Line of Scrimmage

Deerfield Magazine Fall 2013

By Nathaniel Reade

Line of Scrimmage 1

There once was a time, as a member of the Class of ’63 said at a Reunion forum this past summer, when “if you did a decent job at Deerfield, you got in to whatever college you wanted.” That time is gone. Today the competition for some colleges is so intense that most students feel the need to find a college hook—often an athletic one—and to “specialize” long before they even fill out an application; for some, attending Deerfield is simply part of the game plan. The fact is, whether it’s self-imposed or fueled by parental expectations, specialization often eclipses opportunities along the way, so at an academy that has prided itself on the concept of a well-rounded education this begs the question: Should young people specialize??

Chip Davis first came to Deerfield in 1989 as an assistant athletic director and lacrosse coach. These days, in addition to directing the athletics program and coaching, Chip also teaches honors economics, and even outside of his classroom he tends to approach problems with mathematical formulas in mind. For instance, on one side of the current athletic equation are the “large market forces” of modern society, and on the other are Deerfield’s core athletic values of broad participation, hard work, and sportsmanship. Davis must help to determine where the Academy should push back, and where it should bend. Or as he puts it, “Which is the dependent variable, and which is the independent variable?” 

In economics, the interest you earn on your savings account is a dependent variable, because it depends on the independent variable of how much money it contains. So in other words, Davis is wondering whether the wider world of sports will change Deerfield, or whether Deerfield will change the world of sports. Should sports at Deerfield be primarily about teaching character, teamwork, and the kind of life skills it’s hard to get from any other experience? Simply put, should it be educational? Or should it bend to these “market forces” and be more a door-opener, a “hook,” a means towards a collegiate end? If Davis over-weights the educational side of the formula, he could hurt the
school’s applications, donations, and financial future. If he under-weights it, he could weaken the school’s ideals. 

Davis explains that selective colleges “build classes of ‘talent silos.’” They fill slots for a certain number of  musicians, computer programmers,  math whizzes, thespians, and so on . . . and in the economy of college admissions, being a specialized athlete is often an asset.  Students almost never walk on to their college teams anymore—they’re recruited by college coaches, sometimes as early as eighth grade, and this affects elite private high schools in various ways. Cameron Dewey, a current Deerfield senior and co-captain of the squash team, explains that first and second-year students might play three sports, but by junior year they’re looking for
that one sport that’ll give them a leg up with an Ivy League admissions office. “There’s a sense of getting left behind,” he says, “if other kids are specializing and you’re not.”

And like it or not, specialization often works. While nationally fewer than five percent of high school varsity athletes will make a college team, Davis says that half of the Deerfield students admitted to Ivy League colleges from the Class of 2013 had a sports hook. 

Amie Creagh, Dean of Students, coach, and erstwhile recruited college athlete, says that concentrating on one sport often “opens up opportunities for kids or gives them confidence in their ability at an age when confidence can be in short supply,” but she also regrets how limiting a single-minded focus can be. “Specialization happens so early now,” she says, “that students can miss out on other opportunities.” They’ll skip Deerfield games to attend “showcases” where scouts are present,
or pass up trying some new subject to focus on their college chances. 

Power Play 

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Some of this drive to specialize stems from college admissions pressures, and some from society at large. One positive trend in American youth sports today, according to Richard Ginsburg, a Harvard-affiliated sports psychologist, former college athlete, and author of the book Whose Game is it Anyway? is that nearly 90 percent of American kids participate in organized sports. That’s such a recent phenomenon, however, that the culture hasn’t yet figured out how to manage it well.

Ginsburg particularly worries about the rise of for-profit, travel-team programs, some of which force their players to choose between them and their high school team. These coaches may be excellent, but they make their money by attracting more players, which they do by winning games.
And a coach bent on winning might be less likely to worry about teaching sportsmanship or protecting his players’ long-term health. 

Much like Amie Creagh, Ginsburg and others also question the increasing number of sports tournaments and showcases. They’ve proliferated because they make their organizers money and ease life for college scouts, who can now evaluate thousands of talented prospects at a few events, rather than attending lots of high school games. Private teams and tournaments increase pressure on players to stick to one sport all year and to over-train, which Ginsburg says promotes burnout and repetitive-strain injuries. Chip Davis notes that parents who have spent countless weekends and thousands of dollars shuttling their children to travel games and tournaments often arrive in the Deerfield Admission Office with a “rate of return” attitude: They expect an advantage when it comes to college admissions. 

Davis’ predecessor, Jim Lindsay ’70, says that when he was the head coach of boys varsity hockey, some parents would try to negotiate with him: “‘The Exeter coach says my child will play on the first line and the power play. What can you offer?’” Lindsay had a stock answer: “I don’t need chiefs. I need warriors. I need players who are going to say to me, ‘Where do you want me, Coach? How can I help the team?’” The kids, he says, got it. The parents—not so much. Lindsay was trying to uphold Deerfield’s values, but he risked losing “market share” to a rival school, and losing games. 

There have also been some strange shifts in Deerfield’s athletics program. Some varsity sports, such as wrestling and softball, have lost favor in the wider world or with college admissions officers, and thus at Deerfield struggle to attract
full squads. The lacrosse player who used to wrestle in the winter now feels pressure to look good for scouts at a spring tournament, so he wants to spend the winter season in the weight room rather than on the wrestling mat.  

And varsity coaches in what Davis calls “high visibility” or “high volume” sports such as lacrosse and soccer face more pressure as well—to win games so they can attract great specialists, to recruit more in order to compete with Deerfield’s peer schools, some of which throw far more money at this. Whereas Deerfield still uses coaches who also know students in the classroom because they’re teachers as well, Choate, for instance, has a fulltime basketball coach. The pressure is on to replicate the kinds of athletic programs you now see at the collegiate level, with recruited players, former-professional coaches, and expensive facilities. Davis resists this as much as he can, but “increasingly,” he says, “we are running a diet version of a Division-three college program.”

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Back in the Reunion forum, when an alumnus tells Davis
that he ought to require students to play multiple sports at Deerfield, Davis looks wistful. “You’re preaching to the choir,” he says, “believe me.” That’s in part because students who play two or three varsity sports make it easier for Davis and his coaches to field teams against bigger rivals. He also believes that playing multiple sports teaches you the vital life lesson of humility: Even if you’re a starter on one team, you might learn what it’s like to be a bench-warmer on another, and thus how your bench-warming teammates might feel. That’s a lesson that’s hard to get anywhere else.

Jim Lindsay says he used to tell his players, “You’re going to be a better hockey player for me if you play football or soccer in the fall rather than lift weights and skate one day a week.” Those other sports teach you physical skills, Lindsay says. “The hockey player who plays football is going to know how to check and leverage balance and all those transfer skills. The quarterback who plays point guard learns to see the floor, which helps in football.”

Best of all, though, Lindsay says, playing other sports teaches psychological skills. “You have to learn how to play hard, fight back from adversity, not give up. And I don’t think you get that playing the same sport year round, when only a small sliver of it is highly competitive. The first few weeks of hockey season, the kids who played soccer in the fall might be rusty at skating, but they competed like hell. And that’s the kid you want on the ice in the final minutes of the third period.”

Richard Ginsburg agrees. “I’ve been working with kids at Harvard since 2000,” he says, “and in my experience the kids who have specialized in one sport, doing travel-team leagues and flying around the country to tournaments, don’t fare as well as the kids who are working at a job, playing multiple sports, and have been humbled in their life. Some of these specialized kids can’t function when they get to a competitive level where they’re on the bench.” And what happens, he asks, to the specialized athlete who blows out a knee, or loses their love of the game?

A white-haired alumnus at the “Deerfield Athletics: Then and Now” Reunion forum asked Davis, “When we were here we all had to play a sport every season. Would you bring that back?”

“I can’t,” Davis said. 

Agreed a former Deerfield faculty member in the audience, “It’s a new world.”

“Well then,” the alumnus countered, “You should shape it.”

That’s the dependent variable question: Can one school really shape such enormous social forces? Last year an athletics task force made specific suggestions intended to both increase athletic participation at Deerfield and ease some of the burden on coaches. Some of the task force’s recommendations signaled compromise—some might even call it a “win-win” situation; for instance, that lacrosse player who wants to get ready for his spring season by lifting weights during winter term is now free to do so . . . if he agrees to play a different sport, maybe even one he hasn’t tried before, during the fall season. Davis hopes that the specialists, thanks to these changes, “will leave here more well-rounded.” 

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Overall, though, he thinks the problem is bigger than Deerfield—bigger than athletics. It’s macro. It’s the market. It’s the fact that a well-developed, specific skill is a hot commodity. It’s parents focusing on a remote future possibility—college acceptance—rather than the bigger lessons of right now. Davis, the economist, thinks that probably won’t change until students and their parents no longer see a “rate of return” from the “bumper-sticker” college—when a UMass education is seen as just as valuable, especially given the cost, as a Harvard education. (A recent study of students who were admitted to Ivy League colleges but attended less-selective schools showed that they fared just as well in life. It’s the person that matters more than the college.) Davis thinks it’ll take a generation.

Lindsay faults a growing “winner take all” attitude in American culture. “I am as competitive as the next guy,” he says. “I love the opportunity to excel. But success isn’t just about winning. It’s how you go about it, and handle it, and whether you’re graceful about it or obnoxious. If you had a great season, a lot of joy in playing, you’ve prepared as best you can, and you’ve given everything you had to the game and the team, you’re a success regardless of what it says on the scoreboard. Today, whether it’s on the field, in the quest to get into the right college, or to get that starring role onstage, people tend to feel like losers unless they win. That attitude in all of us needs to change.” 

Harvard’s sports psychologist Ginsburg goes as far as to say that “the entire system is broken,” and adds, “We have to ask ourselves as parents: How are we defining excellence for our kids, and what is the best path to get them there?” 

This is a question that goes far beyond the bounds of athletics; Academic Dean Peter Warsaw weighs in: “What matters far more than what school you go to is who you are,” Warsaw says. “What package of skills, attitude, and values you bring.” Shouldn’t the purpose of Deerfield, he asks, be more than just getting in to a college?  Shouldn’t it be to teach a whole set of skills a student needs for life?  

Rhetorical questions aside, what seems destined to change is the Academy’s definition of “well-rounded.” 

John Taylor, Dean of the Faculty, says, “It’s a question of degrees. We try to complement specialization with other things. If we have a student who only wants to do one sport or who loves being in a science lab, we say to them, okay, but don’t do it for three terms in a row. Try other things. It’s not an either-or matter.  It’s more a matter of finding the and.” 

That “and” often comes down to matching students and teachers and coaches who share a passion for science or playing the piano or running faster than anyone else; Warsaw is not convinced that specialization, whether in lacrosse or theater, is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, he says, it’s just a pejorative term for “passion,” and he thinks Deerfield ought to be encouraging passions in its students. Either way, Warsaw says, “Specialization is here to stay, and fighting it would be quixotic. The world has changed.” 

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Both Warsaw and Davis believe that these broader social changes have forced Deerfield to face some hard questions, perhaps the foremost being: How do you integrate specialization and Deerfield? 

“It’s a complex question, with strong points on both sides,” Warsaw says.  “We have to ask ourselves what kind of school we want to be.” Specialization, he says, is just one more of the disruptive developments, such as the extraordinary expansion of technology, that pepper the history of humans, schools, and sports. “And whenever there’s a disruptive development,” he says, “its beauty is that it forces you to go back and ask what you really believe.”

Warsaw and other administrators at Deerfield recognize that team sports provide a great way not only to build friendships, but to teach numerous life-skills, from persistence to creativity.

Toward the end of Chip Davis’ Reunion Weekend athletic forum, Jamie Wylie, Class of ’78, said that when he was at Deerfield “we were taught that there was no quit, you played for 60, and that’s how you were supposed to lead your life.”  

That, Davis says, is still there for 90 percent of Deerfield students. They still participate in a team. They still learn “a different flavor of problem-solving, group dynamics, how to contribute to something larger than yourself. We have not in any way lost the important life lessons that happen on the practice field or in games,” Davis says. “And whatever the market forces outside the Academy, that’s what we will always cling to inside. Those are our values. That is a constant.” ••