Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
Playoffs!!?? Don’t talk about…playoffs !!
At this time of year, as our varsity teams begin their post-season play, I am asked lots of questions about the playoffs:
Which organization is this playoff game a part of?
What is our league?
Why are we in this championship or this tournament?
What are we playing for? – if we win, we would be champions of what?
Unlike Colts coach Jim Mora in 2001, I don’t mind answering questions about the playoffs.
We belong to two state-wide athletic associations and a conference (or league). Both the associations and the league divide their members according to school enrollment and strength of program, to promote fair and meaningful competition. Ideally, the playoffs and championships at the end of the season will be scheduled in a manner that do not overlap but, when they do, we make the best of the situation:
Please click on the logos below to learn the basic facts about each association and their roles in determining our athletic schedules:
Explanation of the video clip:
Nov. 25, 2001
The Indianapolis Colts, after earning a spot in the playoffs in Coach Jim Mora’s first two years, had just lost to the 49ers to drop their record to 4-6. The coach began his remarks to the press by focusing on how inept their offense had been that day, when one reporter asked him about the Colts’ chances of making the playoffs. His response is now a piece of American sports lore and legend.
What does the “plus” in W + H mean? In what ways does school life create something in our students’ experiences that didn’t exist before? In Athletics, that process of creating a new entity is most clearly shown in the concept of a team, in which 10, or 15, or 20 individuals come together, under the guidance of their coaches, to create something new.
One of the clichés that supports the value of teams is “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” As with many common sayings, the wording of the original phrase was different, and the different formulations through history provide useful ways of thinking about the value of an athletic team.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, wrote. "...the whole is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the totality is something besides the parts, there is a cause of unity ...". What brings a team together? What makes its members dedicate themselves to the well-being of the unit, and makes team success more important than individual glory? Is it the camaraderie, the bonds between teammates? Is it the athletes’ respect for their coach, and their desire to live up to the principles he espouses? Is it a recognition that the only defense against a rival team is to work in unison with one’s own teammates?
In the 20th Century, the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka declared, "The whole is other than the sum of its parts." When that phrase was mis-translated by some Americans to “greater than the sum of its parts” Koffka was careful to correct the speaker. What he meant can be illustrated by the triangle to the right: there are 3 black figures that create a white space between them. Our mind has a concept of the nature of a triangle, so we see a triangle in that white space. The white triangle space is not “greater” than the black figures, it is different. According to the Gestalt thinkers, athletic coaches must have a pre-conceived notion of a team, and must teach those characteristics to their athletes. All the actions help create a team, such as:
- common suffering through conditioning drills
- adoption of a selfless, sharing, style of play
- team dinners or other social events
- sharing of duties like transporting team equipment will only help build team bonds if the players are alerted that their goal is to create a strong unit, and given a clear picture of what “team” feels like.
What have we learned from our exploration of these philosophers? Even though they may have never taken a corner kick, or turned a double play, they teach us that:
- Teams do not come into existence automatically or by accident
- Coaches must develop a concept of shared effort and accomplishment in their players’ psyche, and must teach their players how to achieve that goal
- Players must want to be on a successful team, to adopt the mindset of a champion
All the more reason to celebrate the successful Ram teams of the past, and the present!
In a provocatively titled article in The Atlantic two years ago, Joe Pinsker asked “Why Do Former High School Athletes Make More Money?” https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/why-do-former-high-school-athletes-make-more-money-and-get-better-jobs/394283/
As it turns out, this is not based on wishful thinking, nor is it a misinterpretation of the facts. There are many metrics demonstrating the earning power of high school athletes compared to non-athletes. The earning power of athletes is correlated with several other differences including their prominence (relative to non-athletes) in upper management positions (see graph below). It is as true for women as it is for men. http://www.nber.org/papers/w15728 It is true when athletes are compared to musicians, actors, or yearbook editors.
Now a group of academic researchers, led by post-doc researcher Kevin Kniffin, is trying to answer questions about why that disparity exists:
- § Is it because kids with more marketable skills, and more confidence, are drawn to sports?
- § Do sports teach the skills that make successful business people and professionals?
- § Do some sports teach those skills better than others?
One encouraging piece of the data: Former athletes not only earn more, but they give more back to society, giving more money and donating more time to good causes.
Kniffin, et al.’s findings will be of interest to parents, and to others (like me) who love sports and value their place in our society. However, I will pay a lot less attention to the statistics on athletes’ average salaries, while paying more attention to the data on the skills that athletes learn by competing and being a great teammate. Lifetime earnings are only one measure of success. After all, if a former Ram athlete chooses to excel at a less lucrative profession, we want him or her to lead and achieve in that field, too.
For the past three years, our Rams Recognition Night banquet has been headlined by two student-athletes, chosen by the Captains’ Council to represent the Wardlaw-Hartridge athletic experience. Opening and closing this year’s presentation were seniors Carlin Schildge and Jordan Rose. Their speeches contained powerful messages to their teammates, parents, and coaches about the most valuable lessons they learned competing as Rams.
Carlin, who excelled at soccer and cheer (serving as captain of both teams), started by recognizing the extraordinary opportunities available to W-H students in the Ram Athletic program. Her own career, in which she quickly became her team’s best offensive threat in a new sport (girls’ lacrosse), only to switch to boys’ lacrosse on the school’s first-ever varsity squad, was offered as proof of the support for student opportunity offered by the school.
But, she pointed out, the very presence of so much opportunity makes it incumbent on the athletes to seize those opportunities with a full heart and a full gas tank.
Using Coach Mike Romeo’s words, she pointed out that the extraordinary accomplishments of the W-H girls’ team the past four years were significant as indicators of the “story” that the team wrote about itself.
In an homage to Kobe Bryant, Jordan began his speech with a “Dear Basketball” letter that he penned this February, after realizing that he had played his last organized game.
He demonstrated how Coach Maxwell’s words, notably his reminder that “basketball is a microcosm of life,” had stuck with him.
As examples, he cited three of the most vibrant lessons that basketball had taught him about life:
a. Respect is earned, not given
b. Change is inevitable, but growth is optional
c. We are defined in life by our response to failure
Both Carlin and Jordan gave numerous examples of the particular challenges, and the unique strengths of Ram Athletics. They are grateful for the ways their athletic experience (and many aspects of their education) were different for having enrolled at W-H. Speaking for everyone in the room, Jordan ended the evening by reminding the audience that, “We are what we choose to be, and I chose to be a Ram.”
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.”
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