Having Faith in Sports

Miriam Heller Stern

At the end of a long workday, I dragged my heels up the staircase to the cafeteria of my children’s day school for the JV basketball team parent orientation. Expecting a review of schedule and logistics, I wasn’t totally present as Coach D began addressing the parents, although I tucked my phone away out of respect. To my surprise, Coach didn’t start with practice hours or attendance expectations. He started with character; basketball was just the medium.


“The sport itself is an extension of who they will be in life,” he began. The game is not just about skill, competition, or play, he explained. The game is about developing as a whole human being, as a member of a team, and as a learner who is coachable and committed.


So this is the difference between playing for your day school team and playing at the local park’s rec center: the hidden curriculum. Within a moment, I realized I was in the presence of an intentional and capable educator. Coach D’s framing of the ethos and objectives of the basketball program caught my attention, and I took out my phone again—to take notes.


“Their success in the game is not determined by what they do on the court,” Coach explained. The character they demonstrate throughout the school day determines their ability to play and the quality of their game. The players’ teachers regularly sign off on permission charts that their academic performance and their character in class are of a high enough standard to participate on the team. They are expected to be mentsches in their relationships on and off the court.


Coach repeated these mantras, enduring understandings that our children would learn through the experience of the game, but that we parents needed to be told explicitly. We parents love to watch our kids play; but let’s face it, we really love to watch them win. (I was recently at a youth soccer league game where a parent was ejected for cursing at the referee over a questionable call. The fifth grader who was accused of the foul was so intimidated by the profanity that he was reduced to tears.) The combination of passion for professional sports, competitive spirit, and fanaticism for our children’s happiness and success can turn parents into zealots on the sidelines. We need to be reminded of the true values at stake as much as our kids do.


I comment wearing the multiple hats of full-time educator, parent and occasional soccer mom. Sports are not just an extracurricular activity in our household, but a second religion. Playing sports, watching sports and discussing sports, we are constantly shuttling to and from practices and games for our two elementary school-aged boys and attending local professional sporting events. My guys placed first in their father-son basketball fantasy league and my not-quite-two year old daughter figured out how to dribble a soccer ball almost as soon as she figured out how to walk. One of the gifts of a Jewish day school is its capacity to guide us as a family to derive the best lessons of our religion and apply them to our lives; I am delighted to discover and share how this applies to our family’s “second religion.”


The character curriculum around sports at school provides a framework for all of us to understand and remember why it’s really important to stay in the game:

  1. Sports provide an arena for sharpening thinking skills, including calculation and good decision-making. “Keep your head in the game”—stay focused, anticipate what’s coming a few steps ahead, look for teammates, assist the win—these are important habits of leadership, teamwork and effective completion of tasks.
  2. Sports provide an arena for developing character, defined by traits including grit, zest, optimism, self-control, resilience. It’s no surprise that there is significant overlap between the elements of character according to Angela Duckworth’s “grit scale,” which has become a model for character building in schools, and legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success.” A day school that reinforces these habits across the curriculum—in general and Judaic academics as well as athletics—gives students the opportunity to apply these character traits to physical, intellectual and spiritual tasks.
  3. Sports provide an arena for community building. When a team coalesces and learns to play well together, a spirit of community emerges. Like in any community, players learn to play the roles in which they can contribute most effectively. When family members, friends, teachers and administrators gather to cheer together, a special bond develops. When that space is inhabited not only by love of our children and love of sport, but by shared values and commitments, a kehillah is formed.
  4. Sports provide an arena for becoming a whole human being. Kids can stretch themselves and also release stress. They can be playful and serious. They can strive for personal milestones and contribute to a team. They can express leadership and be supported by community. They can play by their values, combining compassion with competition.


Jewish day schools have a unique capacity to model ways of living as a whole person, where all of the strands of one’s identity can weave together into healthy, flourishing, ethical human beings who build thriving communities. How we set the character expectations for play, practice and competition in a Jewish context will determine how our children will live by those values in every arena of their lives.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015