Uncommon Conversations: Giving It a Shot, with Arjun ’24 and Jackson Elliott ’10, Director of Athletics

Discussions at Commonwealth have a sneaky habit of wandering out of classrooms. Whether they’re debating Romeo’s decision-making skills, unpacking resistance movements in colonial Central America, or finding problems that don’t conform to the Church-Turing thesis, these spirited chats spill out into the hall, follow friends to lunch, and stick in your head long after the day is done. Listen in as well-known football (aka “soccer”) aficionado Arjun ’24 and Director of Athletics Jackson Elliott ’10 (aka “Jelliott”) discuss how Commonwealth’s athletics program has evolved since the pandemic and even since Jelliott was a student here. They tackle team sports requirements, the importance of summer practice, and what it takes to get fans in the stands.

Mr. Elliott: I'm curious, Arjun: as you're looking back and reflecting on your time at Commonwealth, what stands out to you about your time in the sports programs here?

Arjun: Over the years, sports have definitely become a bigger part of the culture at Commonwealth, I think. There’s stuff like the [BUA Fall Fest game at Nickerson Field] and the final Ultimate Frisbee game—those are big events now, which I really appreciate. People are playing basketball in the Cafegymnatorium and going outside to play Frisbee. Starting the volleyball team this year was a great example of students taking initiative. And I really think that's evolved from when I first came here. There's definitely a cohort of people who really take sports seriously. But more than that, I think more and more people want to try sports out, like soccer or football or basketball. I think, at Commonwealth, more than any other school, you'll find people trying something new as a sport. And maybe that's because the type of kids that Commonwealth attracts aren't necessarily “sporty.” But I like to think that it’s because it gives them an experience they wouldn't get in another school. 

Mr. Elliott: It's also tricky, because the pandemic was happening when you started. I definitely noticed, and I think other athletic directors and coaches noticed, that more kids wanted to get out and play sports, particularly outdoors. People were cooped up, and there was more eagerness to jump into different sports. The flip side is that people weren’t necessarily playing on teams back then, because they weren't able to. That meant people might not have had a chance to build certain skills. But we’ve always definitely taken a more developmental approach at Commonwealth, particularly having J/V [junior varsity] teams and getting people to where they feel more comfortable participating in more competitive matches.

Arjun: What was the sports culture like when you were a student? Was there more hype?

Mr. Elliott: It was mixed. With social media now, it's easier for a sport to be shown off, whether it's through Instagram or people sharing videos from a game. I do think we used to get more fans for bigger games. Like, the whole school would be there when we went to finals. I've tried to implement spectator policies that try to encourage more people to check out sports games, though kids haven’t been taking advantage as much as I hoped. The thing is, in the fall, you have so many people participating in team sports—which is great, but it means the pool of people who can show up and support another team has gone down. I hope that, in the spring, because sports are optional, we'll get more people spectating games. I know groups like COMMunity organize dances and other events; I wonder what would happen if they picked a few different sports games over the course of a year and really tried to get a large group of supporters for these games, like we do with Fall Fest. I feel like that would be a way to get people more engaged. 

Arjun: I'd love to hear more about your other goals for our athletics program.

Mr. Elliott: So, I look at our sports programs as a way to get people into sports, particularly social sports, because that might help them build the confidence to play at an intramural or club level in college and even beyond. Personally, I found that’s one of the best ways to connect with people and make friends. And you can work out, be healthier, and also have fun. Obviously, we're not here to produce D1 athletes, but our sports programs are a way of making people comfortable on a field, on a court, and, hopefully, develop an interest in a game they can pursue for life.

Arjun: I think a lot of that is already true, in that lots of kids were trying new sports at Commonwealth and plan to do them in college. I have a good friend, Luke, who only did soccer in his senior year, and he plans to do it at a club or intramural level in college because he loved it so much here. And I think part of what makes kids want to continue is Commonwealth sports teams are so inclusive of everyone, no matter what skill level you are, no matter how well you know the sport. You always have a place. I think that's what we're doing now and what I hope we're doing in the future as well. 

How do you see our teams getting more competitive? Is it random how good a team is each year or is there a progression for getting better?

Mr. Elliott: So there's only so much time during the season when coaches can work on individual skills. A lot of their focus tends to be on tactical things you can do as a larger group. Because time is limited, you need to prepare the team for the defense formations you're throwing out or the style of play you want to have when they’re attacking. That means you don't have as much time to integrate technical skills training, especially into the fall season, because it's a packed schedule. There’s an onus on the students to practice independently, particularly over the summer, if they really want to improve from one year to the next, whether it's cardio training or working on passing, shooting, or other other technical skills, so that by the time the fall comes around, they're more equipped as an individual player to do the things that are asked of them within the tactical system that the team is running. That's why I offer kids an offseason workout plan, drill ideas, and ways to schedule organized workouts and just weekly pickup games with friends. 

What’s your advice for students who are new to or maybe intimidated by joining team sports?

Arjun: I think, for most people, coming to Commonwealth is an entirely new experience. You're doing so many new things. You're in a completely new environment. Most people I've talked to have tried lots of different things to figure out what they like, you know, joining the debate team, joining Model UN, taking different classes, to see what works for them. And I think sports is no different. I think everyone who goes to Commonwealth is eager and is passionate about something, but they’re also open to learning and growing as a person, as a student. I think sports can really hold a big part in that. You're not just doing a sport; you're not just doing physical activity. It's also about finding friends and building a team and building leadership. As someone who's always been interested in sports, it's never been an issue for me, but when I started, there were people who absolutely hated sports who were forced to do a team sport—and who have done it all three years since. Commonwealth is all about trying new things, and I think sports is no different.

Mr. Elliott: It's also about your mindset. There are often a handful of students each year who are reluctant to do a team sport. We have that requirement partially because we want students to get the experience of engaging in interscholastic competition and because we want them to be a part of a team, to work with other students to try to achieve something, whether it's a personal record or a championship. If you go into each practice with a mindset of, “I hate this. Why do I have to do this? This sucks,” you're not going to get much out of it other than maybe a little bit of cardio. But if you go into it with a mindset of, “Look, I'm just going to try this out for one season, see how I like it, enjoy the time I'm spending with my friends,” you'll still get something out of it, even if at the end you decide, this is not for me. And often kids say, “Wow, I actually really liked that. I want to do that next year, too. I made some good friends. I really enjoy the feeling after a hard workout.” That's what we hope kids come away with.

Arjun: In my sophomore year, there was a little bit of a mixup with my winter sports, and so I was forced to do Ultimate Frisbee. I had never played before. I was horrible! And I went into it like, “Oh my god, I can't believe I have to do this.” I came out of it very, very happy I did it, because I was like, “Okay, I've made lots of friends, I got to captain the J/V team, I learned a lot from that. It was a very good experience.”

Mr. Elliott: From your perspective, Arjun, what’s it like being on a team at Commonwealth?

Arjun: You know my favorite sport is football, and it's such a joy in the fall, because I see so many people who I'd never thought were passionate about the sport really get into it. They ask the captains questions like, How should I play in this position? What should I be doing in game? What should I be doing over the summer, like you said, Jelliott. You worry that people aren't going to be into it, but we always find a way because everyone’s so passionate when they're on a team. When you're working for a team, you're working toward something, whether that's one win in a season or whether that's the championship. It all fosters this sense of community. Commonwealth is such a small environment, and a team is even smaller, so you feel more connected to people who you wouldn't necessarily know the rest of the year. And, like I said, you make so many friends through it. You know, I've been here for three years, and there are people I talked to for the first time this fall on the soccer team and we keep talking to this day. And that's just a testament to the fact that you really grow to like people and know people over the hardest moments of the season. When you're winning and when you're losing. 

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