“Leadership isn’t something that you do to get an A,” says Danny Isquith, Upper School Director. “We’re teaching kids that it should exist in all parts of your life.” This plays out in a very visible way in the realm of sports at Calhoun. Cougars don’t just learn how to shoot a basket or decrease their running time; they learn how to be leaders and teammates—and the results of their training are paying off.
If you’ve been following Calhoun sports in the past decade, you know that one of the major highlights has been the success of the Girls’ Varsity Volleyball team. For the last 11 years, each successive team has continued the program’s undefeated reign in the NYCAL, even after star players graduate. It’s hard to imagine such a winning streak is just coincidence. Sabrina Spiegel Zurkuhlen ’06, Director of Athletics and head coach of both the boys’ and the girls’ varsity teams, says it’s all about building a positive athletics culture. “When you have a strong culture, your results will be consistent,” she explains.
The intentional culture-building that has proven successful on the volleyball court is a focus of the entire athletics department, which sets four core values for its athletes: self-awareness, teamwork, empathy and resilience. These qualities are fundamental to the work of the coaches and their athletes—all of which translate to strong leadership skills that can be used beyond the court, field or track.
Bobby Rue ’85, who coaches the Boys’ Varsity Basketball team, has seen firsthand the evolution of the Calhoun athletics program from his own time playing basketball as a student. “The athletics program has changed immensely,” he says. Part of this change has been the new resources available (in Bobby’s time, Calhoun didn’t even have a full-size gym), but an even bigger change is the cultural shift. “There’s a more intentional culture that’s much more organized, systematic and spread across teams,” he says. “There’s a commonality in the conversations we’re having [as coaches] . . . We’re always talking about coaching for leadership.”
What makes sports such a fruitful vehicle for teaching leadership? One important factor is the interpersonal skills needed to play well on a team. “Sports is practice in human relationships,” says Nicola Zimmer (a.k.a. Zimmer), Assistant Director of Athletics and the Girls’ Varsity Basketball coach. “It’s one thing to define positive communication and talk about it, but then you get on the basketball court and your teammate throws you a bad pass—and you have a choice in that moment of how to react. It’s learning moment after learning moment.”
Calhoun coaches use the teachable moments that arise in practices and games to reflect on their core values. “We ask athletes, ‘How is this an example of self-awareness?’ or, ‘When did we demonstrate resilience in the game yesterday?’” Zimmer explains. The athletics department also schedules dedicated time to focus on teaching values: three workshops per year for coaches, and at least two per season for each team. The act of intentionally naming and focusing on their values frames leadership as a teachable skill. “In the same way [that we think of practicing] a left-handed dribble or flexing a muscle to get stronger, we think about [practicing] leadership skills,” says Zimmer.
Emily Bauman ’21, a player on the Girls’ Varsity Volleyball team, attributes her off-court leadership skills to sports. “Before I played volleyball, I was shyer and less open to people,” she says. “The confidence I have from playing volleyball has given me more confidence in the other things that I do.” Now, she’s actively involved in social justice clubs at the school, and dedicates her Saturday mornings to helping out at volleyball clinics for younger players.
Emily’s experience points to one of the biggest strengths of the athletics program: Leadership is modeled not just by coaches, but by the players themselves. While the world of sports is often characterized by showmanship and dominance, Calhoun athletes reject this definition of leadership for one rooted in teaching and giving back. Varsity players often share practices with JV teams, and help out at sports clinics or intramurals for younger athletes. “Even if you are our top varsity athlete, you’re still part of the Calhoun athletics community, which means that you have to give, share and teach in a variety of ways,” says Sabrina.
On the Coed Middle School Baseball team, students of mixed ages and experience levels play together—yet the onus of leadership doesn’t just fall on the oldest or most skilled player. The team has rotating captains, and players take turns leading stretches, demonstrating drills and sharing a quote of the day. “We’re practicing being a community that has a voice and shared leadership,” says coach Andrew Hume. “Ultimately, this culture of shared leadership sends a powerful message— that everyone has a role to play.”
“Often leadership is associated with age or title, but we talk more about democratic leadership and spaces,” explains Sabrina. “We debunk certain myths that circulate around leadership; for example, that leaders are loud or really good public speakers. That isolates kids who don’t see themselves in that kind of leader. There are multiple ways to lead.”
If you look at the decade-long precedent set by the volleyball team, chances are high that this focus on teaching leadership will translate to more wins for all of Calhoun’s sports teams. But any Calhoun athlete will tell you that there is an important difference between winning and success. “Winning is what happens on the scoreboard,” says Sabrina. “Success is walking off the court, field or track every day proud of the work that you do.” Bobby adds, “We want to win if winning is a result of following our values. If it’s not, winning can be an empty experience.”
Whether or not Calhoun’s athletics program goes on to break new records, we have a culture where character always comes first. And that’s the biggest win of all.