Montessori Athletes: An Exception, the Rule, and a Vision
The little boy would not have stood out in a grocery store, or sitting at his desk in second grade. On the little league baseball field, everybody noticed him. He was lanky and awkward, uncoordinated in ways that were painfully obvious every time he picked up a ball or a bat. When Sean stood up to bat, he wore the serious, determined expression of a boy who begged his parents to let him play, but he never made it to first base.
If Sean’s parents were seated among the adults in the cold, metal bleachers, it was never apparent who they were. On the two occasions Sean’s bat hit the ball, everybody cheered. The cheers were sensitive, personal and heartwarming, not so loud Sean was embarrassed, just loud enough to let him know his improvement had been noticed. Sean didn’t get a base hit, but he remained inspired, an ordinary kid with an all-star attitude.
Two weeks later, on a Park District soccer field a few miles from Sean’s baseball diamond, boys of the same age struggled to maintain their dignity on a wet field, surrounded by adults who had lost their perspective on the game. Parents exchanged expletives with volunteer coaches. The winning coach shouted at players on both teams, cursed under his breath, hurled insults at a referee who looked just old enough to shave.
His team was quicker, stronger and bigger. They dominated play from the beginning of the soccer game and won by a large margin. Many of the parents and children on both teams left the field that day feeling defeated.
Guy Calise has been an upper elementary teacher and director of physical education at Countryside Montessori School for 23 years. He is an imposing presence, muscular, opinionated, adamantly committed to helping the children he works with master the fundamentals of good health and sportsmanship.
Calise is a giant in the field of physical education although, to be fair and honest, very few Montessorians are interested in a conversation that inevitably leads to the bugbear subject of competition. Calise’s efforts to maintain an educational focus in a competitive field have always been complicated, nuanced in ways that are never obvious even to the parents and children who thrive in his classes.
Maria Montessori’s vision for the athletes in her classes requires a scholar’s understanding of her writing and lectures on character development, an artist’s imagination, and a coach’s perspective on modern fields of play. Calise possesses all these things. He is 48 years old. In addition to his years of teaching, Calise is a father of two sons and one daughter. He has participated in team sports since childhood, and remains a competitive baseball player and Personal Trainer.
Maria Montessori spoke often about her concerns for children’s physical health and growth, especially during the developmental phases when they are vulnerable to infection and disease. She had very little to say about sports or athletic competition. As Montessori lived through the horrors of World War II and worked throughout her life with children who were impoverished or mentally disabled, it is unlikely she would have had much patience with suburban sideline parents crazed by a bad call or an unexpected loss.
“It’s amazing to me how many people seem to feel that games are not worthwhile if they are lost,” Calise says. “If we lose a tennis match, what have we really lost? Nothing! It just means we didn’t keep the ball in play as often as our opponent.”
“My point about competition,” he says, “is that when we as a society institutionalize competition at the expense of cooperation we are in for some horrendous results.”
In his work with parents in Montessori environments, Calise emphasizes the importance of play and creativity. Many of the children he guides have never stood in an open field, without a referee, a coach, an audience and an agreed upon set of rules.
“We need more free-range children,” he says. “They should take walks, talk about what they see, watch games they have nothing to do with. “ Good sportsmanship, Calise says, is really a great love for play, a child’s desire to keep the game going.
In Calise’s vision, Montessori athletes have two characteristics:
- A love of play Montessori kids acquire a love of play, Calise says, and a sense of creativity. They make up games and drills, for fun and to improve their skills athletically.
- A sense of discipline Athletic Montessori kids have an ability to concentrate that far surpasses that of their peers. They can persevere, repeat movements until they master them, and apply their intelligence in physically challenging situations.
Coaching should be much like guiding a Montessori classroom, Calise says. A good Montessori coach helps growing children establish a healthy, productive balance of freedom and discipline. Winning in competitive situations can be great, he says, but it should never be the focus of attention and concern.
“I want the kids I work with to be able to fall out of a tree and get back up to climb again,” he says. “It’s that simple.”