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Racket sports: Squash and tennis at Gow help in the classroom

The Gow School South Wales was founded by Peter Gow, a Yale graduate who became a teacher at Nichols. Although he worked with many bright children at Nichols, he noticed that some had great difficulty with reading. He started a summer camp for students with dyslexia (an impairment in the ability to read) which related to language-based learning disabilities in the early 1920s. In 1926, he opened a school for children with dyslexia on 100 acres in South Wales with the help of Dr. Samuel Orton, a neurologist who was an expert on dyslexia. The school has had students from every continent and countries such as Venezuela, Taiwan, China and Mexico.

At this juncture you are probably wondering what dyslexia has to do with a racket sports column?

Mark Szafnicki is Gow’s athletic director and tennis coach, and helps with the supervision of the squash team. His enthusiasm, personality and expertise are big reasons Gow’s racket sports programs are so successful. (He is also a three-time city open doubles champion with Ken White and has coached and taught tennis to many youngsters). Equally important, he has an excellent background in reading and English.

“Dyslexics show great strengths in visual and spatial processing,” Szafnicki said. “Tennis and squash are great sports for these youngsters.” Why? Playing on smaller courts involves less decision making as to what they should do with the ball. They can quickly decide what shot is best to hit in a given situation. In a sport such as basketball there is a great amount of decision making. A player has to think, ‘Should I dribble, shoot, pass, rebound or hold onto the ball?’ ”

Szafnicki stresses that in racket sports the students know what they have to do to keep the ball in play, be consistent, and do what they do best. Mastering basic skills in tennis and squash helps them relate to the classroom. This builds confidence in reading and writing skills and helps them to do better.

Communication is direct in tennis and squash. Coaching occurs in practice, not during the match. This is vastly different from team sports such as hockey, football and baseball. In addition to understanding the nuances of tennis and squash, the dyslexic student has to deal with communication between teammates.

“I had a student who had trouble communicating with his partner in doubles,” Szafnicki said. “I switched him to singles play, and he was like a different player. He was a very creative person and was able to analyze for himself what was the correct thing for him to do. He didn’t have to worry about what his partner was doing. This was a superb situation on getting the student to focus and make the shots that he felt he needed to win the matches that he had to play.”

Dyslexics are very creative individuals who find ways to be successful. When the youngsters do well in tennis or squash, this feeling of success is transferred to the classroom. They know by working hard and focusing on their school work as they do in tennis and squash that they should be successful in both areas.

In addition, the positive attitude of the teachers and administrators is especially important in their work in the classroom.

Gow School has had a tennis team since the mid-1950s. The school has three outdoor and two indoor tennis courts. Several Gow players have gone on to play in college. Two graduates have taught tennis at the prestigious Saddlebrook Prep School in Florida. Gow’s top tennis player, Will Hobbs, has trained at the Miller Tennis Center and spent the summer training at the esteemed Nick Saviano Academy in Florida. Gow competes in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association and has won the Division 2 Championships the last five years.

The squash program began in 2002 and has three international courts that were built by Gordon Anderson, who is based in Buffalo and has built squash courts throughout the world. Gow competes locally against Nichols, Canisius and Tapestry as well as schools in Canada and Ontario. Several players have competed in the National Championships at Yale University.

“We are extremely proud of all of our students,” Szafnicki said. “Over the past 27 years we have had a 100 percent record in college placement. Our staff works with each student to make sure that the college they are going to attend is appropriate for their learning. Our school’s philosophy is: ‘To college and through college.’ ”