What do many world-class Canadian athletes—including figure skater Elvis Stojko, tennis ace Eugenie Bouchard, downhill skier Laurie Graham, WWE wrestler Sarah “Dark Angel” Stock, and hockey players from Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon to Morgan Rielly and Gillian Apps—have in common?
They all attended private schools in Canada.
While the perception might be that private schools focus solely on academics to the detriment of athletics, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, for decades, Canadian private schools have been the literal and figurative training ground for future all-stars, world champions, Olympians and Hall of Famers, providing young athletes with top-notch facilities, competitive opportunities and expert coaching to help them embrace—and excel in—sports.
It will come as no surprise that well-funded private schools boast expansive sports-and-fitness facilities. “We have a gym and a sports court,” says Glen Herbert, director of marketing and communications at Rosseau Lake College in Ontario’s Muskoka region. “Students play basketball, volleyball and pickleball. There are playing fields for soccer and field hockey. There’s an outdoor climbing wall and, in winter, a snowboard park.”
Herbert adds that his school’s nestled-in-cottage-country setting provides an extraordinary natural backdrop for all outdoor activities—none of which require driving to another location or even having to plan in advance. “We have a lake, as well as 56 acres of mixed-use forest,” he says of the campus, which also features 4,000 feet of shoreline. “Students have daily access to a full range of water sports, from swimming to sailing, canoeing and kayaking. There are yoga classes held on the main dock at the water’s edge. In warmer weather, students run and walk a trail system, and in winter, the trails are used for skiing and snowshoeing. Students see activity as less a destination, and more just a natural part of everyday life.”
Exceptional facilities are just as plentiful at urban campuses. At The Royal Crown School in Toronto, for example, sports-minded students—be they beginners or high-performance athletes—can practice, train and get fit in various ways, from soccer to scuba diving. “Our school is a contemporary campus that houses an elite indoor gym for basketball and other sports, including volleyball and badminton,” says Head of School Michael Burke of the Nike-sponsored space, which hosts junior and senior boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. “The school also has a large swimming pool, recreational facilities and two fully-equipped fitness rooms.”
And at other city-based private schools—such as Toronto’s Greenwood College School—students enjoy exclusive entry to top-tier off-campus facilities, too. “We have access to nearby ice-hockey rinks, outdoor or domed fields, and swimming facilities,” says Greenwood’s communications officer, Tihmily Li. “And the school provides all transportation to and from practice and games.”
A competitive edge
Private-school sports teams compete as part of the Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association and the Canadian Accredited Independent School national tournaments, and some are also eligible to qualify for Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations events. This means young athletes at private schools have a multitude of opportunities to hone their skills in a competitive environment.
“We participate in many inter-school tournaments for sports that our students show a keen interest in, such as flag football, spike ball and U14 hockey,” Li says. “Our intramural programming includes open gym periods and friendly competitions between school teams.” In the last year, Li says students also took the initiative to build teams for new sports, including slo-pitch softball and all-ages curling.
Whether intramural or inter-school, private-school sports-training and conditioning programs allow talented athletes to thrive. “Our elite fitness-and-performance programs and facilities are readily available to optimize both fitness and performance levels through a comprehensive range of training methodologies,” Burke says. “These include strength-and-conditioning exercises, cardio workouts, agility drills, and tailored nutrition plans to fuel students’ bodies for success.” The Royal Crown School also boasts one of the top school-basketball programs in North America. “With an unwavering commitment to excellence, our program has molded champions and garnered numerous accolades,” Burke says.
Perhaps one of the biggest draws for young athletes and their parents is the high-calibre coaching available at private schools. “Greenwood’s coaches all have baseline NCCP [National Coaching Certification Program] coaching certification, including Safe Sport training and concussion-specific education, with support to further their professional development,” says Li. “Many of our coaches are also active in recreational or competitive leagues.”
Many private-school coaches have also previously coached at the college, national or professional level, and possess the expertise, experience and insight needed to produce winning results in both teams and individual athletes alike. “[Our players] have gone on to represent their national teams and achieve remarkable success in their basketball careers,” says Burke, who credits his school’s coaching department.
But even if your child isn’t an athlete and isn’t working towards a future podium finish, the athletics departments at private schools are well-equipped to help students discover new ways to embrace fitness and teamwork by finding an activity they enjoy. “Our athletic program prioritizes skill development at the middle-school level, looking to keep all students engaged and involved before gradually increasing competition through grades nine to 12,” says Li. “The majority of our coaches are also Greenwood teachers, which adds to the team building, relationship building and support for the student athlete in all aspects of their school life.”
Ultimately, whether it’s supporting elite athletes or just fostering more active lifestyles for students of all abilities, private schools are deeply invested in the opportunities and benefits sports can provide. “Coaching and mentoring are key, for sure,” says Herbert. “But having a culture of possibility is key as well—one that allows students to learn about what they are capable of. The intention of any quality athletics program is to allow all students the opportunity to try new things, to grow a range of skills, to experience teamwork and collaboration, and to build a foundation for a healthy, active life.”