Letter from Steve Piltch - March 2017

March 30, 2017

Dear Shipley Families,

Every year at this time, I'm intrigued by the growing amount of interest in the NCAA basketball tournament(s) known as March Madness. These tournaments decide the year's national champions for both men and women. Millions across the country fill out brackets and partake in pools at their businesses, on ESPN, or with friends. And, of course, many watch the games. March Madness has become a multi-billion-dollar business. While I love athletics and especially college basketball, I wonder if we have begun to give the tournament and the sport outsized importance - and what the money and time spent say about our values and priorities.

Without knowing it, our passion for and interest in athletics and March Madness may also be reflected in the way we raise our children and teach our students. While I strongly believe that sports—as well as theater, music, art, and other extracurricular endeavors—can and should play an important role in our children's development and lives, I also think that we must be careful to make sure that our children have fun and are learning the right lessons from their participation.

Ensuring aspiring athletes enjoy what they do in sports has become more challenging over the years, as many of them have begun to focus on one sport earlier and earlier and have stopped reaping the benefit that comes from playing different sports. For example, many parents whose children are involved in high-level travel basketball, soccer, and lacrosse encourage their children to spend their time in the one sport to help maximize achievement in that area. That encouragement is often inspired not only by the hope that children will experience the glow of victory at the highest possible level of the youth game but also by the goal of having children earn college scholarships. Although pursuing a scholarship might be the right choice for some children, in some instances it prioritizes achievement in a single sport over holistic growth and development.

The trend of focusing on a single sport earlier and earlier has broad consequences. Kyle Bergen, one of our fifth graders who researched the implications of specializing in a sport at an early age for his Think, Care, Act Project, found that overemphasis in a single sport is tied to a higher incidence of injuries, to greater burnout, and to other challenges. He and the professionals he spoke with strongly believe children should not specialize in a given sport until at least high school, if at all. (Kyle’s motto is: Just PLAY, Have FUN, Play SPORTS.)

This tendency toward such singular focus on achievement in a single area does not go unrecognized at the highest levels of the game. Earlier this month in an article by Dan Steinberg entitled “March without the madness: Maryland women’s basketball looks to strike a balance,” Brenda Frese, the women's basketball coach at Maryland, talked about the shorter practices her team has as the season goes on. She emphasized the importance of balance in the lives of her players and in her own life, a balance that helps them understand each other better, seems to foster a greater sense of camaraderie and commitment, and gives them the best chance of accomplishing their individual and team goals.

I learned this lesson myself when I had the privilege of coaching the men's and women's squash teams at Harvard before I arrived at Shipley. The student-athletes I worked with were incredibly bright, talented, and committed. For many of them, squash was an important part of their time at Harvard. Individually and as a team, they accomplished ever so much as they won more than their share of individual and team national championships. Yet, we collectively learned that the quantity of their time on the court and training was much less important than the quality of that training. Quite often, less time provided better outcomes.

Twenty-five years later, the men and women who competed on those teams reminded me that though the victories created fond memories, it was the time on and off the court, the relationships they developed and the lessons they learned, that shaped their lives today. As I connected with many of them and listened to their thoughts and perspectives at a celebration in October of 2015 commemorating the history of the Harvard Squash Program, I was reminded that squash and other sports provide tremendous opportunities to develop the skills necessary to thrive in life; however well one does in the moment, the lessons learned from the experience (both wins and losses, achievements and disappointments) matter the most.

Wanting the best for our children/students, we must make sure that their involvement in sports (or anything else) is driven by their own interest and passion, not ours, their coaches’, or anyone else’s, particularly as they get older. (When they are younger, it is sometimes helpful to give them a little push out the door – as we discovered with our oldest child, who when he was young would run inside as soon as he started sweating!) We must work to have our children/students in programs and with coaches whose goals are tied to the kids’ development as players and people, not simply to winning. And, we should have them in programs that stress the importance of balance in their lives – after all, even for athletes able to earn a scholarship, an athletics career will rarely last beyond college graduation. In the long run, our goal is to help them to develop the passion and compassion, the grit, determination, confidence, and creativity necessary to be successful in life.

We are pleased to discuss this issue head on and to be co-hosting a program here at Shipley with ESF Camps and Experiences on April 18 at 7 p.m. entitled, Life Beyond Athletics: Extending Your Child’s Winning Streak (Add to Calendar). The program will feature a panel of speakers who have found incredible success in different areas of the sports industry and who will provide a positive perspective on the opportunities and challenges many student-athletes face in high school, college, the job market, and beyond. The speakers will include: Pat Croce, former owner of the 76ers; Ashley Fox, sports reporter, analyst, and commentator for ESPN; Molly Fletcher, former college tennis player, sports agent, author, and CEO of The Molly Fletcher Company; Jim Loehr, renowned sports psychologist and author of many books, including The Only Way to Win: How Building Character Drives Higher Achievement and Greater Fulfillment in Business and Life; and Paul Assaiante, Coach of the 16-time National Champion Trinity College Squash Team and the author of Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear. Incredibly accomplished individuals, they are also renowned for being fabulous people. (We are grateful to Michael Rouse, the CEO and Co-Founder of ESF Camps & Experiences, and members of his team for bringing the idea for this event to us and for making it happen.)

This event is about sports and so much more. It is essential that our students have opportunities in the classroom, theater, music, and other areas that push them to be the best they can be, appreciate them for the individuals they are, and allow them to learn the lessons to deal with the challenges they will face in life.

I look forward to working with you to be sure that we are reinforcing these core values in everything we do, and I invite you to help to make sure that all of our students have these experiences here and everywhere. It is what good education is all about.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

P.S. We are delighted to be hosting the DMAX Foundation’s third annual spring event, “It Takes a Caring Community,” on Monday, April 3, beginning with a reception at 5:45 p.m. in the Shipley Commons followed by a program from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. The DMAX Foundation’s mission is “To eliminate stigma and encourage safe and caring conversations about mental health issues and emotional pain in our youth.” You can learn more about the event. I look forward to seeing many of you there.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.