If you were to visit KO’s campus at the end of the school day, you would find flocks of kids walking around, sporting athletic gear and carrying tennis racquets and lacrosse sticks. Spring sports have made their comeback and are thriving at KO, and while the benefits of athletics and team sports are indisputable, the athletic requirement has proven to cause some students headaches… including me!
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a sports requirement because as an athlete, I see firsthand the benefits, both physical and mental, of athletics. However, I am advocating for a more flexible sports requirement that takes into consideration the interests of students, their extracurricular pursuits outside of school, and their already packed schedules. It is particularly important to examine the requirement, as KO finds itself at a crossroads right now and, as a school, must decide how the sports requirement will evolve in the post-pandemic years.
Sports at KO have had a positive impact on many students. Physical activity and sports at all levels provide participants with numerous benefits. Exercise has been scientifically proven to release endorphins and improve one’s mood. Participation in physical activity also lays the foundation for a lifetime of healthy habits. Additionally, involvement in sports teaches athletes important life lessons that reach far beyond athletics such as teamwork, communication, and accountability.
Like many of the independent schools throughout New England, KO has an athletic requirement for its students. This requirement takes the place of physical education classes, a requirement in public schools, and combats the startling level of inactivity amongst teenagers around the world.
However, KO’s antiquated sports requirement has not kept up with the constantly increasing obligations of highschoolers today. Teens are under immense pressure to perform at an elite level in every pursuit they are involved in. Whether it is maintaining a high GPA, being a starter on the varsity team, or winning debate competitions, there is a constant need to be the best, which ultimately takes a toll on teens. Additionally, social media places even more emphasis on having a seemingly “perfect life.” Obviously, there have always been pressures on highschoolers, as these years are a pivotal point in their lives; however, pressures have only increased in the last decade. College admissions has become even more competitive, social media’s popularity has increased exponentially, and the trend doesn’t seem to be changing.
Prior to the pandemic, KO enforced a strict sports requirement. Underclassmen had a three-season commitment during which they had to participate in at least two group activities and one fitness activity. Juniors and seniors also had a three season requirement and had to participate in at least one group and one fitness activity.
However, there was a recent exception for upperclassmen that allowed for a recovery season. To be eligible, students had to have participated in two group and fitness seasons. In addition to a recovery season, there was also an application process for an “independent study,” which excused students from participating in KO athletics. However, it is unclear what qualified students for an “independent study,” and approval seemed to be under the discretion of the Athletic Director. The last time these athletics requirements were in place was the Fall and Winter seasons of 2020. Since then, the pandemic has resulted in a more lenient sports requirement that allows students to opt out of athletic participation.
Even though there are certain non-athletic or non-competitive activities that can fulfill the athletic requirement – Robotics, Strength & Conditioning, and Musicianship, among others – the requirement often forces students to participate in an activity or sport they don’t enjoy, simply for the sake of completing the requirement. With this, the fun of playing a sport or doing an activity you like is automatically removed from the equation.
Additionally, the impact of fielding athletic teams with individuals who aren’t truly passionate about the sport is ultimately counterintuitive. Compared to other schools in the Founders League, KO is already at a disadvantage in terms of athletics because we have limited recruitment options as a day school. Boarding schools such as Loomis Chaffee and Choate can bring in the most elite athletes from around the country and form highly competitive teams. It is unrealistic to think that students who begin playing a sport in high school, only play the sport through school, or aren’t passionate about the sport can compete with such high caliber athletes.
To combat the disparity between the athletic program at KO and other schools we compete against, it would be beneficial for KO to establish more developed athletic programs at the Middle School level. There is no doubt that it is beneficial for students to try new sports and activities that will teach them new skills and introduce them to new friends, but rather than forcing Upper School students who are already juggling so many other responsibilities to become involved an activity they don’t enjoy, KO should take advantage of the free time Middle Schoolers have and encourage students to try new activities and learn about what they enjoy at a younger age.
Additionally, fostering a stronger connection between all Middle and Upper School athletic programs would motivate more Middle School students to work toward earning a spot on the Upper School athletic teams. Doing so would not only create a better pipeline of passionate and skillful athletes to the Upper School, but also place an emphasis on the discovery of new interests, exposure to being on a team, and meeting new friends, on students who have more free time than their Upper School counterparts.
Furthermore, despite the many great sports and extracurriculars that KO offers, there are far more team sports compared to non-athletic options. It is understandable that a school can only provide a limited number of programs and will be unable to satisfy the wants of every student in terms of sports and activities. However, the current sports requirement is easier for athletes to fulfill and hinders artists, robotics enthusiasts, and students with other interests from completing the requirement, even though many of these activities teach students the same skills and lessons team sports do.
As a result of the rigidity in KO’s athletic requirement, the schedule of sports practices has become a source of discontent among students. Upper School athletic practices begin at 3:30 p.m., after the end of the academic day. However, in the case of some sports, such as tennis, practices have to be held in waves to accommodate both boys and girls teams. On a day when the girls practice is held after the boys, a typical start time could be 4:45 p.m. The sports requirement forces students to sacrifice their evening to participate in an activity they may not even enjoy.
Ending athletic practices so late in the afternoon also interferes with students’ extracurricular activities outside of school. After attending practice, many students have practice for a club or travel team for their primary sport, other commitments, and copious amounts of homework. Plus, the current practice schedule doesn’t consider the commutes of students who live a greater distance from campus. Trying to find time to squeeze in all commitments during the day proves to be stressful and overwhelming. Amending the requirement and enabling students to participate in the activities they truly enjoy will alleviate some of this stress while also developing programs and teams with individuals who are passionate and successful at what they do.
While sports are supposed to be a pause from a day full of rigorous academics and a way for students to channel their energy, if an individual is only participating to check a box, the activity is no longer a source of enjoyment but rather a burden. KO students should not have to choose between participating in something they enjoy and fulfilling their athletic requirement.
This year’s flexibility, a result of the pandemic, has shown us the possibility of a community without such a rigid requirement. KO is still a vibrant place filled with individuals contributing to the school in so many ways. Whether it’s Student Government or after-school art, students are still active in the community and get to be involved in what they are passionate about. KO administration is at a pivotal moment where they are determining how best to run the school in the future. Administration should consider adjusting the athletic requirement to accommodate students with all types of interests and develop both sports teams and non-athletic programs with the most enthusiastic participants.