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The Halftime Report: The Leadership Institute Part I

by Joe Cummings, Student Enrollment Officer & Head Boy's Varsity Lacrosse Coach
In Part I of this article, we discuss the genesis of the Leadership Institute, the experts who teach our student-athletes and coaches, and the experience of our coaches with the training.  In Part II, we will hear from our student-athletes about their experience, how they were nominated to be a part of the Institute, and how it has impacted them and their team, both on and off the field or court.

The Beginning

During the 2015-2016 school year, CCES began internal discussions about the potential for a leadership development program for student-athletes and coaches.  Ike Poplin, CCES Class of 1981, former Booster Club President, and former CCES parent (Chase Poplin, CCES Class of 2017) and Dr. Rob Brown, CCES Parent (Porter Brown, Class of 2020, Hayden Brown '16, Osborne Brown 14'), initiated research of notable leadership programs after reading articles discussing the significance of the role of a coach.  

In one of the articles, John Wooden, former legendary UCLA Basketball and Hall of Fame coach, states, “some people are automatic leaders. Some people are not leaders. But most people who don’t think of themselves as leaders have the potential if they understand the fundamentals. The fundamentals can be learned… I learned them.”  Mr. Poplin then posed the question, “Can we learn to teach leadership?  Can (would) coaches learn leadership and best practices?  Can it be learned and shared?”

With Mr. Poplin and Dr. Brown’s input in mind, key CCES leaders, including Headmaster Dr. Kupersmith and Shane Taylor, Chairman of the Board of Directors, in conjunction with the Booster Club and the Athletic Department, began researching collegiate leadership programs from around the country and met with nationally recognized leaders to brainstorm ideas about the program.  Of particular note, Mr. Poplin says they did not find any such programs on the high school level, and the unified vision of these leaders along with tremendous support from the Booster Club was integral to seeing the vision come to reality.

The vision was to create a space where students and coaches could challenge their perspectives on leadership, learn from experts in the world of leadership and psychology, discuss best practices with their peers, and implement new ideas with their teams.  The long term goal was to start with athletics and grow the program to all members of the student body.  

The result: The Leadership Institute.

Synergy Group

Integral to taking the Leadership Institute from a vision to a plan was Dr. Milt Lowder and his team, Dr. Drew Brannon and Dr. Cory Shaffer, at Synergy Group.  Dr. Milt Lowder, co-founder of Synergy Group (formerly The Lowder Group), has been the Sports Psychologist for Clemson Athletics and Clemson Football since 2009, and he has graciously accepted the task of helping facilitate training to coaches and student-athletes at CCES.  

On Dr. Lowder, Mr. Poplin states, “the work of Dr. Milt Lowder, who has been instrumental in developing Clemson University Leadership programs, is well known, and recognized. As we tried to move from vision to a program, he was fantastic at developing a plan. Most importantly he loved our vision, understood the benefits / impact and was willing to spend time as a partner building the program.”  After several months of planning, The Leadership Institute started its first sessions in the fall of the 2016-2017 school year, meeting with coaches and nominated student-athletes at separate times once per month to discuss principles of leadership.

Dr. Lowder describes his experience with The Leadership Institute saying, “to me, I think high school coaches, college coaches as well, but I think it’s really evident with high school coaches that their love for that age group, their love for developing young people; that they’re really invested at a critical age in a child’s life.”  He adds, “one of my favorite things to do is learn from others, so what’s been fun about the high school coaches is the amount of wisdom we’ve had in the room, and the great energy we’ve had in the room.”  

How do we define success?

During the first year of the program, CCES coaches met once a month to engage in a dialogue with Dr. Lowder about many topics pertaining to athletics, but he specifically challenged our coaches to examine their definition of success and how that translates to leadership.

For most coaches, the question, “How do I define success?” can be uncomfortable.  As competitive people, many of us (myself included) are probably be tempted to say that winning championships, beating rival teams, and developing highly skilled and productive athletes that go off to play in college on scholarships are the marks of success.  This results-based way of thinking also appears to be what we find from mainstream sports culture and social media about successful high school programs and teams.

Dr. Lowder and his team tried to take a different approach as they challenged our vision of success and helped define what it means.  Matt Jacobssen, Head Boys and Girls Swim Coach, says, “the central takeaway for me so far has been the opportunity to take meaningful time to redefine my own coaching philosophy and develop an approach that consistently reflects that philosophy.”  

Although championships and athletic honors are certainly worth striving for, it does not make a player, team, or coach a failure if they fall short.  Moreover, it may not be the type of success we want to exclusively work towards.  Maybe those goals: championships, rivalry victories, All-American athletes, etc., are the byproduct of something much greater.  Maybe, there is enjoyment and satisfaction in the process and pursuit of excellence, and winning is the byproduct of a commitment to something deeper.  Dr. Lowder often referred to a John Wooden quote where Wooden says, “success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

So what is the definition of success?  What is our definition of success as coaches for ourselves?  For our teams?  Simply put, Dr. Lowder says “success is the worthy pursuit of a worthy goal.”  Dr. Lowder teaches the importance of developing a growth mindset in coaches and players.  This way of thinking, Lowder says, “allows coaches to separate the player from the play” to reinforce a focus on things athletes can control like effort, attitude, and focus.  The outcomes, like winning, are then a byproduct.

Through practical exercises, educational lectures, and engaging discussions as a group, many coaches were able to have positive takeaways to implement with their own individual program.  Coach Jacobssen says, “I've also appreciated the discussions about creating a culture and have been impressed at how several CCES coaches do this so well.”  Dr. Lowder adds, “this age group [high school] is a difficult time.  What’s been fun for me is how do we take these same strategies and principles of leadership and coaching and apply them to a different population.  What I have been most encouraged by is the support and interest from the coaches at Christ Church to ask how do I get better at what I do?”

Over the course of several months during year one of our leadership sessions, our coaches discussed words and themes like culture, worthy goals, relationships, growth mindset, and love.  These themes of positive leadership and success went beyond the performance measurements of the playing field or court, and we began to reshape our focus on cultivating relationships with our athletes and growing the individual, the team, and the program to be their best.  For some, they found answers.  For others, it brought deeper reflection.  For all the coaches, the sessions were engaging and enlightening; fulfilling the mission to pursue teaching coaches and sharing best practices about leadership.

The Coaches Retreat- August 2017

At the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, for the first time ever, coaches from all sports at CCES participated in a Leadership Institute Retreat before the school year began.  Coaches were able to hear presentations from Synergy Group’s Dr. Lowder, Dr. Brannon, and Dr. Shaffer.  The Synergy Group team walked alongside our coaches to help them create a vision statement for themselves and their team.  In addition, coaches were able to identify their “why,” self-evaluate their wellness, and write down their personal and team goals for the upcoming school year.  

During the two day retreat, Molly Miller, Athletic Director and Head Varsity Girls Lacrosse Coach, wanted to create a space for coaches to connect and prepare ahead of the new school year.  Molly says, “ I value the time to come together as coaches.  It is a unique opportunity for our coaches to come together once a month, share experiences and challenges, and to have a chance to learn from one another.  It’s a wonderfully supportive community.”  In her first year as Athletic Director, Coach Miller created a rare space for coaches to interact and deepen relationships with one another.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the retreat and the opportunity to connect with some of our incredible coaches.  My two biggest takeaways were how impressive our coaches are as people and their passion to see our student-athletes become successful in all that they do.  Not only did I learn from Synergy Group, but I left with some great thoughts from the interactions with coaches who have many years of wisdom and experience.  Moving forward, it will be exciting to continue to see how The Leadership Institute will not only impact CCES athletics, but the entire school and community at large.

The Future

After two years, the seeds of the leadership lessons with Synergy Group have been planted on quality soil in our coaches.  In many ways, we are seeing fruit from this investment in our coaches.  However, the seeds of this investment will likely take some time to grow before we see it reap a great harvest in our students.  In regard to the future, Dr. Lowder says, “The future of this [The Leadership Institute] really fits with the strategic plan and vision for Christ Church in terms of creating a culture of a growth mindset, teaching those principles, and applying those principles throughout the school… really wanting to provide something of lasting value in addition to everything else Christ Church does.”

It is clear the Leadership Institute has had an immediate impact on our coaches, and as we continue to practically work on this vision and these goals, it will be exciting to see what happens in our students, our families, and our school.  Dr. Lowder describes how important it will be to continue to be faithful to the vision, and says the sessions will likely transform from less teaching to more dialogue about how we practically implement these concepts into a plan.  Dr. Lowder states, “here’s what we believe, here’s why we do what we do, and these academies and opportunities to engage will ask, ‘are we acting according to what we believe and staying consistent with that?”  

As coaches work faithfully and diligently with their programs, we may see immediate results during a given sport season.  More importantly, all of us look forward to how the experience with the Leadership Institute and CCES Athletics will hopefully impact our student’s lives five, ten, and twenty years down the road, as they take their experience at CCES and apply it to the rest of their lives.  

Final Thoughts from CCES Coaches

“The best element of this process that I've been able to bring to the swimmers has been how to set end-goals as well as process goals.  In doing so, we've been able to celebrate little victories every day rather than simply waiting for the end of the year payoff.”
-Coach Jacobssen, Head Coach, Swimming

“The sessions have been great for me to reflect on my own practices and my approach to coaching.  Instilling a growth mindset with my players has been my goal the past two seasons.  Whether it be a drill in practice to goal setting, how can we have this mindset in all facets of our program.”
-Coach Miller, Athletic Director and Head Coach, Varsity Girl’s Lacrosse

“I have learned that there are many different ways to deal with self motivation, importance of self well-being, and different strategies on dealing with athletes. The leadership program has helped me grow as a coach and teacher. My mindset has changed for the better.”
-Coach Don Frost, Head Coach, Varsity Football

“It is said that a coach impacts more young people in a year than most people do in a lifetime. This refers to the ‘Sphere of influence’ of a coach. Assume a coach has 70 players……the sphere of influence is those players, their future spouse, and 3 kids. Seventy players became 350 people. Over each 4 year period assume 10 players go on to coach something (little league, church basketball, maybe HS) and the players they influence. Now you are at 3500 people influenced. What if you coached for 20 years?  The potential for impact (good or bad) is incredible. So I ask…..How big do you think the responsibility of coaching is? Will the impact be positive or negative?”
-Ike Poplin, CCES Alum, Parent, and Former Booster Club President

“The time we spend with Milt Lowder each month is invaluable.  As a coach, it is a terrific reminder of what really matters in athletics - working together, developing leadership and character, and building toward a greater goal than just wins and losses.  It’s easy to make winning the final measure of a successful program, but Milt’s talks bring all of us back to consider how we can spur our players to greater life success.”
-James Greco, Middle School Dean and Head Varsity Girl’s Soccer Coach

“The Leadership Institute has been a formative experience because it provides the time and space for new coaches, like me, to hear and learn from CCES's veteran coaches. Their collective experience has given me insight on a variety of topics: how to create and sustain a healthy team culture, how to simultaneously promote a winning mentality and promote character formation that values more than wins or losses, and how to balance criticism of an athlete's performance while honestly naming that athlete's improvement and potential.”
-John Mark Elliott, Upper School Religion & Ethics, Head Cross Country Coach

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    • Dr. Milt Lowder speaks to CCES coaches at the Coaches Retreat in August

    • Dr. Corey Shaffer speaks to male CCES athletes on Leadership

    • Dr. Drew Brannon gives lessons on leadership to female CCES athletes

    • Matt Jacobssen, Head Boys and Girls Swim Coach speaks with sophomore swimmer Wyatt Boyd

    • John Mark Elliott, Head Cross Country Coach with senior runner Maxine Blech

    • Junior Hailey Sanders takes the draw for girls lacrosse

    • John Butler, Head Coach, Varsity Boys Basketball

    • Don Frost, Head Coach, Varsity Football

    • Molly Miller, Athletic Director and Head Coach, Varsity Girl’s Lacrosse

Christ Church Episcopal School (“CCES”) admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileged, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at CCES. CCES does not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, national or ethnic origin, creed, religion, or sexual orientation in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, financial aid, scholarship or other programs, or athletic or other school-administered programs and activities.