Model Behavior

Department: Athletics

By Melissa A. Torres-Laing

With more than 1,600 student-athletes in grades 7 – 12, instilling sportsmanship comes down to character, competence and compassion.

A ball player sprints down the court, soars to the basket, and lands a gravity-defying dunk. As he descends, he strikes an opponent with his elbow just as the ref looks away.

After a questionable call that favors the opposition, pushing and shoving among teammates erupts on the soccer field, bringing the game to a halt.

These are common scenes of unsightly behavior on the playing field. Athletes, coaches and refs can become consumed with excitement, and sometimes tempers flare. While it makes for thrilling sports watching, it’s also the kind of behavior detrimental to student-athletes and damaging to the sport.

Punahou senior Jonathan agrees. The track-and-field athlete detailed his experience in an essay that won him, in March, the High School Division of the National Sportsmanship Day Essay Contest, sponsored by USA Today and the Institute for International Sport. For Jonathan, the sign of a true athlete lies in the display of sportsmanship. “[It] not only defines the character of an athlete, but shows that he or she has the maturity to compete as a champion – and not just as a winner,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, with such a strong emphasis on winning, it's not surprising that nearly 70 percent of students across the country drop out of organized sports by age 13, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports. This exodus means students are missing out on the valuable life lessons sports has to offer.

But at Punahou, sports participation rises each year, even as the number of enrolled students remains the same. Last school year, 72 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls in grades 7 – 12 participated in organized sports at Punahou. “When kids put on a Punahou uniform, there’s something special there. … That’s where our success comes from,” says Punahou Athletic Director Jeaney Garcia.

And it all starts with the coaches. “Your influence as a coach goes beyond the teaching of sports skills. Kids learn from what you do, not necessarily from what you say,” said Garcia, who learned how to respect officials as a young pitcher. “My father was an umpire; he would make calls for me behind the plate. I had to learn pretty quickly.”

So how does an Athletics Department with more than 350 coaches instill the value of sportsmanship among its many players? By establishing a code of ethics and expecting athletes to live and play by it. However, getting there may not always be easy. That’s not news to Rocky Higgins ’68, veteran paddling coach and Junior School PE teacher. Last season, Coach Rocky was faced with a dilemma most coaches face at some point – whether to put talented athletes who haven’t followed the rules in the game.

“Your influence as a coach goes beyond the teaching of sports skills. Kids learn from what you do, not necessarily from what you say.”

On one particular race day, Coach Rocky’s team was ready to go, including a few paddlers who had missed practice sessions. As they made their way to the canoe, Coach Rocky stopped them in their tracks, later explaining his rationale: “I don’t win at all costs.” Higgins is renowned for teaching his paddlers a basic respect for the sport, and at the start of every season shares his take on winning: “I’d much rather see you come out of here a better paddler, a better person. As far as winning goes, that’s secondary. That comes together as a result of what you put into it as a group.”

Punahou coaches share Higgins’ philosophy, and at the core are coaches who possess what Garcia calls “the three C’s: character, competence and compassion.” The Athletics Department seeks those qualities in coaches, who, in turn, instill those same traits within their players.

These underlying principles have not gone unnoticed by Mackenzie Feldman ’14, a player on the girls junior varsity gold basketball team who, along with Scott Nishioka ’15, won the inaugural ILH essay contest.

Feldman’s award-winning essay on sportsmanship pays tribute to a basketball coach who ranks players above scores. Under the guidance of Head Coach Philip Kimi ’97 for three years, Feldman honored Coach Phil for bestowing inspiration. “Instead of worrying about the other team and winning, we just focus on what we needed to do as a team. By correcting our faults and challenging ourselves to do our best, I’ve learned that winning isn’t always a priority,” said Feldman. “Our team just has so much respect for our coach.” For Feldman, and for many other student-athletes, the rewards can be high when success isn’t measured by the number of wins.

Effective role models make it easier for young athletes to stay in the game – and enjoy it. Ultimately, Punahou coaches must be doing something right. Three Punahou students were recognized for their views on sportsmanship. So whether it’s congratulating a winning opponent, keeping an attitude in check or striving to work as a team, young athletes have a responsibility to represent themselves with character.

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