Once a tiger always a tiger: Whitener family maintains their legacy

Alex Cirino and Nacala Williams

Most Wilson students spend just four years with the school, but for current field hockey coach Sarah Whitener and her son Andrew, Wilson has been a lifelong home. 

Sarah first set foot in Wilson’s halls in 2002, when the first of her three children enrolled. Since then, she has spent time as a member of the Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) and the Senior High Alliance for Parents Principals and Educators (SHAPPE), before she accepted an offer to help coach the newly formed field hockey team in 2011. “I’ve been involved with education for many years,” Sarah said, “through that involvement, I’ve always seen the need for high school girls to learn about leadership.” She hopes to help fill this need through coaching. 

Sarah first started playing field hockey in middle school, where she attended the Laurel School in Cleveland, Ohio. She stopped playing when she began college but quickly picked it back up upon graduation, playing a season for a women’s club team in Cleveland. 

Her son Andrew, a 2008 Wilson graduate, was also heavily involved in athletics. He played baseball under coach Eddie Saah at Wilson before playing at the collegiate level for Princeton University.  “[It was] a formative experience in my life. Many of my teammates are still my closest friends today, and I think we all learned a lot about leadership, teamwork, and mental and physical toughness as a result of our experiences,” Andrew said. 

Coach Saah would push his players through daily strength and conditioning exercises, which Andrew found value in even though he dreaded them at the time. “I have great memories of individual moments, games, and successes, both personally and for our team, but grinding through that hard work with my closest friends was the most important part to me,” he said. 

Despite his initial distaste for intense conditioning, Andrew is now the founder and owner of District Performance, a company where he coaches strength, conditioning, and fitness. His work specializes in training young athletes, including many current Wilson baseball players. “I feel like coaches and teachers are some of the most important people in kids’ lives outside of their immediate families,” Andrew said. “Sports offer a unique opportunity for teachable moments that apply to life outside of the field of play.” By coaching and training young athletes, Andrew is able to take advantage of this relationship to make young people better athletes and people.

Many of these teachable moments come when a player is struggling with the mental aspect of sports, such as those struggling with anger management. “I do my best to think about the kids I coach holistically, and to resist the temptation to focus solely on the outcome of each game to determine their success and failure,” Andrew said. “If I can do that, I can help them on their road to developing into good people.”

Andrew has been the main source of fitness and conditioning for the field hockey team as well. For several years, he met with the team on Friday mornings before school and led them through an exercise circuit. But as his business grew in popularity, it became harder to schedule conditioning sessions. These days, Sarah runs the agility and conditioning sessions herself, using a program designed by Andrew.  

She would prefer that he run the sessions in person, though. “He’s a very engaging and motivating teacher and has so much experience,” Sarah said. “My favorite lesson he offered was how to run efficiently. He makes the girls think of themselves as athletes first, and that’s a special thing for them.”

Even though both Whiteners ended up as coaches, neither were influenced to begin coaching by the other. “She obviously influenced my development in a lot of ways, and she is one of my biggest role models,” said Andrew. “Getting to talk to her about her coaching is really fun now, and I’ve learned a lot from her.” 

While both use different coaching styles, improving the lives of the athletes they work with is an ideal that unites the Whitener family.