What athletics look like at independent schools

With not much time left on the clock in a critical match on the road for the girls’ volleyball team from the Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, they got a huge point when an official called the ball out. Surprisingly, the girls from the Avery Coonley didn’t celebrate. Instead, they all turned to the official to correct the call. All six players agreed the ball was actually in.

Coach Joe Schallmoser was remarkably proud of his Fightin’ Seahorses and describes the moment as one of his favorites as a coach. “I realized that it doesn’t get any better than this. We want to win, but we’re going to do it the right way,” he explains

Schallmoser also serves as the athletic director at Avery Coonley, a position he has held for the past dozen years. The team’s actions are in keeping with the athletic department’s mission that, in addition to helping students develop as players and have fun, the athletic program teaches life lessons beyond the game.

“We preach that the scoreboard is not the be all, end all,” Schallmoser says.

The same is true at Chiaravalle Montessori School in Evanston where the focus is also more on building life skills than winning. Athletic coordinator Ari Reinfeld has made “no sweat” the unofficial athletics motto for the teams.

All players miss free throws or step out of bounds or make mistakes. Reinfeld encourages players to move on and not get hung up on an error by saying to players, “No sweat.”

“It gives them perspective,” Reinfeld says. “It’s important to learn how to fail and to be able to shake it off. There’s always something else to move towards, whether it’s the next play or the next game or the next season. It’s the same thing as when something goes wrong at work. They need the ability to move on quickly.”

Often at independent schools, making the team is not a source of stress. In fact, several independent schools do not make cuts, in part due to the small size of the schools and in part because of their philosophy that athletics are educational opportunities that should be available to all kids who are interested.

“Athletics here are truly for everybody,” says Schallmoser. “Anyone, regardless of skill, is given the opportunity to not just be on a team but to play a role and have opportunities.”

In addition to the ability to play the sport, Reinfeld encourages all kids to try every position. “In some places, the biggest kid plays just one position. But just because a kid is the biggest one in the class in fourth or fifth grade does not mean that will always be the case.”

Available sports vary by school. At Avery Coonley, for instance, students may join the track team or play on co-ed soccer team. They also have basketball teams for each gender and girls’ volleyball. At Chiaravalle, cross country and flag football are offered, in addition to track, basketball and volleyball.

The teams offer kids a chance to try something new and Reinfeld says parents are especially excited that their children can try a new sport in a low-stakes environment with friends.

School teams also often reflect the philosophy of the school. At Chiaravalle, sports skill clubs give children a chance to work with kids who are younger and older in mixed groups, as they do in their classrooms.

With a focus on inclusion and learning, an added benefit is that sports teams at independent schools help foster a strong sense of community, pride and school spirit. Schallmoser notes that playing for your school has a different feel than playing for a club team, where their teammates are not also classmates.

“We know going in that this may very well be the last team sport they have the opportunity to play for their school and we value that. The opportunity to represent your school is truly special,” Schallmoser says.

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