It’s Bigger Than the Game: Coaching High School Athletes to Become Leaders

View from beneath a team standing in a circle with their hands together in the middle.

As an athletic director with the Twin Valley School District, I have seen firsthand the tremendous pressure student athletes in every school are under, not only athletically but also socially and academically.

There’s a pressure to make the team, to make varsity, to win, to live up to the coach’s expectations, to live up to their parents’ expectations, to meet or excel in their academic obligations, to do well enough to get a college sports scholarship, and to be a leader on and off the field. The pressure to perform in high school is incredible. However, many students do not have the resources to effectively navigate these pressures and anxiety can be a real problem for many students. Luckily in our school and our district, we are working to address this “pressure to perform” by helping our athletes learn about healthy ways to manage their stress and build their leadership skills through programs like Caron’s Peak Performance and Peak Performance Leadership Academy.

As a school, we try to be proactive instead of reactive to the challenges our students face, building leaders among the students, and hopefully helping our students make healthy choices. We recognize that the stress our students face may lead them to seek relief – which can come in many forms. Some releases are healthy, such as working out in the weight room and developing an overall focus on wellness. But we also understand that they could turn to alcohol, drugs and unhealthy ways of coping that have negative and even deadly consequences. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that from an early age, these students understand how to employ self-care in their daily lives that will support not only their personal leadership, but also that of their peers.

Intensity and Focus in High School Sports

Up through middle school, playing sports is largely just for fun. At the high school level, pressures start to build. Playing sports may still be fun in many ways, but it’s also a lot of work and very competitive. Student athletes also have a unique place in school because they are so visible. They represent the school externally, but they also are often viewed by their non-athletic peers as leaders. This position itself can lead to a lot of additional pressure on our athletes.

As incoming freshman, I don’t think students really understand the changes ahead. At first, they’re on a sports team. As they get older, and the coaches and teachers start relying on them as leaders, they are expected to fulfill this broader role. We can’t assume that, because they are a gifted student athlete, they’re going to be a natural-born leader. We need to start laying the groundwork by providing opportunities for them to grow into a leadership role. These opportunities might be service projects, helping at school, volunteering or community service.

Likewise, the Peak Performance program is fast becoming a crucial part of our effort to identify and train student leaders. Feedback from coaches shows they’re seeing a change in the way their student athletes approach potential problems. Students have become more vocal about their needs. One coach said a player asked for a coach’s meeting to resolve an issue with the team. The coach was surprised, but also pleased, that the player stepped up to take charge. If we can teach our students express their feelings and advocate for their needs, we are teaching them an invaluable life skill.

Focusing on the Team Culture

I’m proud of a cultural shift happening in our school. Instead of just focusing on the game, we’re focusing on the team community. We are focused on giving back and participating in healthy activities to help foster a sense of community. We realize that life is much bigger than the game.

Our baseball coach took the team to a retirement center and they mulched and cleaned up the grounds. While playing on the team and putting a banner up in the gym is great, showing up to support our overall community is more important. So, giving them healthy skills and constructive attitude will empower them to live their best life. Little by little it’s starting to take root.

The more we help our student athletes with information and experiences, the more tools we give them to be the leaders and role models in the school community. It helps us foster an overall positive peer culture for our school.

Managing the Challenges of Summer

Unstructured time can be dangerous and lead to poor, potentially life-altering choices, especially when it comes to drugs, alcohol and other compulsive behavior. We know that someone who uses a substance as a teen is more likely to develop an addiction as an adult. Conversely, we also know that someone who learns to take care of themselves as a young person and make healthy choices will continue to do so as an adult.

As students enter their summer break, I encourage them to use their downtime wisely. Stay healthy. Stay busy. Now is the time to work on your skills and build your strengths. We keep our weight room open over the summer, so that kids can continue training to get ready for the fall sports season. It’s also a time to hone leadership skills. Here at Twin Valley, we have a full schedule of youth sports camps in our school district to help shape the next generation of student athletes. Many high school students work at the camps to share their skills and have fun with the younger kids.

One of the biggest challenges for students over the summer is – who do you to turn to if you need guidance and support? I want to make sure our students know that they are not alone and that our administrator and coaches are always here to talk if there is anything they need to discuss. We’re here to help. We’re here to listen.

A man and a woman leaning on each other

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