More Than a Game: Layups and Life Skills
“Early in my career, my first principal told me, ‘I don’t see the value in athletics.’ My jaw dropped,” recalled Todd Wright, Athletic Director at Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School (ARB). Wright knew nothing could be further from the truth; coaching at both the community college and high school levels showed him first-hand the positive impact athletics can have on students.
More Than a Game
“I teach more than basketball,” said Wright. “Basketball is this microcosm where you’re preparing students for life and teaching them life skills like communication, respect, sportsmanship, kindness, the value of hard-work, and what it means to be a part of something bigger than themselves.” Wright looks for opportunities and builds in space, for students to develop skills that will serve them on and off the court. “One thing that's always going to stick with me is the importance of commitment. Coach taught us that if you start something you must see it through,” beamed Andres Martinon, a senior at ARB. “So when I’m in college and things are getting tough, dropping out will never be an option. I will graduate.”
In a study, researchers Angela Lumpkin and Judy Favor found that high school athletes earned higher grades, graduated at a higher rate, and even scored higher on state assessments compared to non-athletes. In Wright’s experience, when students were involved in athletics, their grades improved, they had better attendance, and were overall more excited about school. As an Athletic Director and coach, Wright pushes his students to be great on and off the field.
The athletics program at ARB ensures athletes have academic supports: all athletic teams participate in one hour study hall sessions every day. This provides students with an uninterrupted time to complete coursework, ask questions, and seek support alongside their teammates. “Athletic Directors and coaches offer students more opportunities to succeed while providing an additional environment where students can learn important life skills that translate into the classroom,” said Wright. “Even if they struggle academically, they know they have to put in the work to continue being a part of something they enjoy, plus they know their coach will be on their case.”
ARB senior Kevin Gomez knows this first-hand. As captain of the track team, the cross country team, and basketball team, he puts in just as much effort on the field and court as he does into his studies. His day typically starts with morning track practice followed by class, and when the final school bell rings, he’s off to study hall with his teammates, and then to evening basketball practice. Once practice ends, and Gomez goes home exhausted, but his day is not over. He takes the time to finish any assignments he wasn’t able to complete during study hall and prepares for the next day. “When it gets tough, I remind myself that I’m a student athlete, a student first and an athlete second-- my education comes first,” said Gomez. “Playing a sport is a privilege, so you have to earn your spot, and that means being the best student you can be.”
While everyone loves a victory, Wright is most happy when his students are exemplifying good leadership. “We all work really hard to show students that leaders come in all forms, but what makes people good leaders are the choices they make, and we consistently model that,” said Wright. The basketball team at ARB learned the reward of hard work last year when they made it to the playoffs for the very first time. “Every year we’ve played basketball, we have tried to make it to the playoffs. It’s been our shared goal and we made it happen together,” said Patrick Penton, senior at ARB. Though they didn’t win, they returned from the playoffs a stronger team. “From that game we learned we’re capable of anything we put our minds to, we just have to put in the work,” said Jose Aleman, senior at ARB.
“To some basketball may seem like just a sport, but at ARB we don’t just focus on basketball and how to be good on the court,” said Gomez. “It’s more about being good off the court, our coaches expect us to be good students in the classroom, and good citizens out in the world.”
“To some basketball may seem like just a sport....It’s more about being good off the court, our coaches expect us to be good students in the classroom, and good citizens out in the world.”
--Kevin Gomez, Senior at ARB
For the Love of the Game
Athletic Directors typically oversee a school’s sports program while providing coaches with guidance and support, but Wright didn’t want to give up coaching. “I absolutely love coaching, my friends who are Athletic Directors ask me ‘Why don’t you stop coaching?’” recalled Wright. “My answer is always, ‘Absolutely not!’”
Wright attributes his passion for coaching to his father, who he considers his greatest coach. Growing up, Wright played baseball and football, but his true love has always been basketball.It was the game’s rhythm that stood out to him--how all players on a court moved fluidly to achieve their individual goals, yet were as synchronized as an orchestra or choir.
A Place He Calls Home
After leaving the military, Wright worked in the private sector for 18 years. “I was working in the biotechnology industry making good money, but I was miserable,” recalled Wright. “I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life, so around my 40th birthday I said to my wife, ‘I have to go back to coaching, I must do something where I can help young people’.”
In the early 2000s, Wright coached at the junior college level and was a adjunct professor teaching environmental studies. During this time he pursued a master's degree in physical education. Once completed, Wright knew he wanted to work in underserved communities: “I read a lot of stuff that claimed teachers in the inner city were terrible, but when I got to ARB I saw how false that was. I saw how hard these teachers work, and how dedicated and committed they are to their students and community,” said Wright. “All the students we serve are great, some just need more of a push, others need more clarity about the choices they are making, but they are great kids.”
For the last 11 years Wright has called ARB home. He has forged strong relationships and inspired many in his career. “He has been an inspiration in my life,” said Alvaro Gomez, junior at ARB. “Because of him, basketball means so much more, It’s being with a team of people I love and consider family, working to make ourselves, our coach, and our school proud.”