Sports Le-Shem Shamayim: The Sacred Mission of High School Athletics
Our vision of the role that competitive athletics can play in the lives of high school students is a deeply personal one.
We—the head of school and athletic director of Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts—have been playing competitive sports since we were children, and we were blessed with opportunities to compete at both the high school and college levels. We attribute a great deal of who we are—as professionals and as people—to our years of training and competing, to the coaches and teammates who invested so much in us, to numerous times that we have experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and to the joy we have felt just walking out onto the court to play.
We believe that athletics have the power to be transformational in the life of a child and, for this reason, that athletics are essential to the Jewish and humanistic mission of our Jewish high school. With all of the hype around competitive sports in American society today, one might think that a robust athletics program is a “must have” for any Jewish school for pragmatic reasons, such as recruitment. One might also see athletics as an extracurricular activity—a nice outlet, an opportunity for kids to “run around” and “blow off steam,” or, more generously, an important component of physical wellness during years when teenagers are living less and less healthy, balanced lives. All of these are true.
However, we see a higher and more integral purpose to high school sports. In our experience, sports are a unique vehicle for delivering on several of the defining values-added of a Jewish school. This article will focus on three of these: character development, community and spirituality.
Note: While athletics in schools incorporates both competitive and non-competitive experiences, and while recreational sports and fitness are critical for students’ well-being as well as for creating culture and community, this article will focus on competitive sports.
Character Development—Making Mensches
Competitive sports play a critical role in the character and identity development of student athletes. Below are some illustrations that, for us, capture why and how this Jewish character formation happens.
Bechirah (Choice) Points
At Gann we see character development not as a set of values posted on a wall, but as a schoolwide effort to build an intentional, growth-oriented culture. Based on the principles of Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition, we ask both teachers and students to reflect on their middot (inner qualities) and to see day-to-day life and school as a vehicle for learning about their strengths and weaknesses and for becoming their best selves.
This process of reflection illuminates what Mussar calls bechirah points, the choices we make—sometimes large, often small, sometimes consciously, often unconsciously—that shape who we are. By raising our awareness of these choice points, we are able to be more intentional about how we want to act and who we want to be.
Athletic competition is a unique setting that can bring out the best in us or the worst in us. Playing on a team creates countless choice points—in games and practices, on and off the field. How does a player respond when a competitor is cheating or playing unfairly? How do we carry ourselves when another team simply cannot play at our level? What happens when a veteran player loses her starting role to a younger, more talented athlete? Situations like these are profound moments in students’ lives, and we want our students to understand that to be a Jewish athlete is to live out Jewish values.
Tenacity, Grit, Perseverance and the Growth Mindset
The biblical story of Yaakov wrestling with the angel throughout the night can be compared to the end of the first Rocky movie. That extraordinary ending shocks the viewer when, contrary to almost every other sports movie, the hero does not actually win. Instead, the redemptive moment happens when Rocky “goes the distance.” So too, Yaakov receives the name Yisrael because he continues his struggle throughout the night and, literally, holds on until sunrise. We are a Jewish people whose very name bears witness to the 21st century skills that Paul Tough, Carol Dweck and others have popularized: grit and the growth mindset. There are few endeavors in life that require and develop resiliency like competitive sports. We celebrate the grit it takes to for a student to lose a starting position and then work to regain that position in the lineup. Coaching staff members encourage our student athletes to push themselves further than they believed possible, and they support them along the way.
In the spirit of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s theory of adaptive leadership, athletes understand that leadership is not about a formal position or hierarchical authority; instead, leading is something that all of us can do. Yes, sports give students opportunities to practice leading from positions of authority, such as captainships. More importantly, athletes lead when they show up and give 150% every day. On any given day, in any given practice or game, you never know who will step up and lead. We see examples of the “coach on the floor” mentality, as students take ownership in a team huddle or when veteran upperclassmen take younger players under their wings. Participation in athletics provides opportunities outside of the classroom for natural leaders to expand their skills and for developing leaders to gain confidence.
Perhaps the middah and interpersonal skill at play most frequently in athletic competition is respect (kavod)—for oneself and one’s body, for teammates, for coaches, for opponents. Both winning and losing can challenge students’ to be their best selves, and learning to act with dignity at all times is a critical component of sportsmanship. When we meet in the preseason with our student-athletes, we discuss kavod in the context of winning with dignity and losing with grace. Our stated goal is that we want to “be proud” of how our students and coaches handle themselves with respect for the game (always giving their best effort), their opponents, the officials and one another.
In today’s fast-paced, future-oriented world, we see a declining sense of trust in teachers, mentors and authority figures. While too much trust or reverence for power is obviously dangerous, as we have seen from too many scandals, mentorship and discipleship are core Jewish and human values. We famously learn in Pirkei Avot, “Aseh lecha rav . . . Make for yourself a teacher,” which we take to be a lesson about being a student. Rather than wait for teachers or coaches to earn your respect, and rather than pick and choose whom we listen to based on what we find relevant to us, discipleship is about trusting that those who have been empowered to teach or coach you, those who have more experience than you, who actually have something to teach you.
Who doesn’t remember the famous scene in The Karate Kid, when, after waxing his sensei’s cars, sanding the floors, painting the house and the fence, Daniel is about to rebel against his master. Just then, Mr. Miyagi shows him that all of these “chores” have actually been his karate training, and that Daniel now is able to defend himself against an array of punches and kicks. The one condition for their training, Mr. Miyagi said at the outset, was “you trust me.”
Our philosophy is that sports are a space where students learn humility and work on the critical skill of “coachability.” Students are faced with constructive criticism and they must grow in maturity as they learn to filter the message, to and accept and trust their coaches’ suggestions or corrections. With increased parent involvement, increasingly high stakes, and a consumer culture focused on immediate gratification, sports have the potential to restore the timeless values of discipleship, along with the middot of reverence and humility, to our students’ lives.
Equally important for a values-driven athletics program is the quality of the coaches. We work extremely hard in the interview process to ensure that our coaches understand our mission and that they will be the “right fit” for our students and our school. Coaching staff need to approach their leadership role from a relational, teaching, motivating and supportive lens rather than have a “win-at-all-cost” mentality. We ask our coaches to instill their players with a measure of success that transcends wins and losses.
Community and Jewish Identity
High school can be a lonely time for students during these tumultuous years of adolescence. The “race to nowhere” of high-achieving academic culture can dehumanize and disconnect kids from one another and from themselves.
One of the promises of a Jewish school is that that the wonderfully challenging years of high school take place in the context of a supportive, caring Jewish community. Powerful human relationships with classmates, teachers, coaches and other caring adults are not nice-to-haves that augment academic excellence and a culture of high achievement. In fact, community is the foundation on which students gain the courage and self-confidence to take the risks necessary for them to reach their full potential.
While a Jewish school should be a purposeful meta-community of shared culture and values in a way that many schools are not and cannot be, students also form micro-communities in which they form friendships, often cross-grade, that can last a lifetime. Sports teams are a beautiful example of these micro-communities.
On sports teams, students learn the Jewish values of achrayut (responsibility) and areivut (bound-up-ness) with other people. They understand that whether and how they show up each day affects everyone around them. This creates an incredible sense of personal agency and responsibility (my team depends on me) but also a sense of dependency and support (we win and lose as a team).
The sports team community is also intergenerational, for, like the Jewish people, teams have a collective identity that transcends any given year. We see this when alumni come back to play with or cheer for their former teams. We see this when student-athletes self-identify by wearing team swag with pride, the athletic equivalent to a kippah.
While this comparison might seem not to do justice to the Jewish religious-cultural significance of a kippah, we believe that when students have powerful experiences of community on sports teams in the context of a Jewish high school, these values and habits of group identification mutually reinforce one another. To put it differently, Jewish sports teams can be incredibly formative for students’ Jewish identities.
In order to clarify what we mean by spirituality, especially in the context of sports, we will borrow one of Robert Starrat’s three foundational qualities of an ethical person (in Foundations for an Ethical School): transcendence. Transcendence, Starrat suggests, has three levels of meaning: “one dealing with the reach for excellence, the other with the turning of one’s life toward something or someone else, and the third with achieving something heroic.” Sports pushes athletes toward all three of these notions of transcendence, creating opportunities for students to go beyond themselves, beyond what they might believe is possible.
As a young school we continue to grow and explore the “drive for excellence” and the “role of competitiveness” within our athletic program. Earning a spot on a competitive team instills a sense of pride in our athletes. We want students to see this as a privilege that honors their dedication, commitment and “willingness to put themselves out there.”
To the degree that the Jewish notion of kedushah, holiness, connotes an “other” realm, or that which is separate and different from the mundane, we believe that there is kedushah in sports, at least at special times and moments. A come-from-behind victory that no one believed was possible, the experience of being “in the zone,” the thrill of an entire stadium of fans channeling their energy in the same direction... When we witness or experience these moments, we feel like we are connecting with something larger than and outside of ourselves. We have watched in Heschelian awe and wonder athletic performances that have seemed “super-human,” and that give us faith in the divine spirit with which human beings are endowed.
At a time when it can be hard for students to comprehend notions of transcendence or spirituality, and when traditional religious language and concepts often are inaccessible to them, a framework for finding “the sacred” in sports can open students up to the possibility of finding the sacred in Judaism and other areas of their lives.
Especially during the high school years, Jewish schools offer the world an educational model that provides academic excellence on foundations of character, identity and community, infused with meaning and spirituality. We need to help our students and families see the extraordinary potential that athletics, and other less obvious elements of our educational program, help to achieve these goals.