The half-dozen high school students John McCarthy is drilling are a mix of shapes: many fit, some less so. On a recent rainy late-afternoon at Boston’s English High School, after sprints, leg stretches, and other warm-ups, McCarthy, himself tall and lean, gathers the young people in a circle of chairs under two posters listing values such as “respect,” “self-coaching,” and “effort.”
The students volunteer simple experiences from their day, or make pledges for their coming workout that reflect those values. It’s the first summer in the group for 16-year-old Marcel, a rising junior who needs to get in shape for English High’s football team and vows to “put an effort in to get moving.”
“I can help Marcel feel welcome to join us,” LB Moore (SED’17,’18) chimes in encouragingly.
These ritual conversations, part pep talk and part self-check-in to ensure aspirations match results, are as much a part of McCarthy’s supervised workouts as stretching, boxing, and pumping iron. For 10 years, the School of Education clinical associate professor, aided by college students like Moore, has run Get Ready: Life Fitness, a program that coaches Boston public school students not just in fitness, but in life skills as well.
“We actually do a lot with helping kids realize: how do you work in social groups?” says McCarthy (SED’98,’04). “It’s not just, you come in and work out.” He directs SED’s Institute for Athletic Coach Education, which trains youth sports coaches and emphasizes that coaches are pivotal mentors to students and “can develop a culture where people are able to feel safe to be themselves…where they feel that they are valued.”
The competence and discipline on the field and court that coaches foster are equally valuable in life generally, he says, “to stay engaged with what you’re doing, lose a little of that self-consciousness so that you can learn.”
Or, as he sums up, “You can’t hold your cell phone when you’re boxing.”
Open to Boston public school students, Get Ready gets many participants from English High School in Jamaica Plain, the nation’s oldest public high school and one that is busy reinventing itself from an academically underperforming institution, although McCarthy says it still suffers from turnover in mentors like coaches.
Marcel says English High football coach Ryan Conway (who does triple duty as athletics director and dean of students) recruited him to the team and recommended Get Ready. “I’m learning that I can do a lot more than I thought, actually,” Marcel says. “I’ve been doing stretches that I never thought I’d be able to do.”
He’s stretched another way. Once uncomfortable talking to anyone but close friends, he says, “I’ve noticed, since I’ve been coming here, I’ve been, like, out there more.”
Before this particular class, Conway had run two other Get Ready participants, Herby and David, through football plays in the nearby gym. He worked them hard to get their moves right, and “they both would have shut down and quit” before Get Ready, he says.
That they stuck with the coach’s persistent exhorting owes in part to McCarthy’s “holistic approach,” including the group circle discussion, Conway says.
Over the course of a summer, perhaps 50 or 60 kids will show up for sessions of Get Ready, which also runs during the school year.
McCarthy started Get Ready in 2007, when Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), then mayor of Boston, was pushing local universities to engage more with the city. At English, the need stared him in the face: “There was a weight room, but none of the coaches were doing any weightlifting. I was like, oh my God, there’s a beautiful room here, but there’s nobody utilizing this,” he says.
“There was a lot of broken equipment. It was kind of a hazardous room with, like, a linoleum floor.” McCarthy asked the school’s coaches about their off-season training. The answer: “What off-season training?”
Get Ready is funded by BU and by the city government’s Centers for Youth and Families.
Moore, who has helped McCarthy with the program for the past two summers, says that working with kids facing “systemic challenges of segregation in the city and socioeconomic access challenges to transportation and education…I can really offer something and get something, in terms of having my skills expanded, my knowledge challenged, and maybe also be able to build some relationships with young people that will be valuable to both of us.”
That includes sharing, during group discussion, a story about the frustrating two and a half hours Moore spent earlier that day locked out of a car, with phone locked inside. “There was a lot of self-talk and self-coaching happening.”
“No yelling?” McCarthy asks mischievously.
“No yelling,” comes the answer.