Today brings a chance to see not one but two different Island School teams competing for state championship titles on O’ahu. From my very first experiences on campus, people noted the change (for the better) in our athletic program, clearly a point of pride, especially for a school our size. With Super Bowl LVII around the corner, one wonders where should sports fit into a well-balanced educational diet, especially here?
To begin at the beginning, let me confess to being a pretty decent high school athlete and less than pretty decent college athlete. Each season brought a new sport for me, from football to basketball to track through what we then called junior high up to high school graduation. Then some Division III (non-scholarship) level competition as an undergrad. Those activities basically defined my days, giving them structure and a cadence from season starts to postseason competitions. My friends were mostly my teammates. My family went to most of my home games, rarely traveled to away games, and saw me play in college maybe twice.
Fast forward to now, to an even more sports-crazed nation, where little children regularly start playing organized, league-based sports before they know how to read. Pressure starts early to specialize, to join clubs with big schedules and frequent out of town contests. There’s tons of talk about being good enough for a college to pay part or all of a young person’s tuition, often resulting in families investing time and money for opportunities to be seen by a chosen few experts or next-level coaches.
If you asked me, which you probably wouldn’t, whether these trends are mostly good for kids and families or mostly a net negative, I’d have to go with the second answer. But if you asked me if playing sports can be a hugely meaningful developmental experience for anyone, especially for young people, I’d say absolutely yes. There are things you can learn as a member of a team or a competition in a physically demanding activity that are not impossible to learn elsewhere, but far more likely in sports.
Which leads to one of the key underlying reasons for nurturing our athletic program. Being part of something where score is kept, where celebrations and disappointments are likely, as a complement for everything that happens in the academic day, where taking care of your body really matters, is all worth the effort we (and you) make. Watching one of my 10th grade advisees join our pretty new baseball team as an entirely new to the game player has been a highlight already. That move takes courage, and curiosity, and a special kind of welcome from coaches and players.
One other point worth emphasizing is the false perception of an either-or choice between arts and athletics. Just as there shouldn’t be such a conflicted relationship between academics or athletics. Each should strengthen the other, and despite the pressure on time that young people face and the difficulty in making calendars work, it’s absolutely worth the trouble. We may attract a soccer player who can add a lot to the chorus. A student might find success in running that provides confidence that helps in the classroom. Let’s agree to see children as something beyond one trick ponies.
Getting all that right is no simple task, but isn’t it great that we have the opportunity to try? Some of our students will end up as truly outstanding in a given activity, and we should be there to support their reaching the highest peak possible. Most, just to be honest, will not, and for them we should provide a full range of programs and possibilities and chances to learn.
The swim and soccer teams that I’m lucky enough to watch today contain serious and not so serious athletes— and we need every one of them. That blend of talents and commitments is a beautiful thing to see, and it all starts with their willingness to put themselves out there. I’d absolutely love to see them bring back huge trophies, putting Kaua’i on the sports map where we belong, but in many important ways, they’ve already won.
Keep encouraging children to play— to play the piano, to paddle, or to play chess, the same way we encourage them to read. Don’t look too far into the future, and please let their experiences guide your choices of which doors to open for them next, and please, please don’t put too much pressure on yourselves as adults to get this perfect. It’s supposed to be fun, like school is.