Whether a student is an athlete or simply interested in physical health, Emma Willard encourages her to follow her own path.
“We are teaching how to establish the foundation of good, healthy, life-long pursuits,” says Dean of Students and Varsity Lacrosse Coach Shelley Maher. “Yes, there are many health benefits of movement or physical activity, but we know that value extends far deeper, we know students’ mental health is also better as a result.”
In Maher’s 10 years at Emma Willard, she’s witnessed both an expansion in the number of athletic teams as well as a general shift to accommodate interests beyond just traditional, American school sports. Along the way, she’s seen confidence build among students who participate in many ways.
“I come from a community-based sports background, a participation-based sports culture,” explains Maher, who was born and grew up in Australia where club teams and regional athletic leagues are the bedrock of local communities. “That approach makes it inherently central to how people live their lives. You play at eight, you play at 38 and you still play at 68. We are bringing that kind of access and lifelong opportunity to our Emma students and it allows them to explore sport and physical activity from a different vantage point.”
At Emma Willard School, athletics and movement gives students the chance to try new sports, build skills, and even apply for Division 1 athletic scholarships. For every student, the intent is to introduce lifelong practices of physical health and perhaps they may have an experience at Emma that comes back to them years later, opening the door for them to continue their involvement in that activity as an adult.
“Even in my first years here, we had activities like trampoline,” says Athletic Director Elizabeth Parry, who is in her fortieth year at Emma, where she is also a health instructor and head varsity field hockey and lacrosse coach. “Or we made good use of the pool in the chapel.We have always been creative about providing accessible forms of physical activity.”
Parry remembers the shift in the 1980s from physical education as a class during the day to offering a variety of options after school. Since then, faculty, staff, and students alike have led the introduction of golf, table tennis, archery, spin classes, self-defense, conditioning, power lifting, ultimate (Frisbee disc), yoga, cross-country ski racing, and more.
“An Emma adult had experience in circus skills,” Maher says. “She ran an after-school PE with a focus on circus. We have eight unicycles at this school!”
For three-sport athlete Prairie Gunnels ’23, who plays basketball, field hockey and lacrosse, that diversity matters. “Emma is an amazing place that wants you to try new things and will be there to support your understanding and growth. If sports aren’t your thing, find a movement that you’ve never done before, or one that sounds interesting, and give it a shot!”
Mika Ferrell ’22, shown above playing field hockey, is an Emma Willard School Die Hard: an athlete who participated in every eligible season over their four years at the school.
“We offer a range of physical activity options. We recognize dance for both movement and academic credit,” Maher explains. “For those students who can't find their niche at Emma, we facilitate practicum opportunities. If a student wants to pursue horse riding, or a martial art, or fencing, anything that is not on campus, we find it off campus and see if we can fit that into their three hours of movement requirements.”
The goal is to help students build a foundation for healthy, lifelong pursuits. As Maher explains, “People's mental health is generally better if they have an outlet, emotionally and socially. Who are the people that you hang around with outside of your academics? If you’re involved in a sport, it’s often teammates and that is an incredible support network.”
Gunnels agrees: “I think that movement—whether a PE class like ping-pong or an athletic team like field hockey—fosters connections between people within the community. And movement helps me clear my brain and focus on what’s currently happening in front of me.”
About 220 students in the fall participate in a sport. The activities serve as places where new students meet one another and interact across grade levels. “You may be a freshman, and you are learning very quickly how to converse and engage with seniors,” Maher says. “We elevate younger students to think more independently when they're playing a sport.”
Parry explains, “You're getting a shot. You're competing. You're learning about your own self. Our students like a challenge. Even during the pandemic, when we didn’t have sports, they were working out in the gym and weight room, using apps to create and track their own workouts. It’s an important outlet for students, especially in times of high stress.”
One of the most important lessons Emma students learn is how to balance physical activity and schoolwork, something that Gunnels says can take a couple of seasons, since sports take time each week and the academic workload is substantial.
“I often see a student-athlete better managing their time and commitments,” Maher says. “And they learn the skills a little bit sooner. How do I look after my own sleep patterns? How do I look after my nutritional demands? Am I learning how to hydrate? Am I learning how to recover? If my body's sore, what’s that telling me? These are all beneficial lessons from sport.”
Maher credits the high-quality coaches at Emma with facilitating that process: “We have coaches here who role model. They are very caring about their athletes. And they do it not because they have to do it, but because they really want to do it.”
“I don’t have a particular favorite team or coach,” Gunnels says. “They have all created a really good environment for me while helping me grow as an athlete. My field hockey coaches helped me learn and love a sport I’d never even watched before last year. My basketball coaches helped me improve a sport that I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. My lacrosse coaches helped me learn a sport in which I had very little previous experience. All of them have pushed me to be better and supported me through both good and bad games.”
Emma Willard competes in the Wasaren League, often against larger schools, after years of competing across leagues and facing the challenges posed by being a girls school surrounded almost entirely by co-ed public or private high schools. The stability has been helpful for coaches preparing their teams for contests. For lacrosse and tennis, the teams play in the Colonial League, where those sports are offered. The crew and indoor track-and-field teams compete independently.
The Emma Willard School Crew team gets out on the water every afternoon for practice.
“There was a time when it was said at Emma that we competed with other schools,” Maher says. “I want us to be humble. I want us to be positive. I want us to be supportive. But it is also important for our students to know you don't compete with anybody; you compete against them. It is okay to learn to be competitive.”
“In lacrosse, we even have shooting competitions,” Parry adds. “We’ll put up targets with Starbucks cards on them once or twice a season. The players get to show off their shooting skills and they love that because they like the competition.”
“I think everybody would love for that win to happen more than the loss. But what was the process for the kids to actually get there? That’s what we’re focused on here,” Maher says. “That the lifelong skill of giving it your best and even if you’re not doing as well as what you'd like, the awareness is really important. And being able to push yourself. Did I give it everything I possibly could? That’s the key to our approach."
In the secondary school environment, it is as much about the instruction of students as it is the clear reinforcement and modeling by adults in the community. At Emma Willard, there is an inherent understanding that faculty, staff and administrators will model a willingness to participate and even to strive.
“We’re doing the Ragnar New England again this year in May. We’ve done three of them in my time here,” Maher says. “It’s a 24-hour road race. We have 12 seniors; two vans each with six kids. Runner one gets out of the first van, runs five miles, gets back in the van. Runner two gets out of the second van, does the same. And you do that for 200 miles nonstop. It goes for 36 hours, all through the night.”
The Ragnar relay experience is legendary among Emma students. The school pays for the team’s registration, but students are responsible for recruiting the 12 runners and planning their training—including the critical middle-of-the-night runs on campus.
In addition to Maher, the support crew will include two familiar faces, exemplifying Emma Willard’s hands-on approach to leadership: Head of School Jenny Rao and Associate Head of School Meredith Legg,
“Our own head of school is going all-in here, how cool is that?” Maher exclaims. “And that means so, so much to the students. This is all part of their development as a kid. They might be scared or intimidated but, at the same time, they’re exhilarated and they know they have our support. It's about giving them the ownership and control.”
For Maher, the relay is an opportunity for students to represent their school, be part of an entity larger than themselves, and build character. It uniquely encapsulates Emma Willard's approach to sports, movement and physical activity as a lifelong source of learning. “I have one student who doesn't often come to campus on weekends. She signed up for the Ragnar and I said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said, ‘Miss Maher, I’m getting outside my comfort zone!”