PORTSMOUTH — The old gym at Portsmouth High School resembled a military boot camp Monday, with about 60 students following orders from two Navy SEALs to perform pushups, carry weights and race up down the basketball court while doing a crab walk.
While the workout was like none they’ve ever experienced in gym class, these drills were less about getting in shape and more about teamwork and leadership.
“When we usually work with either high schools or colleges, we do a physical aspect but not so much to get them bigger, faster, stronger. It’s a good tool to teach them about communication and leadership,” said Anthony, a Navy SEAL (“Sea, Air and Land” team) member and co-founder along with his business partner, Jason, of the New York-based Applied Performance Sciences (APS). The two men presented an all-day program for a select group of PHS students in the school library and, for a sweaty 80 minutes, in the gym.
As a safety precaution, both men requested their last names be withheld, and their faces hidden in photographs. “We’re still involved in the SEAL community,” explained Anthony. “Just for security reasons, we like to use just our first names so we can do our job without having to worry about that.”
The APS presentation grew out of the school’s involvement with John Underwood's Life of an Athlete program, which promotes a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle. Members of Patriots Committed, a group of 15 to 20 students who pledge to live healthy lifestyles, have previously received training from APS during Life of an Athlete retreats in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Vice Principal Colleen Larson, one of original founders of Patriots Committed along with Athletic Director Stephen Trezvant, said Monday’s program was an attempt to expand the program to student leaders throughout the school — not just athletes. Besides inviting all the Patriots Committed kids, a call was put out to student leaders in band and chorus, the drama club, National Honor Society, student council and other groups.
“They’re leaders or they’re potential leaders,” said Ms. Larson. “These are the kids that other kids are going to follow. The idea is to give them the best information we can on the things that impact your performance, whether it’s on the athletic field, in the classroom or in the band. It’s just a way of continuing to help kids make good choices no matter what it is they’re doing.”
The day’s agenda was broken up into several categories such as teamwork and communication, leadership and commitment, physical training and making the right choices to improve performance.
“We’ve been doing this with high schools for about three years now. We do human performance training for all different kinds of organizations,” said Jason, noting that APS trains not only high school and college sports teams but first responders and corporate groups.
Pushups, pushups, pushups
In the gym, students were broken up into teams which had to perform several different races, each with its own order of tasks and props. In one race, for example, a team of four had to “push” one of their members — a human wheelbarrow — up and down the court while simultaneously transporting two 45-pound weights and one 20-pound ball.
Before each race, the team leader for that particular contest met with Jason or Anthony to get their instructions. “Everyone has to come see us at least once to get a race. That allows a freshman or the younger individual on that team to get leadership practice — something they may not see on their sports team or current organization that they’re in,” said Anthony.
The leader was responsible for going back to his or her teammates and explaining how the race must be carried out. “Then our job is to sit back and watch how the dynamics shift on the team,” said Anthony. “We’ll watch if that (student) is running the race and coming back and sitting down or whether he or she is taking a leadership role.”
A team won the race by completing it first with no errors. “If the race calls for X and they do Y instead, we take note of that. If they don’t get the win for that race, hopefully they learn from that and they’ll be able to fix it for the next race when they switch out leaders,” said Anthony.
‘Changed the way I live’
Even for Kyle McGowan, a member of Patriots Committed who plays both hockey and golf, the physical portion of the day was “absolutely brutal. Even when you’re resting, you’re not resting.”
Kyle said he’s been fortunate to have heard Jason and Anthony speak three times, and was glad a wider cross-section of students were also getting that chance Monday. “It’s great for people who have not been involved in Patriots Committed to be a part of this,” he said.
The senior hopes to study exercise science in college, which could lead to a career in physical therapy, strength and conditioning or something similar. “I met these guys three years ago and they started me on the direction of my love of exercise. From these guys I’ve learned so much and changed the way I live,” he said.
Danielle Costa is another senior member of Patriots Committed. She used to play volleyball but had to stop due to several concussions she experienced. Still, she’s a leader in several groups, including the Youth Activation Committee, which supports Special Olympics.
“We’re the student-based group for Rhode Island,” said Danielle.
Even though not every PHS student could be a part of Monday’s training, the knowledge gained by participants should trickle down to other classmates, she said. “I think being able to get kids from every group, so to speak, helps disperse things,” said Danielle.
She was looking forward to hearing a presentation about achieving elite human performance, which included information on drugs and alcohol, sleep and nutrition. Since she works at the YMCA with young children who are either disabled or are from low-income families, Danielle said she hopes to improve her own leadership skills so more kids will look up to her and emulate her actions.
“Especially with my younger kids — they’re anywhere from 7 to 11 — they’re starting to become their own person,” she said. “By being a leader who instructs them to do well and by putting my best self out, they can see that. They’ll always have these unhealthy snacks, but then I’ll have my own snack, like when I bring in watermelon or something like that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re eating this. I kind of want to try this, too.’ The little things like that definitely help.”
At the beginning of the program, Ms. Larson pointed out, one of the SEALs told students that “someone saw potential in you, so don’t be surprised down the road when you’re asked to step up and be a leader.”
The program’s main goal, she said, is to have those students want more for themselves.
“I think that’s our biggest piece — having them reach their potential. And, knowing there are going to be obstacles but that you can get through those obstacles,” she said.