Winning Through Healthy Competition

By Dean Stark

When people learn that Sacramento Waldorf School sports are a walk-on, no-tryout, practice only four times a week program, they assume we won’t be very good. They are usually wrong.My 2019 Boys Varsity Basketball team just won its league championship which was the 16th in our 33rd year of existence. Pretty impressive!

When I’m asked how our teams are successful year after year with such a small pool of athletes to draw from, I say it’s because of our approach to sports. We have high expectations. We hold players accountable. We have a philosophy of sport – the why, the how. We show them what playing on a team can ultimately mean. 

Instead of dedicating one’s life to sport, I want my players to dedicate their sport to life. 

In this era of ultra-competitive youth sports, it is difficult to find a balance between win at all cost and playing for enjoyment. Is the goal to teach children to weather competition? To prepare them for a competitive work world? 

Maybe, but competition brought healthfully can also be a wonderful aid in one’s development.It can help foster passion for an activity, and better prepare students to work well with others.

Competitive sports should invigorate and inspire, not create anxiety and stress. Drawing from Waldorf philosophy and personal experience, I strive to highlight the benefits of being part of a team and enjoying a sport for the beauty of playing it. 

There are a couple of other hurdles that every program needs to address as well when it comes to building a successful team – playing time and cuts. The tryouts/cuts or no-cut policy is certainly a hot topic in youth sports. Getting cut from a team can emotionally scar a kid.

But, getting cut can also motivate someone to great heights. While a no-cut policy doesn’t give one the sense of earning anything, it affords anyone the opportunity to participate. I see both sides.

As a small school, we don’t have tryouts for our teams. Every student is welcome. I have seen kids that never would have had an opportunity to play at a bigger school, get a chance, excel, and even make it at the college level. It’s rare, but it happens.

At another school, these same kids would have gotten cut in 9th grade and never would have set foot on the court again. That’s the beauty of our approach.

Even though we don’t have tryouts, we do have our own way of athletes earning their spot. My basketball players all must run a mile, a two-mile, and a quarter-mile under a specified time. It’s challenging, but doable. 

In 15 years of setting this bar, every kid has qualified. Sometimes it takes multiple times to achieve the desired time, but persistence pays off. I’ve witnessed the sense of accomplishmentand camaraderie when teammates cheer on one of their own. Student athletes who don’t think they can do it, still press forward because of the unwavering support of their “brothers.”

This truly does build a sense of family. It also develops a feeling of “I earned this,” and that’s the piece that can be missing when everyone can just freely join. 

Another important issue is playing time. In our community, we have a group that believes everyone should get to play regardless of skill level. 

We also have a faction that thinks the best players should play, period. Again, I see both sides. Playing everyone in a game can foster enthusiasm AND resentment. 

Should a player get equal or similar playing time even though they aren’t near as committed or talented? Should a player not get time on the court or field even though they have a phenomenal work ethic and attitude? 

My philosophy (at the varsity level) is that no one is guaranteed playing time. Showing up to practice every day on time, hustling and maintaining a positive attitude only gives a player the opportunity to play. Skill on the court does matter.

Meeting with parents before the season, and meeting individually with each player to define his or her role with the team, goes a long way in alleviating potential problems.

There can be many ways to weigh the success of a program. Winning, losing, level of participation, enthusiasm, to name a few. I believe we have a strong program because everyone gets an opportunity to play, our players genuinely care, and our coaches help make the experience special. 

Navigating playing time, cuts, commitment, effort and enthusiasm are many of the elements that build a school’s foundational philosophy. And if that’s the bar by which one determines a school’s sports successes, then I’d say we’re hitting home runs.

Dean Stark is Athletic Director at Sacramento Waldorf School.