Education Opinion

Independent Schools and Sports

By Peter Gow — May 08, 2013 4 min read
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One of the signal differences between many independent schools and the rest of the K-12 world is the emphasis on sport as an integral part of independent schools’ educational programs. For many independent school kids, donning the school uniform to compete against other schools is a regular, often mandatory part of life from about fourth or fifth grade forward.

Interscholastic sports are yet another part of American education’s sometimes dubious debt to the British. Ever since established boarding schools in England began competing in rowing, cricket, Rugby football (named for the school whose legendary head Thomas Arnold is associated with the idea of “manly” competition as building character and draining off the excess energy of teenage boys), we have associated an athletic ideal with a fine education.

Clearly enough, this tradition was soon taken up by American public and other schools, giving us Friday Night Lights, McDonald’s All-Americans, and homicidal cheerleader moms--we’re a nation in love with school spirit and with a weird tendency to elevate athletic prowess into a proxy for other kinds of quality.

This elevation certainly hasn’t escaped the independent school mind. Here in sunny Boston, as much attention may be paid to which league an independent high school competes in as to its college list. And rivalries--and doesn’t every school in the world claim a traditional rival?--ignite the spirits of independent school students, coaches, teachers, families, and alums as much as they do the local communities whose entire populations fill public school stadia on Thanksgiving mornings for the annual football matchup against the town’s arch-rival.

But I digress. The majority of independent school sporting events, do not actually pit picked squads of selected, committed athletes--the Varsity--against one another. No, the majority are JV, Third Team, and middle school contests many of whose members are in a kind of involuntary servitude to sport, the school, and above all to a participation policy that has less to do with victory than with the sort of character development of which we think Arnold of Rugby would approve.

I’ve been one of the dragooned inepts taking up space on a field where I would have preferred, like Ferdinand the Bull, “to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.” Pregame calisthenics, endless drills, and terrifying games were among the most trying parts of middle and high school for me, although in time I learned to love a couple of sports, worked to master a few basic skills, and even spent 20-some years of fall and spring afternoons as an earnest if not highly skilled coach.

But even as a schoolboy I picked up the gist of what it was all about: I learned about team spirit, even school spirit, and about leaving it all--or at least a chunk of it--on the field. I tested myself against the laws of physics as well as the boys from Ridley, and I learned a bit about good, compassionate teaching from some of my coaches--all dragooned, like me, into coaching as part of their teaching position at an independent school. I learned even more about loyalty and commitment from the kids I coached.

It was, and is, supposed to be all about values: teamwork, collaboration, self-sacrifice, hard work, creativity, humility in victory and grace in defeat. The health and “whole child” aspects are here, too: the venerable ideal of mens sana in corpore sano. Unlike the public schools, where the unskilled and uninterested self-select out of the program until those Thanksgiving Day warriors are indeed a picked, psyched phalanx, independent schools--lots of them, anyhow--include athletic participation as an expectation. The authentic assessments represented by games or matches become part of students’ lives, to be borne patiently (or grumpily) by some and to be seized on as the elixir of life by others.

It’s a long tradition, and contemporary trends can get in the way of the ideal. Students dreaming of college and professional participation tend these days to concentrate on a single sport year-round. No longer are “three-sport varsity” athletes likely to be the school’s best. Schools devise waiver policies to allow these monoculturalists to focus on their soccer, say, even when the school’s lacrosse or volleyball team might desperately need their athletic talent and positive presence. Students involved in niche or individual sports like horseback riding, figure skating, or fencing may never wear a school uniform, sweating away their afternoons in other venues. Most schools also make provisions for students with serious interests in the arts, although some “fitness” requirement may linger.

On the whole, I’m a fan. The compassionate coaching I experienced at the low levels and the phenomenal team spirit that some of my varsity teams developed have taught me that sports really can be a positive in all the ways embedded in the ideals. Not every student becomes a jock or a sports fan, but that’s never been the point. The point is simply for kids to experience what it is to be a member of a group with goals requiring some hard, collective, and often creative effort to achieve--kind of like being an engaged human being in our time.

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