Last Saturday, the energy in Park’s West Gym was palpable. As the Varsity Girls Basketball team took the ball down the court to score in the 22nd annual Hoopfest, the bleachers were awash in green and white, with thundering cheers of “Go Park!” This basketball tournament brings 120 boys and girls in middle school together for a day of competition. If you were in the gym on Saturday or had been on the sidelines during a fierce soccer match this fall, you already know the answer to my question. Competitive middle school athletics matter not because of the wins and the losses (although winning is great!) but because of the experiences they provide and the student growth they inspire.
Park’s Unique Offering of PE and Athletics
At Park, athletics and physical education are a central piece to how we deliver Park’s Mission and build the attributes of The Park Portrait. We are one of a few schools that require physical education PreK through Grade 8 and offer a broad range of Upper Division athletic teams. At many schools, physical education ends when competitive after-school athletics begin. Here, we see the value in offering both. Park’s approach to physical literacy is purposeful, research-driven, and tailored to the developmental needs of our students.
Building Skills in Physical Education
Health and fitness are building blocks of a life well-lived. At Park, our youngest students in PreK attend Physical Education class three times per week so that they begin to learn a wide-range of skills – from gross motor to hand-eye coordination. With regular PE classes, skills develop over time and are linked to child development. This is the best time for children to experience a wide range of activities: outdoor education, dance, team sports, and a sampling of games played around the world. Over the ten-year Park arc, students are encouraged to become “physically literate.” They develop lifelong habits and the knowledge, skills, and attitude to be active and healthy for life. In fact, our eighth graders graduate knowing how to use a gym and how to design and implement their own fitness plans.
The Offer of Elective Competitive Sports
As students enter the Upper Division, many are developmentally ready for competition. We encourage students to choose an after-school activity – either drama or one of the 15 athletic teams. The majority of secondary schools require all of their students to participate in competitive athletics. It is important that they get this experience in middle school, so that they are ready and eager to participate. We’ve specifically chosen to offer both individual and team sports each season that will provide a great team experience and opportunities for leadership. In 2019-20, 93% of our Upper Division students chose to participate in at least one season of competitive sports.
Park Athletes in High School and College
Athletics are also increasingly important at secondary schools and colleges. Park alumni go on to be instrumental members of their varsity teams in every sport we offer, plus new pursuits, and countless Park graduates go on to serve as captains. Park’s elective athletics program allows students to pursue interests outside of school, such as dance, tennis, skating, and other team sports that we cannot support. Park alumni have gone on to play football, baseball, tennis, squash, sail, and row crew in college. And of course we have had many play soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and run track at the collegiate level as well. Most of these athletes got their start competing for Park.
Academic Achievement Through Athletics
Having coached lacrosse for fifteen of my twenty years in education, I’ve seen how the attributes emphasized in sport — accountability, responsibility, persistence, patience, and practice — are equally critical to academic success. Additionally, healthy and sustained activity supports cognitive performance and creativity.
In middle school, as adolescents develop their executive function and time management skills while playing on a team, they tend to get better grades in season. A sixth grader playing on the soccer team has to manage all of his equipment to be ready for game day. “Do I have my water bottle, shin guards, mouth guard, uniform?” Student athletes must also learn how to manage their academic workload during the season. They learn how to look ahead and anticipate how many games are scheduled for the week, how often they will get home late from an away match, and how much time they have for that social studies project that’s due on Thursday. These time management skills will become more and more important as they move to high school and college, and Park students are grateful to their athletic opportunities that helped build a solid foundation for future success.
“No I In Team”
Social-emotional well-being, a partner to academic achievement, is an outcome of competitive play. Relationship skills, social-awareness, self-management, self-awareness, and responsible decision making, the hallmarks of social-emotional well-being, are the absolute results of time on a well-coached sports team. And, in this realm, athletic participation builds confidence, forms friendships, encourages positive risk-taking, and builds optimism. Playing on a team means working towards something larger than oneself.
School and community pride may be the most noted aspects of youth and school athletics. Athletics and competitive play have a way of building community and school spirit in ways that are measurable and memorable. At the 2019 Shady Hill Day in October, 110 student athletes traveled to Cambridge wearing their green uniforms. When they weren’t on the field themselves, they were cheering on their fellow athletes. Each contest, no matter the outcome, was filled with a tremendous sense of pride and achievement. And that’s why athletics matter.