The Balance of Sports and Jewish Education
Updated: 2013-03-19 12:13:37
Elliot Steinmetz
North Shore Hebrew Academy High School

By: Elliot Steinmetz, Varsity Basketball Coach, North Shore Hebrew Academy High School
(twitter: @elliotsteinmetz)

The Balance of Sports and Jewish Education Do our educators sometimes miss the point?

Fourteen regular season games. Practice two nights a week, maybe. Limited exhibition games and non-league tournaments. Excusable absences for practice for schoolwork or school programs. Complaints about time commitments, playing time and working too hard.

These are the disadvantages many coaches at Jewish day schools are dealing with when trying to build a successful program. The response is often as simple as, "its not a priority." Well, why not?

Are our educators missing the point when it comes to the importance and value of team sports at the high school level? Is the rest of the country wrong? Why do many educators act as if there is an existing dichotomy between team sports and education? Why are those same educators the first ones to market their teams' success when they do triumph?

We teach our kids the importance of discipline, commitment, investment and teamwork. Yet, so often parents and educators will belittle the value and importance of the one activity their children may potentially gain most from in these areas: Team sports.

Yes, it is true, your child will more likely be a doctor, lawyer, teacher or accountant than a professional basketball player. But that's not the goal of high school athletics. Why do we in the world of Jewish education seem to miss that point? In fact, the above statement would be true for any high school athlete across the country.

According to the NCAA and , only 3.0% of men's high school basketball players will compete for NCAA teams in college. The number rises to 3.3% for women. Of those NCAA athletes, only 1.2% of the men will play professionally and 1.0% of women. This means that 0.03% of male high school athletes and 0.02% of female high school athletes will make a living playing basketball. As an aside, the numbers in baseball, football, soccer and ice hockey are all similar and never rise above even 0.5%

Yet, with these numbers in mind, high school athletics are cherished and valued across the country as valuable tools to teach discipline, teamwork, commitment and investment. In the world of Jewish education though, it is often just seen as a distraction to educators and a means for punishment when a transgression is committed in school. Perhaps if our educators would embrace these programs and the values they promote, they would start to see the tremendous dividends they could bring in return. Many of them are certainly quick to promote their teams' accomplishments as a recruiting tool when they are successful. Perhaps if administrators spent more time supporting their coaches and athletes, as opposed to coddling their parents, our athletes would be able to excel both on the court as well as find new ways to excel off the court. They would also be able to use the success of their athletic programs as a recruiting tool which could be about more than just an occasional championship, but rather about representing the school with class and dignity.

I often will give a lecture to my teams which is meant to promote team unity and appreciation for a internal competition within the framework of a greater team goal. I like to compare a team to a corporation. A corporation has front office employees and back office employees. Both work equally hard towards a common goal of producing a product that will achieve success for the company. Only there is internal competition going on at the same time. Only front office employees get to deal with clients and sell the product. They in turn often make more money and advance to higher positions. The back office employees often do a lot of the so-called grunt work, but do not reap the same rewards on a daily basis as the front office employees. A smart corporation will encourage internal competition while creating an environment where employees all will feel like a part of the corporation's successes.

Similarly, a basketball team can only play five players at a time. Often a team will play only seven, eight or nine players in a game. Some players will only see court time in practice. How are they to learn to balance the goal they have of earning playing time with the selfless attitude needed to accomplish team goals. I encourage competition within my team for playing time. We do not have five starters. As Coach Tom Crean of Indiana University says, "We have eight or nine players who are capable of starting." Any player on our team can earn time. But, time is earned in practice and practice only. It is not earned by complaining or whining or even at the end of a blowout game. It is earned in practice. By creating an atmosphere in practice where players can compete and work hard, they start to see the team as a whole improve and jump a level. Suddenly, as they begin to look back at the work they are putting in and see the product out on the court, even those players who just get to compete in practice genuinely feel like they have helped to create the successful product they see on the floor.

However, in many schools in our world this valuable lesson is never learned and often through no fault. There just is not enough time or dedication from the administrators of many schools to allow for this amazing lesson to be learned. Instead, administrators spend their time trying to shorten seasons and practice time, catering to parents who complain about their child's playing time, and missing the point entirely on what high school athletics should and could be all about. Instead of allowing a coach to deal with internal team issues and teach lessons of life to his or her players, administrators are so quick to jump in and make mountains of molehills. In turn, this teaches our children that complaining and causing problems are a viable alternative to hard work and selfless effort.

Players need to learn the importance of being part of one unit. They need to learn that their value is not measured in points or playing time but rather in effort. Wins and losses are a dime a dozen, but nobody can judge someone else's effort. Effort is between every man and himself. Selflessness requires one to strive for greatness regardless of his role or status because he will not settle for mediocrity. Not for himself and not for his team. Regardless of one's role, he must never settle for mediocrity because that is the ultimate act of selfishness. To be selfless is to give everything you have for the sake of those around you regardless of the circumstances. Yet those responsible for educating our children many times forget this and feed into the parent-pleasing habit of spoiling their students.

It makes sense. Schools are often competing for students and larger classes and this has certainly had a negative impact on education. It potentially could be positive, but often schools are so desperate to cater to their parents and students that instead of focusing on maximizing their programs and education, they fall into the trap of babying and indulging which directly clashes with the lessons these students should be learning.

I am extremely lucky and thankful that I have worked for two schools where the educators and administrators really get it. At North Shore Hebrew Academy I have been allowed to build and develop a program and, hopefully in a successful way, impart lessons far more important than just Xs and Os and strategy to the high school players I have the good fortune to work with. But I look around our league and our world in general and I wonder why we cannot seem to grasp this concept of team sports and its importance. I cannot understand why it is looked at so often as a distraction or obstruction to the education process as opposed to a tremendous tool and resource for the benefit of that process.

I look at programs like St. Anthonys in Jersey City, NJ where longtime and legendary high school coach Bob Hurley is literally saving lives every day with his basketball program. He is sending young men to college who perhaps would never have had the opportunity for higher education if it wasn't for basketball. Yet, we cannot, in a very different world, even use our athletic programs to promote four basic tenets of education: discipline, commitment, investment and teamwork. Instead we spend so much time fighting against the tide as if somehow something bad comes from team sports. Rather than finding ways to pull apart and take away from our athletic programs and student-athletes, we should be focusing our energies on enhancing something that is such a valuable tool in being able to reach the students and teach them life lessons and the importance of balance and education. Perhaps it is time for us to wake up and learn from the rest of the world. It is ok for us to step outside of our box and be enlightened by the outside as well.

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