Saturday, October 20, 2018

How to Build a Fellowship of Coaches: Thank you, Haley Scott DeMaria

Like teachers, coaches can be a tough audience. We are used to creating the program and running the show. We might not be the best listeners but if you find just the right frequency and speak the same language—a group of coaches can be a captive, willing and an extraordinarily receptive audience—as evidenced at the fall Fellowship of Coaches gathering.
Haley with SI swim coaches!
As written by our athletic director, "Fellowship nights are offered to SI coaches to bring us together. A fellowship is a group of people that join together for a common purpose or interest. Although each of our sports is different, we are under one mission coaching at a Jesuit High School. That mission should be interwoven in our coaching—from practice planning to post-game speeches." Fellowship nights offer time to discuss not just the why, but the how we do that, when and where. We aim to offer three of these gatherings—one per sports season—during the school year. 

I speak to coaching staffs at secondary schools throughout the country. In my talk, I urge athletic departments to develop and promote a "sorority and fraternity of coaching." What might this mean? At its best, I hope that other coaches might see ourselves united in a common endeavor. Yes, we speak a common language; some of us even have the same dialect. We carry a lot and we give a lot. Our responsibilities are many. We cannot do it alone, nor should we. We can all learn from one another, no matter your sport or season. Whether or not you coach girls or boys, varsity or JV, fellowship nights can help workers in the vineyard to learn a little more about our ministry, and our craft.
Great for our coaches to get together; both those in and out of season.
On Monday, October 8, the coaches at St. Ignatius College Prep gathered to hear Haley Scott DeMaria speak on "Faith and Triumph." Haley was the ideal spokesperson for this evening. She is immensely professional and personal and offered her own story as chronicled in her book "What Though the Odds." As written on her website
When the Notre Dame women's swim team suffered a fatal bus crash, the lives of those on the bus, their families, and the community were changed forever. Paralyzed after the accident, Haley Scott was told she would never walk again. That was unacceptable to her. With the help of those who cared most about her - her family, her school and her teammates - she chose a different fate and promised not only to walk, but to swim again for the Fighting Irish.
Haley's story is inspiring and tragic, honest and difficult to hear/read at times. And yet, why might it be a message for high school coaches to hear? What does it offer for those of us working with athletes much younger, some less competitive or talented, or others in sports far different than swimming? The answer: much more than I could have anticipated.
Haley set the tone with her presentation through a quote from Lou Holtz, the former University of Notre Dame head football coach. He wrote, “Show me a leader, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” I saw these words as a challenge. As a coach, I need leaders on my team. Furthermore, I want to shape the young women in my care into leaders. I started to think of how coaches work with and through adversity to do that. I wrote down my question to discuss with the others at my table.

After addressing how swimming became her sport, Haley told us about four of her swim coaches and what she learned from each one. Her first coach taught her the importance of loving your sport. Her club coach taught her the importance of having the desire to work hard. Each profile gave me pause to consider the "lesson" she learned and question how/if I do that: To what degree can we help our athletes love our sport? And how do we model our love for it? Do my athletes have the desire to work hard? Do they see this in me? 
When it was time to speak about Tim Welsh, her coach at Notre Dame, she shared his mission statement. It is
The purpose of Notre Dame Swimming is to pursue athletic excellence, with self-discipline and love for one another.
Coach Welsh offered his mission statement to his team on the first day of practice. Haley shared her understanding of it as an 18-year-old. The pursuit of athletic excellence was a given, no explanation was necessary. The second half of his mission, however, required a little deconstruction. At that moment I thought to myself, Do my athletes know of my mission statement? Let's encourage each other to share our mission statement on the first day of practice / put it in the team syllabus. 

The story of this Notre Dame swimmer is how Coach Welsh's mission statement was a lived truth, a reality that extends beyond even just those men and women on the team. What might our athletes say?

While it might be obvious that self-discipline propels a swimmer to train harder and smarter, Haley came to realize how important it is out of the water too. A student-athlete is not unfamiliar with the demands of balancing training, competition and being a member of a team with getting to class on time, studying, and following up with teachers accordingly. However, in college, those responsibilities fall on an individual, especially a student-athlete, in a new way. Given the absence of parents, the support of day to day home life, of no detention for missing class/no tardy for being late, one must flex the muscle of self-discipline in ways that are challenging or even counter-cultural to collegiate life....but not totally unfamiliar to athletes. Coach Welsh named self-discipline in his mission statement to speak to its primacy. Athletic excellence is deficient without it. As I listened, I considered the self-discipline that golf requires. How am I helping my golfers focus and improve in self-discipline? How do they model it for one another? How is that "training" paying off outside of golf?
Haley would come to learn first hand, swimming at Notre Dame under Coach Welsh was fueled by love for another. She admitted that her original interpretation of the words "love for one another" as an 18-year old on a co-ed team was much different than what she came to know and live. Her personal story—the one she shared with our coaches—is a chronicle of what love for one another can do for a person, a team and a school community. Love for one another meant that one of her teammates sat at her side at the site of the bus crash until paramedics could help, love for one another meant that we visit the sick and feed the hungry. Haley was in three different hospitals and had five surgeries. Her visitors ranged from the University President, Father Monk Malloy to the parents of her teammates who died. Hungry for news of everyday life, Haley's teammates and classmates visited in the ICU and even in San Diego. I wondered how my own athletes grow in "love for one another" as a result of our time together. I wanted to know how they interpret these words.

In 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul writes "so faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love." No greater act of love could have been demonstrated to or for the Notre Dame swim team than when Haley was able to return to the first time to compete. Coach Welsh placed Haley in two events: butterfly and freestyle—the favorites of Meghan and Colleen. To honor their legacy, Haley swam these strokes with no other ND swimmers competing against her. This decision permitted the team to cheer, celebrate and remember those they loved and lost. Humbled and inspired by his plan, I wondered if I would have the vision that Coach Welsh did for his team? I said a silent prayer and asked God for the wisdom of Solomon...or in this case a coach like Tim. 
Haley's presentation—her talk, her story, her very presence—prompted thoughtful conversations with other coaches. I have never received the number of "thank yous" and questions from my colleagues as I did in response to her message. One cross-country coach shared with the coaches who weren't able to attend her key takeaways. They are 
  • How are we building life skills in our athletes? If they were never to compete again, how would their participation on xc (or any sport) best serve them as young people?
  • When students are injured, how are we supporting them? Are there ways we could be more inclusive and supportive to those who are struggling with both the physical and emotional challenges of not being able to compete in the ways they wish they could?
  • How are we participating as members of an athletic community? Haley spoke about how present the rest of the athletic community was as she recovered-- not just the swim team. 
For me, it was nice to hear from an athlete (and a coach) who participated in an individual sport that works as a team. Quite often we hear from the perspective of the coach of a team sport e.g. basketball, football or volleyball. And yet, many sports like tennis, golf, swimming, and diving require a leader to work with a group of individuals who become something more.
My seniors!
The seniors in my Sports and Spirituality class read "What Though the Odds" and were able to hear a similar presentation and meet the author! The woman behind the story and journey we have shared. I loved knowing that some of their own coaches could share a conversation about their own takeaways and what they have gained from her message. 

A fellowship of coaches—a fraternity or sorority of men and women united an endeavor that aims to bring a young person from one place to another over the course of a season—is worth creating and developing. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Let us support and encourage, love and celebrate those workers.... Thank you, Haley, for reminding us of the primacy and impact of what those workers do.

Photo Credits
Haley and Tim 

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