This article originally appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Harker Magazine. The winter issue of the Harker Magazine will be in mailboxes at the end of December with great features on computer science, the first year at college, our wonderful BEST program and more!
About 21.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 play team sports, according to a 2011 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Nearly 40 percent of those are between the ages of 13 and 16. At Harker, nearly 70 percent of students in grades 4-12 participate in the school’s sports program. So, what attracts students to athletics?
We Are Family
A popular acronym in the sports world states: Together Everyone Achieves More. Sports aren’t just about making yourself better or boosting your own stats; they are about putting the team first. As upper school boys and girls golf coach Ie-Chen Cheng stated, “The most successful teams we’ve had are always the ones with team members who understand the importance of team goals.” This unity can be very meaningful to student athletes.
“The bond between teammates is something very unique and special,” stated volleyball and lacrosse player Taylor Iantosca, grade 12. “We go through a lot together: the wins, the losses, the victories, the tragedies, everything. I enjoy being able to contribute to something greater than myself while representing my school.”
Sharing these experiences and spending a lot of time together creates a deep sense of camaraderie and friendship. “Sure, we all like to compete and win,” stated middle and upper school coach Mike Delfino, “but as the years go on, the game results tend to fade a bit from memory. But the friendships made and the overall experience of being part of a team and competing last forever.”
Isabella Spradlin, grade 11, said, “My teammates on the volleyball team know me better than anyone else, because we are required to have such a deep understanding of each other’s personalities and abilities. Throughout the season, we spend so much time practicing and getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can get the best possible outcome in any match or situation.”
If teammates are like a family, then the coaches are like the parents. Harker prides itself on selecting the best possible leaders for every sport. When asked how Harker went from being a new high school in the late 1990s with little success in athletics, to a school that produces numerous WBAL, CCS and state competitors each year, Dan Molin, upper school athletic director, was quick to give praise to one group of people. “It really has to do with our coaches,” he said. “Kids recognize quality and it’s proven with our coaching staff. [The students] buy in and the coach shows them the way.”
The quality of the programs and coaches resulted in a 2015-16 season in which 13 of the upper school’s 20 varsity sports sent teams or individuals to the CCS or NCS playoffs, with one individual advancing to NorCals, and three individuals and one team making it all the way to state. This emphasis on top-notch coaching also has produced success at the middle and lower schools, with nine league championship teams during the 2015-16 season.
But the Harker athletic experience isn’t only about the victories. “We don’t talk about winning, although of course we try to win, but that’s not the ultimate barometer,” said Molin.
However, when individuals unite for a common goal, like a family, “it increases their chance of succeeding because they learn to have each other’s backs,” stated Karriem Stinson, lower and middle school assistant athletic director.
Have Some Fun
“First off, we want to make sure the kids are having fun,” stated Molin, regarding the mission of Harker’s athletic department. Athletics allows students to escape the books and classrooms for a short time; it gives their minds a break from academics and allows them to concentrate on a completely different area.
“In an academic environment like Harker, [sports] is the break that a lot of them need in the day,” stated Brighid Wood, a middle school coach and assistant to the athletic directors.
“Basketball is my outlet,” said Jordan Thompson, grade 12. “I can forget all my responsibilities and just focus on the game.”
Soccer and volleyball player Aria Wong, grade 8, agrees. “Having something to do after school lets me forget about tests and homework and lose myself on the field,” she said.
Rosh Roy, grade 8, who plays flag football, basketball, soccer and runs track, added, “I like sports because it lets me be free and also lets me share memories with my friends.” While some students simply want to have fun, others find great satisfaction in succeeding in sports.
“My favorite aspect of sports was simply the opportunity to accomplish something unique,” stated Shrish Dwivedi ’15, an accomplished golfer at Harker who now plays at Duke University. “Academic pursuits afford a self-satisfaction that is extremely fulfilling; however, athletic accomplishments provide an incomparable feeling that I find highly enjoyable.”
Growing from the Inside
Perhaps the most important benefit of competing in sports is the personal growth each athlete experiences. “Athletics help children understand a lot about themselves. You’re looking well beyond the Xs and Os,” said Wood. “You’re looking at the actual child. You’re helping them grow as a human being.”
When a coach can lift up a child like that, everyone wins. Competing in sports also gives students the opportunity to learn how to fail, as well as how to deal with not being the best at an activity. In a recent article for Observer.com, titled “How Playing Sports, Even Poorly, Can Make You More Successful in Business,” author Judy Mandell cited psychologist Robert Troutwine: “To persevere when one is not good at something shows a great deal of character. To continue to strive under conditions of failure shows determination, the ability to handle frustration and resiliency.”
Anthony Contreras, grade 11, explained that sports can help athletes grow in the face of adversity and use this growth in other areas: “Sports has shown me how to handle difficult situations and to how to properly learn from my mistakes. Everything that I have learned from sports carries on to my personal and student life.” This personal growth isn’t just a handy trait that helps someone be a good person – it can be useful in the professional world as well.
Mandell continued in her article citing Rachel Gary, director of media strategies and communications at ONE World Sports: “Many of the traits needed to succeed in sports are similar to those needed to succeed in business, including goal-setting, confidence, discipline and leadership skills.” These skills, along with others, have helped Kristina Bither ’09 in her medical career. “Now working in the emergency department, I am able to stay calm and focused when situations get stressful,” she said. “I know the importance of coming together to work as a team and stepping up to be a leader when it is needed.”
Theresa “Smitty” Smith, lower and middle school athletic director, summed up what it’s like being part of the Harker athletic department: “There are little victories every day.” Whether it’s seeing the athletes growing as a family, growing as individuals or just having some fun, the victories on and off the field, court or pool show why teens continue to flock to sports.