Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

January 29, 2015
Before they take the field each fall, student-athletes at Millburn (N.J.) High School come together to hear some words of wisdom.
By Dr. Ted D'Alessio

Ted D'Alessio, EdD, is finishing his 21st year as Director of Athletics at Millburn (N.J.) High School. He was named the 2012 Athletic Director of the Year by the Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey and will serve as the organization's President beginning in 2015. He can be reached at: [email protected].

One of the selling points of high school athletics is the life lessons it teaches young people. While many of these come through teachable moments that occur throughout the season, we began implementing some formal educational programs here at Millburn (N.J.) High School about six years ago.

We initially launched the sessions because a few teams were using improper initiation rites and athletes were getting in trouble on social media. At the same time, some of our coaches wanted to bring in a sports psychologist to talk with their teams, and parents were asking for more information about sports nutrition. To address these needs, I organized our first Summer Sports Symposium.

The idea is to bring our athletes together at one time in our school auditorium for team building and self-help seminars. On one afternoon during preseason camps in August, we have three 50-minute sessions with short breaks in between, and all fall sport athletes are required to attend. Coaches are informed of the date well in advance, and most make it the second session of a day when our state's preseason acclimatization rules limit them to one practice. The date is often driven by the availability of the guest speakers, but I try to schedule it during the second or third week of preseason camp.

Although I would love to hold these symposiums throughout the year, it is very difficult to find a time to get all the athletes together once the school year begins. Plus, we have found that our fall athletes bring the lessons they learn from the symposium with them when they play winter and spring sports. We could have speakers address individual teams instead, but we believe having the squads experience these sessions together creates bonds among the athletes from different teams, which has supported our efforts to establish a new athletic department motto: "29 Sports--1 Team."

In addition to the topics already mentioned, we have addressed strength training, ethics, competing with class, concussion prevention and treatment, the college recruiting process, and being a good teammate. Since athletes will attend the symposium as many as four times during their high school careers, I try not to repeat topics during that span unless there is new information to report or something has become a hot-button topic.

I come up with most of the topics myself, and then I search for local experts on them. My main goal is to find subjects that are most relevant to our athletes and speakers who will be engaging. It's one thing to tell student-athletes they need to study hard and get good grades, but it's another to have a college coach explain how big a role academics play in the recruiting process or a professor show them the level of work they'll be expected to produce in college.

Often, the topics are based on issues that we have experienced at our school or seen others deal with. Other times they come from a suggestion provided by one of our coaches or school administrators. And occasionally, one pops up out of nowhere. Recently, I came across the website of a local expert on skin cancer who makes presentations on the importance of sunscreen. Since most of our fall athletes spend many hours outdoors, I believe this would be valuable information for them, and I plan to offer it next time around.

While picking the right topics is important, it really is the speakers themselves who determine the athletes' interest and reaction to the seminar. One of the keys to making this work is finding speakers who can connect with a high school audience. Students get enough lectures during the school year, so I tell our speakers they need to get the athletes involved directly.

For example, we had a sports psychologist talk to the group about motivation. He had a couple of our athletes come to the stage and told them to jump as high as they possibly could, touching a point on a wall. Then he taped a $20 bill a few inches above those points and told the athletes if they could touch it, they could keep it. Not surprisingly, the sports psychologist left a little poorer than he came.

Our athletes have been particularly receptive to motivational speakers, especially those who have overcome some adversity in their lives. One session that went over well was a young man who lost a leg at 17 and later became a professional tap dancer using a custom prosthetic. He even performed a tap dance that wowed the crowd.

Although the presentations are aimed at the student-athletes, I also spend a lot of time talking with the coaches about the symposium. A lineup of great speakers will do little good if coaches begrudge the time their athletes spend in the auditorium and tell their players, "This is something we have to go to today. Let's just get through it the best we can." By discussing it with them, our coaches have bought into the symposium series and often spend time talking with their athletes beforehand about the topics we'll be covering.

Best of all is the effect these lessons have had on our athletes. While we still have our share of issues to deal with each year, we've seen better teamwork, more attention paid to grades, improved school spirit, and fewer behavioral problems since we've started the summer symposiums.
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