
Learning through sports
Getting beyond Mistakes, ritually “flushing” them from memory
Maybe the best takeaway from these experts is the following: if it is hard to be a sports parent in the 21st Century, it can also be hard to be an athlete. Young people in sports are pushed by their coaches and pulled by the demands of competition. Parents can help their children in sports immensely, primarily as supporters. Ideal parents, in sports and other areas of their children’s life, are guided by their heart and their head, but wise enough to know which one to follow at a given moment.
For many years, commentators have repeated a quote supposedly spoken by the Duke of Wellington: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” It is a wonderful thought, giving credit to the elite British boarding schools (in particular their athletic programs) for turning their children into strong, confident young men who could defeat Napoleon’s army. Isn’t that what we want for all our students: to develop the competitiveness and character that will enable them to take on the world, and win?
In recent times, a more nuanced view of sport as a character-builder has emerged:
Heywood Hale Broun (pictured), a sportswriter from the 1960’s and 70’s famously said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
Darrell Royal, head football coach at Texas, made a point that extends to all competitive sports: “Football doesn’t build character. It eliminates the weak ones.”
An unknown comedian once said, “Sport develops not character, but characters.”
Those pithy quotes help us to understand the challenge to the coach who is committed to use sport to teach life lessons. A young man’s or woman’s character is already forming by the time they turn 6 years old. Whatever elements will mark their personality are already in place before they show up to play on a team. Wise coaches get to know their players as they coach them, figuring out their strengths, weaknesses and motivations. Their mission is to enhance the attributes (courage, honesty, concern for others, and a strong work ethic) that contribute to team success, while working to overcome the habits (fear, laziness, discouragement, egotistical behavior) that can manifest negatively for the team, and in later life. If the players are motivated by the opportunity for team success, the coach has a chance to enhance the character that already exists.
As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (pictured) once said, “Yes, sports can build character. But they also can tear down character.” Parents and coaches each play a role in shaping the character that is demonstrated so vividly under the strain of competition. When our players “do the right thing” we can all be proud.
We know that we have that sort of coach at Wardlaw-Hartridge, and we get proof of it every day. Watch baseball coach Andy Mulvey’s practice, where he challenges his team to get better in many specific ways, while building up the players with positive reinforcement. Then observe those athletes competing in a close game. Listen to Captains’ Council President Lacey Gress, speaking at Rams Recognition Night about one time that basketball coach Mike Howell lifted her and her teammates out of a funk, getting them to embrace the bigger challenges that come from competition. Ram coaches are in it for the right reasons.
A word to anyone checking out the links below: the videos are rather long – you can find some good material without seeing the entire video, even by skipping through them.
Jim Thompson (PCA founder) on the state of character building in sports: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHSbb_w2V-E
John Wooden on the difference between winning and succeeding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MM-psvqiG8
“Your reputation is what you are perceived to be, your character is what you are.” John Wooden
We frequently see references to the need for business people, politicians, and even academics to function in “the competitive arena.” It has long been thought that playing sports helps prepare young people to thrive in the battles of their adult life. The Duke of Wellington was famously misquoted, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Today, famous athletes and coaches earn large speaker fees from business people for presenting the wisdom drawn from their athletic careers as a recipe for success.
From the perspective of a career in athletics, I believe such ideas are overly simple, and miss many of the most valuable lessons to be learned from competition. After all, exposure to competition does not in and of itself produce a great competitor, any more than throwing a child into water produces an Olympic swim champion. In order to benefit and grow from competition, it helps if the following are part of the equation. To be successful in competitive endeavors one must:
a. Understand that success rarely happens for the “lone wolf”: value the contributions of mentors, teammates, and other partners; work to maximize the value of their assistance, and cooperate with one’s teammates and partners to advance the greater good.
b. Accept losing for what it is: a possible outcome. The great competitor is never resigned to losing, and may hate to lose, but steers clear of negative reactions (blaming others, low self-esteem, substance abuse, losing faith in his technique or coach) to defeat.
c. Master the balance between technical skill and passion that allows you to compete at your best: skill without energy or enthusiasm will rarely defeat a worthy opponent. However, passion alone will fail before a skilled foe. Some people are naturally competitive and others place more value on other attributes. Both types need to strike a balance in order to succeed in the arena of conflict.
d. Take advantage of a supportive environment: it is easier to bounce back from defeat if one is seen as a winner by teammates, coaches and family. If others believe in the competitor, it is more likely that the competitor will believe and have confidence.
e. Have a life beyond competition: those who obsesses night and day about their chosen field will likely burn out, while people who can turn off the competitive fires while enjoying their family or listening to a symphony will build up reserves of strength that ultimately provide fuel in the heat of competition.
One summary thought: Confidence is key, and true confidence must be earned. When we have earned our self-assurance, it will always be a “great day to be a Ram.”
Choose groups to clone to: