Leading and Being Led: Life Lessons from Team Sports

Josh Horowicz, Athletic Director
Participating in interscholastic athletics is not just a privilege for our Upper School students (those in Grades 5-8), it's an opportunity to learn important life lessons.
This far into the season, game day routines have become a familiar ritual for students in the Upper School. During lunch and recess, players change into their uniforms, plead for earlier dismissal times, make any last minute phone calls to confirm pick-up plans, and make sure everything is packed up so they can rush out of class to board the waiting bus or warm up in the gym for their home game. By the time players get to 8th grade, the routine has become second nature.

On an early February Monday, the 7th/8th-grade girls' basketball team are playing a home game and among the group of early arrivals are two 8th grade girls that have gone through the game day ritual more than any other current student. Yael B. and Arianna W. have played on every sports team during every sports season since the beginning of their 5th-grade year. When spring finally arrives and Yael and Arianna join in for another softball season, they will have participated in 12 Rashi sports seasons. When the season is over and they prepare for graduation, they will have played for six different coaches, attended countless practices, and represented Rashi in well over 100 interscholastic games.  

“Rashi sports is literally what gets me through my week,” Arianna says as she watches the boys practice before she warms up for her game. Yael nods her head in agreement and adds, “It’s nice to be good at something that people can watch.”  

This basketball season, the girl’s team has been especially fun to watch. The 7th/8th-grade team enters today’s game with a 7-2 record and a chance to take over 1st place and the #1 seed in the upcoming league tournament. Arianna’s face lights up at the challenge. “Finishing in first place, getting the number 1 seed and winning the tournament would be a perfect culmination of our Rashi sports journey. We have worked really hard.”

Preparing and managing teams to optimize their chances of success while integrating Rashi’s mission and core values takes a careful balance. It’s a commonly shared philosophy that team sports, especially in schools, should be vehicles to introduce, investigate, and enforce larger life lessons. Those lessons change as students mature. In the 5th grade, the focus is on the joy of participation and building a foundation of skill, knowledge, and love for the game.

Yael reflects on her early years. “When we were in 5th grade, our coach would have the lineup rotations set before the game began. Everyone got equal playing time.” Adds Arianna, “that got frustrating because I sometimes felt we could do better if the more skilled players played more but I kind of understood why. Everyone is part of the team and needs playing time to get better.  It helped me become a better leader.”

As students progress into the middle school years, team focus shifts to reinforcing the concepts of rewarding student effort, commitment, skill and attitude, and placing the goals of the group over the goals of the individual. “It was hard at first to not get to play as much as some of the other girls or play the position I wanted,” Yael remembers, “but it forced me to work hard to get better and put in my best effort. Deep down, I knew it was probably the best for the team and I knew it would help us win.” Adds Arianna, “when you’re the youngest on the team, you have to learn to be led and learn to be coached. It wasn’t always easy. I was really afraid of some of the older girls, but now I am one of the older girls and I have to lead. We’ve been on both sides and learned a lot -- the good and the bad.”

The lessons of leadership are on full display as the girls begin their warm-up for the game. The team had struggled at the beginning of the season to hone their communication skills and find a common level of effort and focus. Today, the group is focused, organized, encouraging, helpful, and spirited. They are ready to play from the opening tip. The game is close at first but Rashi pulls away at the end of the first half and leads by 8 at halftime. They go on to win by 14. They finish the day in first place. This was their goal: Rashi 7th and 8th-grade students working together toward one common goal and reaching it.

As the girls gathered outside the locker room to meet their parents and head home, a 4th grader peeked into the gym, looked at the scoreboard and said, “Hey, is that the score? Did we win? Who played?” Another 4th grader responds, “yeah, that’s the score. The girls won. They always win.” The girls didn’t hear this exchange but I know if they did it would have made them happy to be known as the team that wins. Even better, they have the knowledge that their experience on the team has benefits not always seen on a scoreboard.