Early on in my coaching career I thought that coaching was simply X’s and O’s. I thought it was motivating players to perform on the field. I often said that we wanted players to be better men when they left our program than they were when they entered it, but we didn’t always have a plan on how we were going to make that happen. As I have matured as a coach I have realized how much more important the development of players as young people is in comparison to developing them only as players.
Leadership needs to be taught more than ever as our society relies on electronic communication more than face to face. Our students need to be taught how to talk to each other, and how to lead each other. I’ve heard Steve Jones say many times “Leading by example isn’t leadership, its simply meeting the standard.” That always stood out to me. Kids need to quit being told to lead by example and start being shown what it means to be a leader. At Onalaska we use the Character Strong curriculum for a Principles of Leadership class that is open to all students. We have an amazing business teacher Bridgett Hubbard that does an excellent job at delivering this curriculum to our student body. Character Strong teaches that leadership is influence. We want to teach students how to influence others in a positive way.
Along with the Character Strong curriculum, which is open to all students, our activities director Jason Thiry has started a Leaders in Action lunch. Every few weeks he hosts lunch with a select group of athletes from every sport who were nominated by their coach. He feeds them and teaches them a 30 minute lesson on leadership. His lessons are incredibly impactful and drive the message of what it means to be an athlete at Onalaska home. His passion for creating leaders, I believe, will be a game changer in our athletic programs.
A few years ago we did a leadership class for our football team. We had a coach that was on fire about it and he put together a whole 60 page leadership manual. We selected a group of kids to do the class and met in the mornings. That coach left though, and with that we struggled to keep the leadership class going. Finally this year I quit making excuses and developed my own leadership curriculum. We talked about if it should be a select group that gets the material or all of our players. We decided that every single kid on our roster needs to be taught leadership and character development. We have split them into two groups, the current freshmen, and then the sophomores and juniors. We alternate groups each week. I teach the younger kids a different lesson than the older group. I developed the curriculum around eight words that I found it was important for them to grasp the meaning of in relation to leadership. Each session they get a lesson revolving around one of those eight words, and it builds on the previous lesson.
It has been an amazing experience for me as a coach to be able to teach these lessons. I never thought I could have deep conversations with 40 high school males like we have had. Players open up about things that really matter to them. We talk about what it means to love your teammates. We read the story about Anthony Myers, (look it up if you haven’t heard it) a young man who was given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer and then allowed to play one last football game before surgery. As I read the story to our athletes you could hear a pin drop in the room. I got emotional as I read it; our athletes got emotional talking about the article as we realized how precious life was.
I don’t write this to brag about what we are doing at Onalaska. I write about it because it’s something I think anyone can do. It’s also a topic I think every coach should be teaching in some form. Our athletes can never be taught leadership and character development too much. Us as coaches can never be reminded how important it is for us to be solid role models for them at the same time. If we are going to teach them leadership, we need to walk the walk in our own lives as well.
One last thing about leadership with our teens. Just because we teach them how to lead, doesn’t mean they will do it 100% of the time. I’ve heard this in my own school “Well they took that leadership class, they should already know this by now.” I took Pre Calc back in high school, no one would accuse me of solving math equations on a chalkboard at MIT in my spare time. Never assume that just because they were told it one time that they have mastered it. They will make mistakes, we as adults still make mistakes. We need to give them opportunities to lead, help them through the process, and put our arms around them and encourage them when they screw up or fall short of the standard.
If you have a leadership curriculum that you are teaching your athletes, I’d love to learn more about what you are doing. As coaches, we are all in this together to make the next generation the best group of young leaders that we can.
Written by Onalaska football coach Tom Yashinsky, who just finished his 8th season as head football coach at Onalaska. Previously he was an assistant under Dieter Antoni for 4 years. He also coached at UWL under Larry Terry for one season as a student coach. His first coaching job was as an assistant coach at Ben Eielson High School, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.