MIDDLETOWN – At first glance, it looks like the typical sports camp that draws students to fill their summer vacation void between the end of one school year and the start of another.
The sound of bouncing basketballs, squeaking sneakers and echoing voices fills the Sipprelle Field House at St. Andrew’s School.
Outside, girls lacrosse players inhabit one field and girls and boys soccer players fill another. They dart between and around orange cones in one drill or zip passes to one another as they hone their skills, oblivious to the heat and humidity.
But it’s what happens before and after — and often amidst — all these sports practices that makes the Strive Sports Challenge Leadership Academy unique and, those associated with it say, superior.
Building leadership, self-awareness and other positive, influential character traits are the camp’s primary objectives. They are the focus of on-the-court and on-the-field sessions as well as daily classroom learning.
“I’ve come back every year for the last 14 years because there is no other camp like this anywhere that is so beneficial to the kids — and the coaches, too,” said Jesse Gonzalez, a high school and club soccer coach from San Diego, California, who brought six players with him.
This is the program’s 19th year and 14th at St. Andrew’s. It has brought together 108 high school student-athletes from 15 states. Eight students are from Delaware, nominated by the Newark Boys & Girls Club, Serviam Academy and St. Andrew’s.
All went through a rigorous application process. Tuition is $2,000 and roughly three-quarters of the attendees receive need-based financial aid through Strive, a Wilmington-based non-profit, that covers most of that cost, said Andrea Valentine, the executive director.
Each day at the two-week residential camp that ends Saturday — St. Andrew’s is a boarding school — begins with what the campers call “vitamins,” which are actually a 7 a.m. dose of speed, strength and agility training that precedes breakfast.
Hearts start racing early here. The mind isn’t far behind.
‘It’s a learning experience’
Where a typical basketball academy may focus on shooting technique or a lacrosse camp on catching and cradling proficiency, sports skills are just a fragment of the daily regimen.
There are classes every day in sports psychology, conflict resolution, public speaking and other self- and group-improvement techniques, said Sabrina Zurkuhlen, a New York City-based coach and teacher who is the camp director. The value of fairness, humor, gratitude and diligence are frequent subjects.
The positive benefits are plain to see in the camaraderie among participants and commonly heard in the words that are spoken.
“We talk a lot about empathy and grit,” said Valentine, who knows about the latter as a former field hockey goalie at Tower Hill School and Haverford College. “But we don’t just talk about what those words mean. We ask questions like, ‘What does it look like?’ ”
Such queries get participants thinking and interacting, which are the pathways to personal growth and empowerment, Valentine said.
Campers also have another popular saying and motion — “Brush it off,” which comes with a flick of the hand across the shoulder — to signify they’ll take a risk, learn from failure and keep striving.
Jayna Jones, a rising senior at Wilmington Friends, where she runs track and cross country and plays basketball, enjoys the challenges.
“One thing they have us do,” she said, “is sit with someone different each day at lunch, so we can meet them and get to know them and learn from each other.
“One of the exercises I’ve found most beneficial is the classes on conflict resolution, about getting people together to try and work your way through situations. I’ve been on teams where that was a problem and I know when I leave here that’ll be something I’ll be better equipped to handle through collaboration.”
The classes and activities enhance interaction and bridge racial and cultural divides. They also may provide just the challenge someone is looking for.
Larissa Orellana, 17 and from Boston, came back to Sports Challenge after being here last year to test herself in areas she felt she needed improvement.
“Last year I was a very shy student-athlete here and I thought I could have pushed myself more,” she said. “. . . It made me really think what type of person I could be. I was more of a lead-by-example type of student. I felt as if I didn’t have to be that type of leader, I could be a more vocal and outgoing leader.’’
The public speaking classes have helped Orellana accomplish that goal, she added.
“It’s a learning experience that helps on the field,” she said. “It all comes together at the end.”
A lesson in self awareness
Coaches come from schools throughout the U.S. and even overseas, and they also teach the classes.
Among them is Eric Boateng, the St. Andrew’s graduate who played college basketball at Duke and Arizona State and was on Great Britain’s team in the 2012 Summer Olympics, which was played in his hometown of London.
Now 30 and playing professionally in Europe, Boateng relishes the chance to return to his alma mater.
“It’s just my honor to help and the leadership skills are so important,” said Boateng. “And they need to be learned. They don’t just come intuitively. That’s what I think is so special about this academy. It really teaches kids leadership concepts and, as a result, it’s a safe environment to try things out.’’
Sports Challenge was hatched when co-founder Jeremy Edwards and other coaches at Haverford College were “frustrated,” he said, “with the degree to which we weren’t seeing leadership skills on the college and youth scene.”
They found that “a lack of self-awareness” and teammates being from divergent cultural and socio-economic backgrounds was often at the root of the problem. They went about devising programs that would refine those qualities and create connections where gaps existed.
Alexa Caldwell, who returns every summer to her alma mater to coach girls lacrosse at Sports Challenge, marvels at the outcome.
“As a young 19-year-old, I found my best self here, and it’s been an incredible process seeing how I’ve grown,” said Caldwell, a 2007 St. Andrew’s graduate who then played lacrosse at Brown and now teaches and coaches at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
“It forces you to be self-aware and reflective in a way that’s refreshing, and I love the staff I get to work with and I love the student-athletes.”
What those student-athletes draw from the experience, Caldwell added, “is such a deep impact that it’s hard to pinpoint. But if you’re thinking how sports can unify a group of people and how fun life is supposed to be, and how to work with people you don’t necessarily have anything in common with except for you both play lacrosse . . . the diversity is what makes this place special.”
That’s what Rick Townsend, a soccer, basketball and baseball player at St. Andrew’s, finds so appealing.
“You’ve got people here from so many different places and from so many different backgrounds,” said Townsend, a Rehoboth Beach resident attending the soccer portion of camp, “and it’s such an amazing experience to get to know them and learn from them.”
Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.