When Fay athletes put on their uniforms for the first time, they’re not thinking about winning or losing. In that moment, there’s the rush of pride in competing for Fay and the excitement of playing on a team with classmates and friends.
This feeling is at the heart of the fifth and sixth grade (5-6) athletic program, the beginning of competitive interscholastic sports at Fay. “These students have looked up to the Upper School athletes for years, and when they finally get to play for Fay, they take pride in that,” says Will Sargent, coach of 5-6 boys soccer and 5-6 baseball.
Most students come to 5-6 athletics from town sports, where the pressure to specialize and worries over tryouts and cuts cause many young athletes to quit a sport after just a few seasons. In contrast, Fay students can try a new sport without fear of being cut from the team; and sportsmanship, teamwork, and earnest effort are the building blocks of the athletic experience.
In Upper School, students are separated into teams by experience, but fifth and sixth graders play on the same team whether they are a club team star or new to the sport. “When you have new players alongside more experienced players, it’s easier to bring the overall level of play up very quickly,” explains Lara Gleason, who coaches 5-6 girls soccer and 5-6 girls lacrosse. Furthermore, all 5-6 players, regardless of experience, have equal playing time over the course of the season. “The only way players can get better is by playing,” Lara notes.
While sixth graders with appropriate skills and experience are eligible to try out for varsity teams, the experienced players on 5-6 teams also have an important role to play. They mentor other players, running drills, modeling skills, and acting as on-field coaches during the game to explain calls and rules.
Throughout their time at Fay, students are encouraged try new sports, a rare opportunity in town sports, where most players already have years of experience. This is especially true for sports like field hockey, wrestling, squash, and volleyball, where there aren’t strong town programs. “Many girls who started playing field hockey here at Fay have gone on to play through high school and into college,” says Athletic Director Rob Feingold.
Another strength of the program is that in a climate where young athletes may feel pressure to specialize and play a single sport year-round, 5-6 athletes play a different competitive sport each season. Rob points to work by Dr. Richard Ginsburg, co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. In a recent blog post entitled, “The Right Age to Specialize,” Dr. Ginsburg says, “Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics over the past 15 years have emphasized that multiple sports and diverse training and playing opportunities are far healthier for kids...a diverse and balanced training path is more likely to foster a healthy, well- balanced and stronger-performing athlete.”
Teamwork and Sportsmanship
Fifth and sixth grade athletes also learn first-hand about teamwork and how each student brings unique talents to the table. “We talk a lot about having the boy who excels in soccer but struggles in math on the same team with the boy who is really good at math but struggles in soccer,” says Rob Feingold.
English teacher Lara Gleason believes that the mixture of skill levels on 5-6 teams enriches the experience for the faculty coaches as well. “A student who is a phenomenal athlete on the field might be more reserved in the classroom. We get to see our students in a different light and appreciate their strengths from a different perspective.
At Fay, sportsmanship is taught like any other skill. “We emphasize respect for our opponents,” says Jack Wong, who coaches 5-6 girls basketball and 5-6 baseball. “If we lose, we want to be graceful, by shaking hands and congratulating the other team.” The concept of respect is also infused into the individual team cultures. On Lara’s soccer team, the girls set expectations for their team that included listening to one another and persevering in every game situation. The results are palpable. “As the season goes on, I see less frustration when we lose and more joy when we win,” says Jack.
Every two weeks, students receive an effort grade for their athletic participation just as they would for any academic subject. “We want our athletes to improve their skills, participate fully, and do their best,” says Lara. A seasoned player’s “best effort” may look different from that of a novice, but the effort grades underscore the importance of everyone putting forth their earnest effort.
The 5-6 athletic program is integral to the overall strength of Fay athletics. When players learn to give their best effort, play as part of a team, and demonstrate sportsmanship, they become valued players on Fay’s varsity teams and beyond.
“When you see a skilled player who supports his or her teammates and can stay positive in a tough situation,” says Rob, “that’s a player that you want.”