There is culture change taking place in the St. Louis Park High School athletic office thanks to new initiative focused on equipping student-athletes with leadership skills. After receiving a cold call from a new St. Louis Park resident, Athletic Director Andy Ewald saw an opportunity to create something unique for the school’s student-athletes. The results have surpassed even his expectations.
What developed out of that cold call from leadership coach Kevin King is an extensive leadership training program for captains of St. Louis Park High School athletic programs. Ewald, coaches, and high school student-athletes are all in agreement that the results have been evident both on and off the athletic fields and courts this school year.
“After seeing it through the fall and winter, I believe that next to the changes we made a handful of years ago with the philosophy and direction of our strength and conditioning program, that this is potentially the second most impactful initiative that we have started as a department for our athletes in the time that I have been around here,” Ewald said.
King is the President of Premier Team Building Solutions, LLC – an agency that trains corporate executives, athletes, coaches, leaders, and athletic teams in the areas of leadership, workplace and team culture, media, and social media. Prior to starting the company, King spent more than 13 years on the faculty of various colleges and universities including the University of Michigan, Central Michigan University and the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, where he taught and advised students in the areas of sports management and leadership development.
“When I moved from Lacrosse, Wisconsin to St. Louis Park I wanted to make an impact in this community,” King said. “I reached out to Andy to gauge his interest to see if leadership training was being done in St. Louis Park Schools.”
What King and Ewald developed together is right now being called “Captains Leadership Training.” During the fall, winter and now the spring sports season, Ewald and King meet once a week for eight weeks on Thursday mornings before school with the captains of every varsity athletic team.
Captains are challenged with questions that start deeper conversations such as “What are your core values?”, “How experienced are you with managing conflict?”, “Why do you want to be a captain or leader?”, “What is the culture of your team like?”, and “What is your vision for your team?” They stress to the students that leadership is not about them, but that it’s about creating an environment so that others can succeed. The captains spend time talking about the principles of good leadership and developing vocabulary so that they can articulate what good leadership is and looks like.
Ewald says that there has been 100 percent buy-in from not only the student-athletes, but from the Athletic Department’s coaches as well.
“Coaches have had unanimous support for this and are already seeing from their end, instant impact,” Ewald said. “There’s a language that is being spoken now. The culture of their team has changed and their captains are talking and interacting with their teammates in a more purposeful way.”
“I’ve been very pleased with their effort. The students are engaged, they ask questions, and I’ve been happy to see them apply it,” King said. “I’ve also had complete support from coaches. They have given me access to their practices, games and postgame talks. They have not restricted me in any way as far as me interacting with their programs and that’s been exciting and rewarding.”
Dave Breitenbucher coaches girls tennis in the fall, boys basketball in the winter, and boys tennis in the spring at the High School. After buying in to the idea, he says he has seen a number of positive changes on his teams.
“At first I wondered what the training was going to look like and if there was going to be conflict with what Kevin was teaching and with what I was teaching, but it’s just been great,” Breitenbucher said. “I’ve seen a real willingness from my captains to go to the next level with leadership that I haven’t seen before. During the basketball season I saw a willingness of the captains to step in and help the coaches when there were issues. Something has definitely changed here.”
The conversations around leadership have also caused St. Louis Park coaches to rethink how they even select captains for their teams. Ewald said that several years ago he attended a workshop where it was stated that 85 percent of athletic team captains are selected for the wrong reasons, including popularity, seniority, and skill in a specific sport.
“We want our head coaches to be more intentional and more purposeful and take more time with how we’re selecting these leaders for our programs,” Ewald said. “Just because you’re popular or really skilled, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good leader.”
Ewald says that some of his coaches have been using more of an application and interview process in order to select their captains instead of having team members vote or having coaching simply choose the captains and that more coaches are considering this approach.
Seniors Maddie Lund and Jonny Sorenson are both multi-sport athletes and captains. Lund plays tennis and lacrosse, while Sorenson was quarterback of the football team that made the school’s first state tournament appearance this fall, and also plays hockey and baseball.
Both Lund and Sorenson say that King’s engaging personality and ability to connect with the student-athletes has been a key piece of the leadership initiative’s success.
“He’s really intense and passionate about the issue of leadership,” Lund said “He doesn’t treat us like immature kids, he treats us as young adults as we should be treated and I really like that about him.”
“I think he connects with us because he’s a down to earth guy and he really wants us to improve, not only as captains of our athletic teams, but using these qualities in life and becoming better people,” Sorenson said. “He comes to practices and games and so you can tell he truly cares about our school and our athletic teams.”
While feedback from coaches and student-athletes seems to point to instant impact, the initiative’s value extends beyond the walls of St. Louis Park High School. It also falls in line with key parts of the District’s Mission which strives to “prepare all students to contribute to society; offer high quality opportunities for lifelong learning; provide multiple pathways to excellence; and challenge all learners to meet high standards.”
“We’re learning really basic life skills such as listening, communication, patience, and opening yourself up and finding vulnerabilities,” Lund said. “Whether it’s with starting a family, building a career, or continuing with athletics later in life, all of these skills we are learning are really important with anything you do.”
“It’s another tool that we’re giving them and I believe it’s a pretty unique tool,” Ewald said. “It’s something they would be getting if they were a collegiate athlete or if they were signing up for a college class about leadership.”
High School Principal Scott Meyers believes the initiative is just another example of how his staff often goes above and beyond to deliver critical life skills to St. Louis Park students.
“Athletic Directors like Andy already have a full plate when it comes to scheduling, event management, transportation and everything that goes with ensuring that our athletic programs run smoothly,” Meyers said. “I really applaud him for finding the time and resources to undertake an initiative like this that not only positively impacts our athletic teams, but gives students an opportunity to learn critical skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.”
Ewald actually hopes to work with the District’s Department of Assessment, Evaluation, and Research in the future to develop some measurables for the initiative. For now, he and King have a good sense of what they want the student-athletes to get out of the experience.
“It’s easy to say I want to see all of our programs win state championships. The competitive aspect is part of it, but I think what’s more important is how are they developing as young men and women,” Ewald said.
“In my opinion, St. Louis Park will go down as the trendsetter as far as how student-athletes and captains are training in leadership in the Twin Cities,” King said. “I think a lot of schools would like to do something like this, but just haven’t been able to figure out the logistics of it. What we are doing here shows that it can be done, that it is being done and that St. Louis Park is really on the cutting edge of forwarding thinking as it relates to leadership.”