Bobby Rushton is the new athletic director at Wilton High School. (photo: GMW)

The first thing you notice about Wilton High School‘s new Athletic Director Bobby Rushton is how much energy he brings to his job. It’s that same kind of energy and enthusiasm any coach would like to see in a player on the team, looking for ways to improve, do more and keep everyone motivated. So it’s fitting that he’s the person who now occupies the athletic director’s office at WHS.

And whether it’s interscholastic competitive sports or fitness and health education on the academic side, Rushton plans on making sure that energy is 100% devoted to student well-being.

“I’m here to enhance and elevate the experience of the student body, and I do that through sports. That’s my niche and that’s what I’m hired to do,” he said.

Rushton comes to Wilton from New Canaan, where he was a third-grade teacher and instructional leader involved with school climate. On the athletics side, he was the executive director of the New Canaan Athletic Foundation and was involved in New Canaan’s youth lacrosse and youth football associations. Plus he coached for more than 10 years.

This week is a big one for Rushton to introduce himself to the WHS community. On Monday, Aug. 22 and Tuesday, Aug. 23, Rushton holds his fall preseason coaching meetings to establish expectations, standards and protocols. He’ll also hold a fall sports parents meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 23, and then do the same thing on Wednesday, Aug. 24 with the students.

He’s got a few key messages that he wants everyone to know: What’s most important to him is clear, open communication and he’s interested in making sure everyone’s focused on taking care of the ‘whole kid,’ and not just the ‘athlete.’

Rushton comes back to that again and again. It starts when the conversation turns to adolescent mental health, and the demands and stresses that students face, especially in a high-performing district like Wilton.

“My number one predictor of success is being included in something outside of school. Being here as a student is one thing, but being connected to something else, whether it’s a club, a team, an activity. Helping kids understand that sports are a great outlet, and part of going from adolescent to adult is finding out your identity — Who are you? Where do you belong? Where’s your autonomy in that process?” he said. “Sports naturally is a great way, as you matriculate through the programs and teams and levels, to get that identity, get that belonging and be part of something.”

But, there’s a bigger picture that coaches, parents and administrators should understand, Rushton said.

“We have to understand that they are people and kids first, and they’re athletes second. Understand they’re a 15-year-old first, then the athlete piece comes next. Too often in high-performing districts, when the bar is set so high, that goes unnoticed or is forgotten. Keeping that in the forefront of people’s minds, that’s most important to me as the leader of the athletic department.”

Communicating his philosophy has already started with the coaches and will be reinforced again at the coaches’ meeting and then with parents.

“If you don’t spend the time to get to know the student-athlete and build that relationship, they’re not going to perform for you. At the end of the day, when they value the kids as a student first and kid first, a 17-year-old, a 16-year-old, [rather] than ‘a volleyball player,’ rather than ‘a football player,’ rather than ‘a golfer’ — the more coaches that can understand that, the better we’re going to be as a department,” Rushton said.

He’s spent a lot of time since starting on July 1 recruiting and hiring new coaches. And as someone who has taught and coached simultaneously, Rushton went out of his way to convince more Wilton teachers to add ‘Wilton coach’ to their responsibilities.

“Being able to bond with parents after school and on a different level, and my relationship with the kids were so much stronger because there was that continuity. ‘I’m gonna see Coach Rushton in third-grade math class, and then I’m gonna see him at practice.’ When you talk about student mental health, it’s about finding trusted adults outside of their parents, and finding that one person when they go to school, that they could have that connection with,” Rushton said.

“Being a teacher taught me all that. You learn quick with eight-year-olds, connect with them first. Have that conversation about the pizza party or what they did, and then math will come naturally,” he added.

Rushton wants to make sure parents know that when it comes to different sports and different teams, he values all of them the same.

“I’ve been meeting with every fall head coach, setting the standard of, ‘This is how we talk to girls, this is how we speak to boys. This is how we communicate as a group — boys cross country, girls cross country, the communication shouldn’t look different. The cross country team and boys golf are the same as football and volleyball’ — I really want to streamline [and standardize] that communication,” Rushton said.

Rushton acknowledged that Wilton has sometimes in the past had a reputation for over-involved sports parents, who push for more playing time for their child or who ‘coach the coach.’

That’s something he will definitely address at the meeting Tuesday with parents, to make sure they understand there are guidelines and policies in place.

“Parents are part of the process. We can’t do this without parent support and involvement. I want my coaches to be approachable. We have policies and procedures in place that we aren’t going to talk about playing time, but we will talk to you about how your kid can get better because getting better goes to [more] playing time. But talk about playing time sometimes goes to talking about this kid and ‘Why is he playing over my kid?’ We don’t want to have those conversations and we shouldn’t.”

In fact, Rushton said, parents should encourage their students to advocate for themselves with a coach.

“If your athlete has a problem, they need to talk to the coach. We’re building life skills, character skills. I’m here in this seat because of everything I’ve had to go through in my life. I’ve interviewed nine times for an AD [athletic director] job, right before I got Wilton, I had to persevere. I didn’t learn that being a kid. I learned it being an athlete and not making a varsity team or getting cut. What are we teaching our kids, if we hurdle over that policy and go right to the coach or AD?” Rushton said, adding, “The message to parents is clear and simple:  there are policies and procedures in place to help our student-athletes grow as human beings.”

Wilton has both won the CIAC Class Act sportsmanship award on one hand and experienced an occasional controversy on the other. Rushton has a clear message for fans and athletes alike.

“I want fans to know that they’re here to support our athletes, they’re here to support Wilton Warriors. When things get personal, and attacks on people’s physical attributes, by number or by name, that is by no means acceptable here at Wilton or anywhere,” he said.

As for athletes, Rushton delivered a similar theme: “I will make it clear to them, when you put on that Wilton jersey, you are now a part of something bigger. You represent me and this department, and this town and community when you put ‘Wilton’ or ‘Warriors’ across your chest.”

Speaking of being a Wilton Warrior, for a very long time, Rushton was such an integral part of sports in New Canaan, one of Wilton’s long-time rivals. What’s it like for him now to be wearing the Warrior name?

“This was just the right opportunity professionally. So far since May, there’s been unbelievable support. But there are high expectations now for me coming into a spot like this and people will get to know that I just have high energy and I fully immerse myself. So I am blue all the way,” he promised, adding with a laugh, “I look good in navy, and navy is a lot better than red and black.”

Rushton even went out of his way to spend some time in the Wilton Library‘s history room to learn about Wilton’s sports history.

“There’s something like 92 CIAC state championships in this program and 67 FCIAC championships. Wilton is a powerhouse. The sport of lacrosse was birthed here. A lot of great lacrosse players, you’ve got Kristine Lilly, you have all these great athletes year after year from Wilton. Wilton has a very true and strong history and we are Wilton and we are who we are,” Rushton vowed. “No, it won’t be hard moving forward. I’m a Wilton Warrior now.”

He wants to elevate Wilton athletics even more in the eyes of everyone.

“Everybody says, ‘We moved to Wilton because of the academics,’ right? I’m here to make athletics [the] number-two reason. I want people to say, ‘Hey, there’s a house on the market in Wilton. I want to live here. You know what, Bobby Rushton’s doing the athletic department. I want to be part of that, I want my kids to be a part of that, my home value’s gonna go through the roof.'”

Rushton is eager for the season to get underway.

“My plan is to enjoy the kids playing when school starts. I want be out of here on the golf cart, walking around from field to field, seeing kids playing, being happy,” he said.

Most of all, he’s ready to really get to work. “I’ve got to just put the grind in now, you know? Every day, [I ask myself], did I make the athletic department better today? How can I do that?”

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