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Fall Athletics 2020: Innovating and Inspiring

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Calhoun to reimagine every aspect of school life, both within and beyond classroom walls. But while the health crisis sidelined student-athletes in the spring and led to the postponement of the fall athletic season, that hasn’t meant a stop to sports at Calhoun. In fact, the Calhoun Athletic Department has created sports programming this fall that preserves much of the essential learning and community building that happens on the court, field or track. 

When the New York City Athletic League (NYCAL) announced the postponement of the fall 2020 interscholastic athletic season, Calhoun made the decision to hold three condensed seasons starting in January 2021. However, knowing the importance of sports for many Calhoun students — and the real benefit of having a positive outlet during a challenging time — the Athletic Department stepped up to reimagine what sports could look like in the interim, and turn disappointment into opportunity. “We asked ourselves, what are the things that if we had a real pre-season, we would want our athletes to work on and get better at?" says Sabrina Zurkuhlen ‘06, Director of Athletics. 

Sabrina Zurkuhlen and Nicola Zimmer, Assistant Director of Athletics, began brainstorming, seeking feedback from student-athletes along the way. As they planned, they stayed focused on the program’s values, ensuring that while the format might be different, the core of the athletic program’s mission would stay the same — to bring people together through sports and movement.

The result was a slate of fall athletic classes that allowed student-athletes to build physical and mental skills while experiencing the positive benefits of being in community. Upper Schoolers could take movement-only classes — Circuits & Core, Body & Mind or Run Club — or blended classes that combined one day of movement with one day of class discussion. Students chose from courses like Race, Activism & Sports, which examined athlete activism and racial power dynamics in sports, Sports Psychology, or Captain’s Corner, a leadership skills class taught by leadership development expert Raven Scott. During the second session of fall classes, additional sport-specific options were available to give Upper Schoolers opportunities to train for an upcoming season.

For Middle Schoolers, fall sports programming included one day of a general workout and one day of a sport-specific workout, such as jump training for volleyball, or endurance and footwork for soccer and basketball. In both Middle and Upper School, classes were adapted to accommodate hybrid learning schedules, and students could opt to do fully-remote classes on Zoom. The majority of athletic classes were taught by in-house coaches, who all showed a tremendous amount of dedication and creativity in leading these after-school sessions.

The fall programming was a hit, attracting not only seasoned student-athletes but many students who experienced Calhoun sports for the first time. The delay of regular seasons has also had an unexpected benefit by giving student-athletes extra time to get in shape and build additional skills before the start of the seasons in January. “This has allowed us an opportunity to engage with our athletes in a way that we haven't before — [focusing on] physical skills like endurance, movement, jump training and strength, plus a lot of mental skills that research has shown are critical for scoreboard success,” says Sabrina.

There’s no doubt that we’re all missing the ritual of gathering on the 8th floor to cheer on the Cougars, but sports at Calhoun have always been about more than the fans in the stands. While the result of a game or match is a strong motivator for any athlete, Sabrina points out that much of the growth that student-athletes undergo happens in the day-to-day experience of being part of a team. “If you’re a fan, the game is the only thing you see, but for teams, [the competition] is just one sliver of the entire experience,” explains Sabrina. “From the perspective of an athlete or a coach, it's really about the everyday, the [practice] routines, those moments of, ‘I've been working on this skill and I finally nailed it.’” It’s those everyday moments of real fulfillment for students and coaches that, despite the unprecedented circumstances, haven’t been lost. 

Ultimately, continuing to engage in community movement has had a tangible impact on the well-being of students during an otherwise difficult time. And though the future of sports this year remains uncertain, athletes and coaches alike agree that Calhoun sports continues to be a refuge, and a space to find joy, growth and community in spite of it all.