John Strawson. Living Life and Changing Lives at The Forman School.
LITCHFIELD – A short way off majestic mansion-dominated North Street in Litchfield on the bucolic Forman School campus `The Big Bear’ roams. The hulking presence of 6-foot-7, 355-pound John Strawson can’t be missed or ignored whether it is in the math classes he teaches, in the gym where he coaches the boys’ basketball team or doing a myriad of other things on the tree-lined campus.
Forman likes the `Big Bear’, a name the students have bestowed on him, naturally, and the `Big Bear’ likes the territory. The former Torrington High and Springfield College basketball star is entering his ninth season as the basketball coach in a decidedly different environment than the public-school scene and both coach and program have thrived.
On the basketball side, Forman won the 2013 Hudson Valley League championship and Strawson has been named Coach of the Year three times (2013-2015) by the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council while posting an 84-37 record.
“John has changed the whole basketball culture,” said Forman Athletic Director Scotty McCarty. “He has gotten us in the New England Tournament and our basketball team had not done that in a long time. He has gotten so much better as a coach over the years.”
All impressive stuff and important. And at the same time, maybe the least important aspect of this scenario. For those attuned to the regular rhythm of the high school scene, this is a much different environment.
Forman School is a 230-student residential school that is as its web site explains, “designed to prepare bright students who have been identified with dyslexia and language-based disabilities.” executive function disabilities or attention deficits that have created challenges for them in the past.
There is a different focus with a different emphasis here. Strawson admitted it was a huge learning curve for a guy that came from the public high school and college world with some top-notch coaches like Gerry Carbone at Torrington Middle School, Tony Turina at Torrington High and his coaches at Springfield whose stress reflected a different situation.
“I had to change my coaching style,” said Strawson. “Where before this it was all about wins and losses, now it is about teaching these kids to be good leaders, to be good friends. These kids are from all around the world. This is more about life skills. Varsity is very serious, but the JV boys lost by 40 in a game last year and a kid who never plays hit a three-pointer. The kids came out of the stands and rushed him.”
At Torrington basketball was two hours a day, six times a week. Forman practices are an hour and 15 minutes a day. Everybody has to play a sport and that is part of the school day which goes from 8 A.M. to 3:30 and is followed by sports from 3:30-6, dinner from 6-7:30, mandatory study hall from 8-9:30 and free time from 9:30-10.
“On the varsity level, it is competitive and serious, but basketball is almost like a class here,” explained Strawson.
The scope and sequence of the program is also different than a public school operates. The varsity and junior varsity are totally separate programs and then there is a third team. Students decide what team they want to try out for. Varsity carries 10 players.
Forman has produced some fine seasons and fine players. This year’s team is big (three players over 6-foot-5) but has had to fight through some injuries and is young, currently sporting a 5-7 record. It is a team that Strawson and his assistant, his old coach and basketball guru Tony Turina, classify as a good JV team. Yet, both also feel that three years ago the only teams that would have beaten Forman in the NVL were powerhouses Sacred Heart and Crosby.
Forman has talent. In coaching style, however, Strawson quickly learned he had to change presentation of ideas when dealing with students with disabilities.
“I have to demonstrate plays more than talking about them because sometimes they don’t understand,” said Strawson. “If I can physically present it to them, they are quick learners. Many of them are very visual. They could come here with ADHD and that does impact basketball skills. Some have processing skills. They catch the ball, and then think. Sometimes processing with the need for speeds is tough.”
Turina points to the 30-second clock as an example of the challenge.
“You have to get down the court and into a set play and score on the first opportunity,” said Turina. “The players know the moment, but the moment changes and we have to adjust. We play some teams that don’t have to make that adjustment.”
Strawson has bought spots to put on the floor to illustrate where players should go. He has actually put fake defenders on the floor to further explain a concept. One of the coolest teaching tools he utilizes is with a phone app called Krossover.
All the games are taped and put on Krossover. The app breaks down all the statistics and a player can click on his own individual numbers and then actually view his own plays.
“I use it as a visual aid,” said Strawson. “They can see exactly what they are doing and then understand what I’m talking about when I tell them you didn’t do this or did that. There is no having to remember or disagreeing. I want them to know what they are doing wrong and if they are not playing, why they are not playing. You have to be direct.”
Strawson’s coaching curve and success has been buoyed by the presence of Turina who is in his second season with his former player and he has been a huge asset to the program.
“Tony has been great for John. It’s like Yoda (Star Wars) has come out of retirement,” said McCarty.
Turina is not surprised that Strawson has become such a huge piece of a successful program at Forman.
“John is a straight shooter and what you get out of his mouth is what he wants to tell you,” said Turina. “He doesn’t sugar-coat it. There is no misreading his words and he knows how to handle kids. Every kid is unique and different, and John does a terrific job meshing 10 into one. And he does it all while being caring. He is a gentle giant.”
The `Big Bear’ likes his territory. He lives on campus and also coaches the girls’ softball team which won the league title last year and tutors. It is total immersion thing. So, at 31-years old is there where he lands permanently:
“At some point I would like to be an Athletic Director or a coach on a college level,” said Strawson.
But for now, he is very content and so is Forman.
“John changes lives, he makes people better,” said McCarty. “It’s nice to watch him work with both male and female students. You have to fill their tanks here, make them feel good about something. Sometimes they don’t get that or get the opportunity for that. John has done that here.”
Strawson admits there is a tremendous satisfaction what he is doing.
“You get to teach life lessons an aspect that is great,” said Strawson. “A lot of these students are doing things they didn’t ever think they would do.”
The Big Bear loves his territory and as far as the good folks at Forman are concerned it is his for as long as he wants it. A big man doing a big part to make a cool school better