High School Students Take a Breath — and Hopefully Relax

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Members of the Pierson field hockey team meditating during their run to a state championship in 2013. Shannon Judge photo

By Gavin Menu

It was the biggest game of her coaching career, and certainly one of the biggest games in the history of Pierson High School athletics, so why was it that the Lady Whalers field hockey team was late for its New York State Class C Championship game north of Syracuse in the fall of 2013?

“I had the girls meditating beforehand in the hotel room,” says Shannon Judge, the Pierson head coach at the time. “We did a ton of mindfulness activities during our run to the state championship and I truly believe it was a huge factor in our victory.”

Judge, who is a physical education teacher at Pierson, is now incorporating some of the same principles into a new Contemporary Wellness curriculum, which gives high school students a secondary option to the more traditional physical education classes, which focus more on team sports, along with traditional forms of strength and conditioning exercises.

Michelle Beebee gives instruction during a class at Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor on Tuesday. Gavin Menu photo

“I thought it would be a good idea to highlight the idea of teaching mindfulness and coping mechanisms to our students, especially in the teenage climate we’re currently in,” Judge said about the creation of Contemporary Wellness, which was approved by the school board for the 2012-2013 school year. “Just bringing mindfulness, self-awareness and stress management strategies to the PE program and the positive impact it is having on our students, especially during a stressful time of the year with testing, etc., has been amazing.”

To help build the program, Judge and Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff solicited the help of some heavy hitters in the industry who were, and still are, sending their children to school at Pierson. Michelle Beebee, whose daughter, Ana Sherwood, played an integral part of the state championship run in 2013, has been teaching students an Urban Zen program, which incorporates healing methods from yoga, Reiki, essential oil therapy, nutrition and other contemplative care.

“It’s really a mindfulness program,” Beebee said on Tuesday after teaching a class of Pierson students at Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor. “It’s about how they can be in the moment of what’s going on using breath and movement as a tool. There’s that constant stimulation, so it’s really bringing the kids to stillness so they can be aware of what’s going on in the moment.”

Bramoff, who runs health, physical education and athletics for the school district, said he and the physical education staff are hoping to develop a larger program to explore different types of physical education, possibly offering three or four specialized programs that focus on either team sports, life-long fitness, weight training or dance, while also continuing the notion of contemporary wellness.

“We’re going to make sure we meet all the New York State standards throughout our physical education department, and from there we’re going to work to individualize the curriculum for all our students,” Bramoff said. “The worst thing you can have in a physical education class is to have students who are disengaged.”

The mission is still “in its infantile” stages and Bramoff said any big changes would need to be approved by administrators and the board of education. State standards for physical education are very broad, Bramoff said, and any different types of physical education classes would continue to meet those standards.

“We want to be a million miles away from ‘roll the ball out,’” Bramoff said. “We don’t want this to be the physical education of 30 years ago. We want to be progressive. We can spend all this time training their minds, but if their body fails them, it’s game over.”

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