By Carrie Timmins, Middle School Teacher, Counselor, Upper & Middle School Coach
National Coaches Leadership Institute & SportsChallenge Leadership Academy
SportsChallenge is an organization that has set itself out to change the culture of coaching and youth sports through leadership training. I was fortunate enough to be part of two of their three outreach programs. I spent three days (along with Joe Tyler and Paul Lehmann) at Haverford College immersed in dialogue about research-based best coaching practices. The National Coaching Leadership Institute was attended by coaches from around the country (one came as far as Kentucky); all were high school varsity or Division III level coaches who came eager to share their knowledge, but most importantly open to learning from others. The facilitators of the workshops were all educators and coaches who drew from their own experiences as coaches on the high school, college and even professional level. What made this experience so worthwhile for me, as a coach, teacher and counselor at Westtown, was that they shared our “whole child” approach and philosophy. So often in our culture we see athletics as a win-at-all costs venture, spare nothing for success, and often that success is measured by wins, losses and records set or broken. Don’t get me wrong, all of the coaches at the institute shared a strong competitive spirit, but felt the best way to get to success was through creating a positive team culture that fostered mutual respect, trust, empathy and accountability among teammates and coaches. This intentional environment empowered student-athletes to step up and develop leadership skills. I’m very excited to incorporate what I’ve learned at the NCLI into all three sports I coach at Westtown. One of the biggest pieces I will take away from the institute is the idea of culture creation. One can have a hand in creating a team culture; it takes planning and the results of that intentional culture creation can produce an amazing learning environment that will teach the 21st century skills through the sport.
My second endeavor with SportsChallenge came in mid-July on one of our rival schools’ campus. For two weeks I lived and worked at Saint Andrews School in Middletown, DE. The first four days of those two weeks were spent in intense staff training with the next nine days spent working with student-athletes on the basketball court, in the classroom and on the dorm. SportsChallenge Summer Leadership Academy’s aim is simple: to train our leaders of the future through sport. Student-athletes arrive from around the country, some from private schools like Westtown (there were representatives from almost all of our Friends School opponents), the majority are from large public schools in cities such as Washington, DC, Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia. This unique combination of student-athletes from various backgrounds creates an opportunity to develop an essential 21st century skill – the ability to truly connect with and relate to others very different from yourself.
A typical day looked like this for our student-athletes –
7 – 8 am – Vitamins. This is a daily workout for all athletes (and coaches ) that stressed agility, speed and strength.
9-11 am – Sports practice
11:15-12 pm – Leadership class. Students were able to pick from a variety of leadership-based courses. Titles included Public Speaking & Communication, Conflict Resolution in Sport and Leaders, and Followers & Motivation.
3-5 pm – Sports practice
7-8 pm – Evening Leadership Forum – This is where we introduced the next day’s theme. Each day we emphasized a new research-based leadership skill. That skill was introduced the night before through skit (often very funny, more to the staff than to the student-athletes) and then reinforced with a clever Prezi that explained why the theme was so important to leadership development. Themes included empathy, risk, followership, grit and energy.
8-9 pm – Sports Psychology class. Two levels of this course were offered; an intro for first-year student-athletes and an advanced course for returners.
I taught this evening psychology class that stressed the importance of developing the mental side of the game through strategies that aim to help an athlete move on after mistakes and calm the anxious energy that often accompanies practice and competition. We reviewed cognitive behavior techniques such as positive self-talk, mistake rituals and practiced breathing, centering, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization. What was so great about this class was all of these techniques work to relieve stress and anxiety off the court or field; stress in the classroom, at home and in relationships. The students quickly made that connection, but by first introducing the concepts through the lens of sport we were able to ease the transition to what can sometimes be a sensitive topic.
Throughout my time at SLA I observed quite a few parallels to what we do at Westtown. We provided an environment that emphasized appropriate risk-taking in our student-athletes. Similar to our dining hall and Girls 3rd dorm we pushed our SAs to sit with someone new at meals and roommate assignments were strategically made so athletes could learn from someone with a very different background. At SLA we want students to come away with not only improved skill in their sport, but also a different perspective and knowledge of the mental side of the game, applicable leadership skills and greater self-awareness that will translate to increased self-confidence. At Westtown we push students on a daily basis to get outside of their comfort zone; try a new sport, talk to someone different or pose that difficult question in class. All of these opportunities strung together are the building blocks of a 21st century leader – someone with self-knowledge and self-awareness, possessing the ability to listen to, empathize with and communicate with someone different from oneself and the confidence needed to take a risk.
This experience solidified my belief that life skills are taught through sport. I gained even more research-based evidence of this belief. I met so many educators that I will lean on throughout the rest of my teaching and coaching career as a resource for new and improved educational best practices. Finally, I am grateful that I will return to a school in late August that shares my educational philosophies and provides a community in which I can apply them daily.