Jan Sojourner and CJ Stewart seek to foster resilience in students at Jackson Academy. Each believes resilience is a characteristic that can be developed and will be useful throughout life.
Sojourner, varsity head girls basketball coach at JA, reigns as one of Mississippi’s coaches with the most wins. A former high school and college player herself, Sojourner is known for challenging female athletes to develop toughness physically and mentally.
The resilience Sojourner instills in young women is evident by her team’s number of wins, but it is even more striking on the court when things go wrong. Whether experiencing an under-the-goal tie up that ends with players sprawled on the court or an unfavorable call by an official, Sojourner’s players display a shake-it-off demeanor, quickly re-aligning their mindset and maintaining their composure so they can continue to perform for their team.
Coping with Adversity
JA students have glimpsed Stewart’s resiliency through his work at Camp Down Range in Clinton, Mississippi, where they have participated in challenging outdoor teambuilding and leadership development courses.
Stewart describes his experience since graduating from an independent school in 2007 as a ‘lot of life in a short amount of time.” In Afghanistan by age 21, he was a medic in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army from 2009-2012. An explosion there threatened his life, and resulted in 40 surgeries, 18 blood transfusions, 18 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center—and two resuscitations. He earned a Combat Medic Badge and Purple Heart for his service.
Resilience, or grit, is a trait associated with people who face adversity and persevere. A study of West Point cadets led by Grit author and psychologist Angela Duckworth in association with the University of Pennsylvania found that grit trumps intelligence and strength in challenging circumstances.
Considering New Perspectives
Stewart serves as a special consultant for the Jackson Academy Ray Higgins SOAR program. The program includes outdoor, experiential opportunities with a spiritual component that are designed to challenge students to consider new perspectives, to enhance teamwork skills, to develop resilience, or to abandon limitations they place on themselves. The signature programs under the umbrella of SOAR, such as JA’s rafting trips, are a hallmark of the JA student experience.
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Basketball coach Ronnie Rogers, who has led many seventh grade father-son and father -daughter rafting trips for JA, appreciates the learning that takes place when students face and overcome obstacles. On the legendary camping trips begun more than 40 years ago by retired teacher and coach Ray Higgins, for whom JA’s experiential program is named, students experience setting up a campsite, hiking, rafting the Ocoee in Tennessee, and then later rafting the higher-octane Chattooga in South Carolina. For some it is their first outing of its kind. At Turtleback Falls in North Carolina, students hike roughly two miles to the falls, then enjoy jumping into the beautiful pool at the bottom of the falls.
“Those who are most hesitant to jump into the falls end up jumping in the most,” said Rogers. “Most of the students are uncomfortable with certain activities during this trip. However, when we are finished, their confidence level with what was once uncomfortable and unfamiliar has really changed to self-confidence.”
Coach Sojourner believes strongly in students’ abilities to push through real or perceived barriers. She credits much of this to thorough preparation, discipline, and passion. “I stand back in amazement of what our basketball girls put into our program knowing that for 95 percent of those girls it will go no further….these brief years are it,” she says. The athletes complete intense, three-hour-a-day practices knowing they will end their basketball careers after high school.
To Sojourner, the dividends of preparation, discipline, and passion remain. “I tell them all the time that I want practice to be the hardest thing you go through for basketball, and I want the games to be just kind of a fun time because we’ve worked so hard, and now we are so prepared and so disciplined. If you can learn that lesson, then going through life it helps you to recall ‘How did I get through this?’ and ‘How did I get through that crazy lady’s practice?’ When things get tough after they have finished basketball, they are going to recall how they were able to push through,” she said.
Putting Resilience to the Test
After graduation, Brett Ball, ’11, left Sojourner’s tutelage and headed to an SEC Division I basketball career at South Carolina. During her freshman year, Ball learned she had a career-ending heart condition. That crisis set her upon a new path to a career in sports communication, with an emphasis on mental health and how athletes cope with injury, illness, and career-changing circumstances. Ball is currently pursuing a doctorate from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
“This is a career that kind of found me,” said Ball. “My injury really sparked this career.” Ball has continued to be shaped by the foundation of discipline in academics and basketball that she learned at JA. “A disciplined person can do anything,” she recalls hearing from Coach Sojourner. “You can take principles you learned at JA and apply them to life.”