Game On! The Importance of Participation at The Elisabeth Morrow School

by Aaron Cooper
Assistant Head of School

Winter 2012

Think back on your middle school days if you haven’t blocked them out!  For many, the middle school years may be the most difficult years in one’s adolescent life.  Hormones, changing bodies, social pressures and academic stress can add up.  In fact, the middle school years take students from the apex of childhood to the beginnings of adulthood, a significant and sometimes tumultuous journey.  
     If you can move past whatever negative memories you have of middle school, try to remember the positive times in those years.  Remember the things that helped you get by; maybe it was a group of friends, perhaps it was a passion you poured yourself into, or possibly it was some club to which you belonged.  Whatever it was, you likely emerged from those years with a better sense of who you were and of where your interests lay.  
    As middle school educators, members of our faculty know that there are certain traits within strong programs that can help students overcome the myriad difficulties of this age. 
  • A broad program that ignites and engages interests in the students can inspire their focus: at Elisabeth Morrow, students can take six academic subjects, play an instrument, sing in a chorus, attend a club meeting and go to sports practice, all in the same day.
  • Middle school students need to feel a sense of belonging to a team or group during a time in their lives when they do not even feel as though they belong to their own bodies: advisory groups, dramatic productions, clubs, musical groups, and sports teams accomplish this aim.
  • This is an age where children begin forming their identity – personally, intellectually, and socially – and they begin to learn the role that they play in larger groups: At EMS our students learn that the role they play on a team is important, whether it is in sports, the orchestra, a classroom or in an advisory group.    
       One program that fulfills much of what is necessary for middle school students’ development is athletics.    
       At Elisabeth Morrow, we have developed our athletics program to model that which is best for middle school students.  Beginning in the sixth grade, students can choose from up to four sports each season.  There are no cuts, so they automatically belong to their team, and each student who dresses for a game gets to play in that game, allowing students to learn how to play various roles on teams.  Andy Escala ‘83 is the Athletic Director.  “We are more of a throw-back [school], where participation is encouraged.  We realize that there is more that students can get out of athletics without a win-at-all-costs philosophy.  We teach students to compete and to work with individuals of different skill levels,” says the man who played three sports in high school and went on to play Division I baseball in college and professional baseball afterwards.
     Gone are the days of the three-sport college athlete.  Dying are the days of the three-sport high school athlete.  Specializing in a sport is becoming the norm.  At Elisabeth Morrow, where we value, in the words of our mission, “tradition, innovation, and the joy of lifelong learning,” the model of participatory athletics without the requirement of experience or specialization, truly represents the “best of the old.” 
      The sports program also represents the ‘best of the new.’  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ mission includes fusing the “three Rs and the four Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).” These four Cs which are different from our familiar four, are crucial for success in the modern world.  In its emphasis on teamwork, athletics directly targets collaboration and communication.  In engaging with strategies, athletes exercise critical thinking and creativity.  In Mr. Escala’s words, “Athletics is where people have to work together to achieve a common goal, where everyone’s individual talents are placed together for the good of the team.”  In this way, Elisabeth Morrow is preparing students for success in the modern world with a participatory philosophy that has been declining in our society for years in favor of a focus on individual success.  At EMS, tradition and innovation are wrapped up together.
    Over my years at three schools, I have coached many middle school sports teams.  I have coached some that did not win (I particularly remember an 0-9 baseball season at my last school) and others that did not lose.  Significantly, whether they won or lost, whether the team was terrible or excellent, the students have almost always acted the same way after games: For the first five  minutes, they rehash the game – the excitement of a win or the disappointment of a loss. Then, almost without exception, their focus changes to the new movie, that night’s homework, or some other activity that is important to them.  Further, the success of a middle school team has no bearing on the level of commitment or enthusiasm from the players.  In middle school, students play to be on the team, to have fun with their friends, and to learn something new.  Winning is a smaller priority.  As a coach, I have learned that if I want their attention, I have to hold a post-game team meeting immediately or their minds wander elsewhere.  I have also learned that I – and their parents – hold onto the results of the game far longer than they do. 
    The Elisabeth Morrow teams have a wide variety of talent.  Some teams have been very successful (the ice hockey, boys’ basketball, and volleyball teams have been undefeated in recent years) and others less so.  But wins and losses are not the point:  the goal is giving kids a sense of belonging, some enjoyment and exposure to sports and competition, and the experience of being on a team.
    Our graduates see the value in athletics, and many participate in high school.  “The kids here get a chance to [experience] a little bit of everything.  Even if they play [Junior Varsity], that’s participating.  It doesn’t matter.  Not everybody has to be a superstar, but if they can learn it, enjoy it, and take it with them to the next level, they don’t always have to be the best. It’s just important that they play,” Mr. Escala says.  (See box for two vignettes of our recent alumni and their experiences in sports at EMS and in high school.)
    Whether they are stars or just in it to participate, students at The Elisabeth Morrow School learn the benefits of athletics, both for long-term learning and a healthier lifestyle as well as for short-term strategy in navigating the sometimes-troubled waters of the middle school years.