Sports are an integral part of the high school experience in America in a way that they are not in most other places. In fact, as The Atlantic reported in 2013, the United States spends more tax money per high school athlete than it does per high school math student. How does this emphasis on sports work when American schools go overseas? How do student athletics change in the complicated and academically-driven world of international schools? In the first installment of a joint Hong Kong International School-American School of Warsaw series on international education, Junto and the Warrior News look at the structure and culture of sports at two international schools.
By Taylor Bata, Jacinta Chen, and Yoo Jin Lim
Sports play a big role at both the American School of Warsaw (ASW) and at Hong Kong International School (HKIS). At HKIS there are fifteen sports teams, each with junior varsity and varsity teams. There are also seven student-run clubs: fencing, equestrian, lacrosse, crew, sailing, outdoor adventure, and ultimate frisbee. Most HKIS teams train during either the fall, winter or spring seasons, to allow students to be multi-sport athletes with the exception of soccer, swimming and tennis, sports that last two to three seasons.
ASW, a smaller school than HKIS, offers fewer sports than HKIS does. There are eight ASW sports organized into three seasons, with a few additional club sports offered. Although both schools have soccer, volleyball, basketball, swimming, track and field, tennis, and softball teams, HKIS also offers students the opportunity to join baseball, cross country, field hockey, netball, rugby, table tennis, golf, and badminton teams as well.
Both schools compete against international schools and “local” schools in their region. ASW sports teams participate in CEESA, (the Central and Eastern European Schools Association) and SCIS (Sports Council for International Schools) tournaments as well as in invitationals and competitions with local schools. A total of 13 schools all across Europe participate in SCIS tournaments and 20 in CEESA tournaments.
The league structure at HKIS is quite similar, with students participating in two traveling leagues: Asia Pacific Activities Conference (APAC), with a total of 12 international schools, and China Cup, with Shanghai American School PX (SAS PX) and International School of Beijing (ISB). Sports teams’ competitions are supplemented by games in either the International Schools Sports Federation Hong Kong (ISSFHK), the Hong Kong Schools Sports Federation (HKSSF) or invitationals for sports teams that do not participate in any local leagues.
Success on the Field
While both schools offer a wide range of sports, not all sports are created equal. In particular, coaches and athletes at both schools singled out some sports as having more competitive success than others.
Mr. Baker, a former HKIS Athletic Director and current baseball, golf, and softball coach, notes that over the years, basketball, soccer, swimming, baseball, and tennis have been among HKIS’s strongest sports. He credits these high school teams’ successes to feed-in community sports programs like Tai Tam Tigers for soccer, club rugby, community basketball, Tai Tam baseball, and the Hong Kong Stingrays for swimming.
Mr. Baker stresses HKIS’s reliance on these outside organizations, while also mentioning that HKIS has been able to attract students who are highly competitive in their sports. As an example, “We don’t make better tennis players here,” said Mr. Baker. “We can’t have someone who comes here with zero tennis experience and so we have people who grew up with private instruction and some competition and we’ve just been able to attract those people there so we’ve had some pretty good tennis players come through.”
“Speaking purely from winning percentage in terms of local and overseas leagues and tournaments, I would have to say swimming, tennis and baseball programs,” are HKIS’s top three programs, said Mrs. Leung, HKIS Athletic Director for the past eight years. “JV boys soccer has a long China Cup streak going and we have had some very strong individual representatives in badminton and table tennis.”
According to Jordan Marzo (12), Senator of Athletics and captain of varsity soccer, this year’s stand-out teams for HKIS have been swimming and tennis. “This year especially has been one where some teams have won most if not all of their matches or tournaments,” said Marzo. “Swimming and tennis have dominated at all their APAC/China Cup tournaments, the girls basketball team went completely undefeated at APAC and the boys soccer team placed 3rd and 1st in their two tournaments. Rugby and table tennis have had strong years and did well in their competitions.”
Rachel Sih (11), varsity softball captain and a varsity basketball starter, agrees with Marzo. “Basketball is especially competitive,” she said. “The girls basketball team has had so much success recently, winning Super APAC and repeating as champions this year, not to mention back-to-back third place finishes at the Holiday” Basketball Tournament.
“For tennis and swimming, the level that they compete at is insane,” remarked Sih. “There are multiple players ranked against the top players in the world that come from our school and go on to play or swim at the D1 level in college.”
ASW experiences a similar imbalance in the success of its sports programs. According to Katherine Hope, a member of the ASW Athletics Council, “The top three sports at ASW are definitely basketball, football (soccer), and volleyball. They are the most popular among students, many people try out for them, and they have the most interaction with outside schools. We also have a lot of stellar players in these sports.”
Hope argues that, “the ability of the players” is the driving forces behind why some sports are stronger and more competitive than others.
In a recent Junto survey, HKIS students overwhelmingly picked basketball, rugby, and soccer as the sports that receive the most attention. According to a similar survey done at ASW, the sport that garners the most fan support in Warsaw is basketball.
“Based on the relatively large amount of people that want to come to games and matches, the sports that attract the most students are the boys basketball and football teams,” Hope, the ASW Athletic Council member said.
However, Hope argues that fan support does not necessarily mean the most team spirit. “I may be biased because I am a member of the team, but I would argue that the volleyball girls teams have the most team spirit. Working well as a team is vital to the sport and is definitely emphasized during practices. We also have an incredible amount of cheers for every serve aced or point won or lost.”
Amanda Wisbeck (12), a triple season athlete who has participated in HKIS varsity rugby, soccer, volleyball, and basketball, said that “the sports that are hosted at home often receive the most support.”
HKIS varsity volleyball and basketball starter Phoebe Chen (11) ascribes rugby, soccer, and basketball’s popularity to the fact that these sports are “exciting” and the “rules of rugby and basketball are quite familiar to the students,” making them “easy to watch and understand.”
“I think it is just because [soccer, rugby, and basketball] are ‘spectator friendly’ sports, and fast paced so many people understand the game. Success of the team also contributes to this, as students at our school don’t want to see their peers lose, but they would rather cheer on their success,” said Sih.
Justine Tam, an HKIS tennis captain, also pointed out that “games are well-advertised by the student body and there are always incentives, such as baked foods, for students to attend soccer and basketball games.”
However, most agree that basketball has overwhelmingly received the most support over the years as HKIS has hosted the Holiday Basketball Tournament in the high school and middle school gyms for 47 years.
According to varsity baseball captain Zachary Fried (12), “We annually host a basketball tournament at HKIS, and this has become a popular tradition. This ultimately gives the basketball team quite a lot of publicity.”
Ian Huynh (12), varsity rugby captain, concurs with Fried, adding that there is an added “convenience of going to the basketball court versus the field or even leaving school.”
With lots of attention centered on basketball, rugby, and soccer, many top student athletes at HKIS feel that other sports and their athletes often go unrecognized and unacknowledged even when they may have equally strong results.
“I believe that tennis and swimming should receive more attention because of their consistent success,” said Fried.
As a member of the varsity cross country, track, and swim teams, Cricket Richter (12) expressed frustration with the lack of support for swimming. “Whenever APAC was hosted at our school, I found that not as many people were interested in coming to watch. I think this is sad considering the results that the team gets. I think this is because not many people understand the excitement that comes from watching swim events and don’t make an effort to come and watch the events. The team also doesn’t always get recognized when the school updates the student body on the results.”
Sih expressed similar feelings, saying, “Tennis and swimming are the sports that require the most dedication, but they get little credit for their work. Not many people know this, but our baseball team dedicates so much time as well, and they play at an extremely high level. But baseball is a complicated game to understand, so not many people go watch.”
Marzo also mentioned that “sports like golf, netball, baseball, softball, field hockey, volleyball, and badminton are ones that don’t get as much attention as others and I think they should and I’m doing my best to try and change that.”
In some cases, Wisbeck believes that sports like volleyball and table tennis “that don’t consistently come home with trophies aren’t as respected as other sports” and are therefore, lacking in attention.
Mr. Baker feels that support is based upon venue limitations as well as the structure of different sports. “The ones that are more prevalent than others are the ones that we see. It’s hard to watch a swim meet,” he said. “Just the way the races are going and the finals [are] one after another, after another.”
In terms of addressing student-athlete concerns that basketball, soccer, and rugby receive more attention, Mr. Baker added that there is “a perception issue” that can be taken care of with “better communication.” Using his golf team, which has won local leagues for the last three years but has rarely been acknowledged in school news, as an example, he noted, “No one knows we exist.” Mr. Baker explained, “I don’t think that some of our sports promote themselves well enough. They think there’s some secret office somewhere that sits down and writes all these reports and posts up the pictures. But it’s not. It’s really just a group of individuals.”
According to Hope, ASW aims to balance the attention paid to different sports. However, she acknowledges that the end result is imperfect. “I feel that the sport that definitely deserves more room in the spotlight is Track & Field. I may be biased because I am part of the team. However, it is still a fact not many people follow the successes of the track team.”
Similar to HKIS, Hope connected the struggles of some ASW sports to gain attention to the location of tournaments. In the past, she said, “There was a slight problem of people not wanting to travel” for track and field competitions. However, “As of last year many more lower classmen joined.”
HKIS varsity basketball captain Nitya Velakacharla (12) raised a potentially more widespread problem in balancing the attention different sports receive. “I think that it’s quite clear that boys athletic programs most often receive the most attention,” she said. “Perhaps this is because of a widespread assumption that male sports are more exciting due to their higher level of performance.”
HKIS’s Chen expressed similar concerns. “I can speak from personal experience when I say female sports teams at HKIS are underestimated and their achievements go unrecognized.”
Mr. Baker ascribes some of this difference to skill level. “The guys basketball games move a bit quicker” he said. “Our girls are very good against other girls teams. A lot of our guy basketball players watch basketball, live basketball, all they want to do is play basketball. What’s interesting with girls is that they pick up their sport during the season and then they leave it. Occasionally, you get some exceptions so that’s sort of the difference in terms of the quality.”
“The boys may be more ‘flashy’ than girls, but girls team sports are truly of teamwork,” Sih argued. “In girls sports, we have to play as a team to succeed, and the team aspect makes it so much more satisfying, as everyone contributes, not just one player.”
Sih recounts this year’s APAC basketball tournament at HKIS, where the girls were undefeated throughout the round robin stage and the boys lost multiple games. For the championship game, “The stands were packed for the boys’ team and I couldn’t even get out of my seat to go get ready for the girls game,” said Sih. “When the final buzzer rang, students just got up from their seats and left, even though we were playing next.”
“As a female athlete, it’s quite discouraging to see the crowds of students clear out of the gym right as you’re about to play your championship game on your home court,” said Velakacharla. “I hope that in the future, people begin to realize that female athletes are just as dedicated and hardworking as male athletes, and that all female athletic programs receive the recognition that they truly deserve.”
Several female athletes described a similar imbalance in fan support and resources between boys and girls sports at ASW. Tina Nguyen, co-captain of the ASW varsity girls’ basketball team, described unequal efforts to advertise girls’ games. “Last week on Friday, the senior boys game was very well advertised, but the girls was not. They see guys doing better than girls and so more fans come out.”
Adrianna Carter, ASW co-captain of the varsity soccer team and a player for the Warsaw university soccer team, spoke of the gender problem in terms of the resources available to the teams. “In soccer, the guys get coaches who have had more experience. For example, last year I was trying to get Mr. Riley to coach the girls team. But Mr. Riley got sent to the guys team. We got two teachers who had little experience with soccer instead.”
Carter went on to describe differences in emphasis in training between boys and girls teams as well. “All the coaches wanted to work on was conditioning when we needed to work on skills,” she said.
The belief that boys and girls sports receive different levels of attention, however, is not universally held. Mr. Matter, the Athletics Director at ASW, believes that students support each other at games regardless of gender. “Some teams form a very strong bond that carries over to classroom and beyond. Some teams still gather after they graduate, so they become lifelong friends.”
The Value of Sport
Despite these potentially fraught issues of which sports and which teams receive the lion’s share of attention, resources, and accolades, there is widespread agreement that student athletics are a valuable part of the high school experience.
According to ASW’s Hope, sports are a way to bond with other people. She believes that students can learn how to develop themselves not only skill-wise but also personally through sports, and develop an ability to persevere to higher limits.
Ms. Mackay, a high school PE teacher at ASW, largely agrees with Hope about the importance of sports beyond the bounds of the game “I have always been involved in sport and has shaped the person I am today. I have better social skills and a great understanding of fitness and healthy living.”
Fried, who has participated in HKIS baseball for four years, notes the vital role sports play in development of community. “Not only do sports provide me with the opportunity to improve myself physically, but it also helps foster great school spirit, and ultimately the community that results from this is very significant and impactful,” he said.
As a member of HKIS’s basketball program for seven years, Velakacharla described the “deep passion” she has developed for the game. “Despite still having to deal with the lack of support from the student body and gender stereotypes and inequality in recognition, we are still extremely proud of how far the program has come.”
Mrs. Leung, the HKIS Athletic Director, described what she loves about her job. “I love working with and watching young adults train and compete. There is so much to learn from winning and losing competitions. Life is about successes and failures and how we adapt to each,” she said. “I think sports are unique in that no athlete has ever won 100% of their games so they have to learn to adjust, train harder, rely on teammates more to try and win that next game.”