Over the past year, the word “pivot” has become just as common as the words “Zoom” and “unprecedented.” All of us have had to pivot in one way or the other to adapt to the challenges presented before us. But for longtime Athletic Director David Gardella, who just completed his 26th year at BFS and 19th as Director, reimagining an entire athletic program as the world went virtual was a puzzle not so easily solved by a simple pivot. Physical education flourishes when incorporating the elements of teamwork and collaboration, so it was going to take a lot of work and a whole lot of imagination to keep those tenants at the center in the face of so many challenges. That’s what makes the Physical Education and Athletic Clubs (PEAC) success story so remarkable and–dare we say it–unprecedented.
How it All Began
Like every corner of BFS last Spring, the athletic program moved to the Zoom world immediately after the School shut its doors due to the pandemic. David and his devoted team of coaches sprang into action, quickly learning and executing how to run classes for all students to stay active at home. Despite the technical barriers, students were given the opportunity to get up, move, and have some fun during a difficult time. Simultaneously, the coaches also began holding virtual practices to keep all BFS teams connected and focused on staying committed to improving. These practices centered around concepts such as camaraderie and effective teamwork, but also dove into information like rules and regulations. In addition to allowing for students to always have time to ask questions, coaches were also able to show drills and skills videos so team members could incorporate them into their own workouts.
While David was pleased by this progress, as the weeks and months stretched on through the Summer and into the Fall of 2020, he began to feel that there was more the program could be doing to keep children active.
“It was so important to give kids an opportunity to be with each other again. When you’re with your peers, you feed off of each other and can motivate one another to improve. It is also so important to their mental health,” says David when thinking back to why he was so driven to create the PEAC program.
Taking the First Steps Forward
With Fall weather in the air, David went to work on designing and planning for an outdoor program to bring students together in a safe and healthy way. With COVID-19 restrictions and uncertain weather as major obstacles, this was no easy task. Operating out of the new and improved basement office at Pearl Street, David took on the challenge with an open mind. He and his team attended over 50 webinars to study all of the possibilities that existed to bring students together, and they explored many ways to make the concept work.
“I’m an optimist,” says David as he reflects on the beginning of the PEAC journey. “I knew it would be hard to figure out a way to bring the kids together outside, but I knew that if we just took things one day, one session, and one moment at a time, we could be successful.”
David’s plan seemed simple on paper: Allow time before and after school every day for 7th to 12th grade students to gather together safely in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Students would arrive on their own and would be able to participate in several socially-distanced activities. The sessions would be optional to allow for those who lived too far away or preferred to remain remote to still have a robust program at home, and every small COVID-19 protocol would be strictly enforced at the park. David drew it all up, secured the instructors, and scheduled all the sessions. Only one question remained: Would students show up?
“I don’t think I or others knew exactly what to expect when we actually did get to the park that first week. But suddenly, there we were,” recalls David.
To David and his team’s delight, the children began to show up and participate in both the early morning and afternoon sessions with enthusiasm and excitement. Many Middle School and Upper School students of all ages played together each day, participating in team sports like soccer and volleyball as well as running and fitness & conditioning drills. Even when only a few students showed up, David and his team would do everything they could to give them their best.
“I remember feeling so proud of our students and coaches for how they handled things and how well they followed the guidelines and protocols,” says David.
PEAC’s Success Through the Months
Over 30 weeks later, you can spot David nearly every day hauling large bags of equipment out of Pearl Street as he runs off to help another session get going. “I’m off to the park!” he excitedly exclaims as he departs.
“I will always remember the last evening on Thursday December 10th when we had a wonderful PEAC Soccer group and they did not want it to end, so we just kept playing until the sunset. What a view and what a great way to close out 2020, spending time with FRIENDS.”
Although the program moved to a remote-only model through the January and February months as the weather became difficult to manage, he and his coaches never gave up, and neither did the students. After February, while sessions had to be occasionally postponed due to extreme weather, many outdoor sessions were still held under all weather conditions. David and his team are proud of this accomplishment.
“There were moments during this whole program where we would be at the park on a beautiful day or a not so beautiful day and I’d look around and hear the coaches and students laughing while they all ran around the field. In those moments, things felt normal again,” says David.
Looking back on the success of the PEAC program, David says that despite the long days of planning, it was all worth it.”
“The Program enabled us to stay connected, keep our coaches engaged, and of course, most importantly, work with everyone in 7th-12th grades in regards to their mind, body, and spirit. Blue pride runs deep, and so did their commitment to improving themselves every day.”
While the BFS Athletics Program has tasted championship glory in the past, perhaps the 2020/2021 year will be remembered throughout the School’s history for another reason: A championship pivot.