Who Loses When Winning is Everything?

Mike MulliganOne of the great gifts of our boarding schools is that we challenge our students in myriad ways. From the classroom, to the dormitories, to outdoor programs; from art, to dance, to public speaking; from come-all freshmen and JV teams to vaunted varsity athletic programs, our programs are comprehensive, demanding, and inclusive. From the competitive sports point of view, our schools are some of the few left where participation is valued along with excellence, where wearing a uniform and being a part of a team (and actually playing) is as important as being a star. Some of our larger schools with their postgraduate programs–or even our smaller schools with their elite specific programs (such as ice hockey, crew, squash, and lacrosse)–are regular feeders for some outstanding college athletic programs. But overall, the boarding schools sports model is a beautiful thing in this day of specialization: our students, skilled or not, can compete on the level to which they are best suited. At many of our schools, it still remains possible for our boys and girls to arrive as 14 year olds, learn a sport, and–given a modicum of talent and a good work effort–make the varsity by their junior and senior year. And while many of our kids will never compete in college, they are nonetheless given a great gift: the gift of training and conditioning at a young age when the adolescent body absolutely needs to be developed; the opportunity to make friends amidst a shared endeavor; and a meaningful pursuit at a time when isolation is potentially the greatest threat to a teen’s happiness.

The gift of boarding school athletics is also a gift of discipline, hard work, and specific skill sets so that our alumni/ae can go out and play sports with friends or on clubs once they leave our gates. Furthermore, our students are usually encouraged to play multiple sports: repetitive-motion stress injuries and burnout are less common than the norm. Boarding schools, as well, are some of the last remaining schools where athletic participation is truly valued and made possible even for, and sometimes especially for, those who would not be able to undertake athletics in more competitive settings. So many of our kids also learn a life-long love of sports and exercise because of boarding school athletics.

This is important. All teens benefit from knowing what real games and competition are like; they need to have the tension and bliss of wearing a uniform and being needed — even if they are not very good. At Thacher, we call this “a team for every student.” We prefer to have our students playing real sports, on real teams, and contributing their very best even if the players and the teams are not very good from the big-picture perspective. As mentioned in my earlier blog post, the reason kids learn to hate sports is generally not that they are not naturally talented, but rather that they are humiliated. They are humiliated by being kept on the bench and not allowed to play. They are humiliated when the going gets tough and they are pulled out and ignored.

But what happens when our students go to college and want to play a sport? Unless they are recruited, their future lies in intramurals: not nearly so rewarding. Now I am not even talking about the big college and university programs that dominate the headlines. We all know that DI football and basketball are major sources of pride and revenue. But what about the Ivies and even our NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) schools? It used to be that aspiring scholar-athletes could go on to some of the Ivies and many of the Division III colleges and play competitive sports. They enjoyed the fun of wearing a uniform, bonding with teammates, playing real games, (not “show up or not” intramurals), and leaving it all on the field. The colleges had this thing called B teams. You did not have to be a star to play. You simply went out for the team; you did your best; and you had great fun with your coach and teammates. But the picture is entirely different now. The B teams have been eliminated. Few players are on the roster that were not specifically recruited for the sport (some of the recruited being targeted as young as the 8th grade). Now, the players know they are at their colleges to perform in athletics. That is their raison d’etre. Six days a week the lion’s share of their focus and energy is devoted to the team: extensive travel, missed classes, training, conditioning, and games. As well, off season is hardly “off” these days. There are scrimmages, captains’ practices, endless weight training and conditioning, and summer camps. Okay, I get this if you are playing football for USC. But volleyball at Bowdoin College? Colleges and universities, in their quest for fame, fortune, and self-aggrandizement have created tribal cultures that dominate their campuses. Instead of the students being scholars first, the reality is that the teams are too often walled-off groups: self-reinforcing and sometimes isolated.*

Yes, most our small colleges have lost perspective on athletics. Instead of scholar-athlete programs designed to create meaning, friendship, and  outstanding positive competition for their students, the colleges have gone down the route of specialization and over-emphasis, twisting their admission goals and specializing their student bodies to such an extent as to have lost the meaning of amateur college athletics in the first place. Do our Ivy and Division III administrations fear humiliation and embarrassment, dropping applications, and diminished annual fund dollars if they send out to the pitch teams of earnest, hard-working scholars who love the game but are in college for the classroom first? Surely. Need they worry? I doubt it. I have not noticed that applications at MIT, Cal Tech, Swarthmore, and Haverford have been going down. These colleges–and others like them–have not been drawn into this insanity, and their scholar-athletes love to play and even win games against competition who share the same values.

So here is acknowledgement to our boarding schools–large and small. Most of us offer teams for every student. Our best teams are often truly excellent, and we may rejoice in their victories and the fact that our stellar performers will often get recruited–while still having the benefit of a top-flight secondary academic education. But the Ivies, NESCAC, and many others? A different story. Their teams now exist for the glory of the college, not for the edification of aspiring scholar-athletes.

(For more on this topic, I recommend The Game of Life, by James Shulman and former Princeton President William Bowen.)

Mike Mulligan is the Head of School at The Thacher School in Ojai, California.

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