Grassroots Change

From the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management:

As a school leader, sometimes you can’t help but feel like you’re behind the wheel of a pace car, hoping you are leading students down the right path, while questioning every turn. And if the path is wrong, how do we get everyone back on track? Guiding students is the fundamental duty of an educator, and we are often our own greatest critics.

My pace car duties went from figurative to literal during our conference cross country championships this past fall. I wasn’t scheduled to drive the golf cart guiding the runners across the course but I ended up being a last-minute fill-in.

As the race began, my biggest concern was maintaining the proper speed. I needed to stay far enough ahead of the pack that I didn’t interfere, but close enough that the runners could still see me. I didn’t think too much about the route. After all, most of the competitors had run this course before or had scoped it out during warm-ups.

But I guess I should have paid closer attention to the pre-race instruction—or maybe I just got caught looking back over my shoulder to track the runners—because I made a wrong turn on the first loop. I now had close to 120 competitors following me down an errant path.

The lead runners were waving and pointing. My obliviousness transformed into confusion, which morphed into panic as I realized what I had just done. Oh how I wished I had GPS in that cart. Fortunately, a quick phone call to calmer minds produced a real-time solution and the race was salvaged with the official distance preserved almost to perfection.

I walked into school the next day feeling okay about how it worked out. We had gotten the runners back on track after steering them wrong. But things only got better when I stepped into my office and saw a bottle of Mountain Dew (my favorite soft drink) on my desk accompanied by a note from one of our cross country runners that said, “Nice job at the meet, Mr. Urdahl!” This young man was not miffed about what went wrong the day before. Instead, he recognized what was right about it—how one bad turn was rectified and a positive outcome was restored.

The student-athlete’s gesture is evidence of a transformation emerging in high school athletics. This shift is based on the simple belief that when properly administered, sports is not about wins and losses, but its potential to change the world for the better. Mistakes and setbacks are growth opportunities for everyone involved, and working through them is where the power of sports is found. The runner who bought me a soda had embraced this transformation.

Too frequently winning is viewed as the paramount outcome from participation in sports, and the countless opportunities to develop character skills such as empathy, moral courage, trust, honesty, responsibility, and respect are missed. I believe that is starting to change. There are enough administrators and coaches who see the power in educational athletics to put us on the right track.

Over the past five years, we have been working hard to incorporate these ideals here at St. Anthony Village High School (SAVHS), a public school near Minneapolis. We are doing this through the InSideOut Initiative, which offers tools and guidance for changing the culture of high school and youth sports. The program has pushed us to a higher standard, and it is growing nationwide.


Research on sports participation has been publicized widely. It tells us that less than six percent of high school athletes go on to play college athletics and less than one percent of those college athletes ever play professionally. It also reveals that for the almost eight million students who play high school sports, the primary reason to participate is to have fun. Yet youth sports have evolved into an $8 billion industry that promotes early specialization, private one-on-one coaching, year-round participation, and a significant financial and emotional investment from parents.

In many cases, over-organized and adult-driven youth sports have created an unsustainable frenzy, driving the fun out of sports. Parents and athletes become afraid that if they don’t comply with the “more is better” cultural pressure, they will be left behind. This tension has resulted in an unhealthy and pressure-filled athletic experience for millions of students, doing little to develop their human potential. How do we stop this?

Jody Redman, Associate Director at the Minnesota State High School League, and Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player turned educator, author, inspirational speaker, pastor, and coach, are leading a national effort to turn the win-at-all-costs model on its head. Although they began on separate paths, their parallel journeys merged in 2015 when they partnered to write and receive a grant from the NFL Foundation. Their collaboration has been gaining steam ever since.

The result of these efforts has become the InSideOut Initiative, which is designed to help school communities reclaim sports as a growth experience that connects students to caring coaches and school leaders. It provides a roadmap for change by helping schools:

  • redefine what success means
  • develop transformational purpose statements
  • establish shared common language
  • lead character development lessons with coaches and student-athletes
  • implement purpose-based hiring and evaluation practices
  • access resources related to best practices and proven strategies.

With its NFL Foundation partnership, the InSideOut Initiative is currently active in Colorado, Texas, Ohio, California, Georgia, Indiana, and Minnesota with plans for it to be introduced in Tennessee and Louisiana. It is working well at schools large and small, in urban and rural areas.

Rewiring the mentality of high school sports, nationally or locally, is a lofty undertaking that requires time. The InSideOut program uses a quote from Robert Kennedy to show how one action can grow to become a game changer. “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others … he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope … those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of resistance.”


The movement began at SAVHS in 2012 after I attended a book club session that forced me to dig deeper and rediscover the purpose of high school sports. The book was InSideOut Coaching, by Joe Ehrmann, and the discussion was led by Jody Redman. (This effort is branded as “Why We Play” by the Minnesota State High School League and serves as ground zero for the InSideOut Initiative.) The session was for activities directors from around the state, and the book struck a chord. My peers and I went back to our individual schools with a passion for implementing change.

At SAVHS, we have since enjoyed five years of collaboratively redefining interscholastic sports. We are committed to providing our students with great experiences designed to advance both their physical and moral development. The process has required introspection, discussions, new procedures, and community outreach.

One of my first steps was to begin conversations about this new way of thinking with the educators at our school. I asked our fine arts, activities, and coaching staff to read InSideOut Coaching, and we began to ask questions of ourselves that we’d never considered previously. Ehrmann writes, “You give your players memories, for better or for worse, that stay with them until the day they die.” This prompted us to talk about our experiences growing up and how they influence the way we coach today. Over the course of the year, we came to school early to enjoy breakfast and conversations that were pulling us in a new direction. (We’ve continued the book discussions each year since, reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Legacy Builder by Rod Olson, and You Win in the Locker Room First by Jon Gordan.)

After discussing the book, we started talking about what it means to be a transformational versus transactional coach. Transactional coaches use the power and privilege of coaching to satisfy their own personal gains. To these coaches, winning is the purpose and the way athletes perform determines that coach’s worth. In transformational coaching, winning is an outcome—not the purpose. It’s not about just building better athletes, but about developing better people.

John Wooden illustrated the concept of transformational coaching through a story about his former college coach, Piggy Lambert. Once, at the end of a season, Lambert was asked by the media how well he did as a coach that year. Lambert responded, “Ask me in 20 years and we’ll see how successful these boys are. Then I’ll be able to tell you if I succeeded as a coach.”

From there, we began to think deeply about our own individual work with students. I asked everyone to delve into four key questions Ehrmann outlines:

  • Why do I coach?
  • Why do I coach the way I do?
  • How does it feel to be coached by me?
  • How do I define success?

For some of our coaches, the answers to these questions came easily. For others, it took a lengthy inward journey. In truth, this isn’t a one-and-done exercise. An InSideOut culture will keep such questions front-of-mind.

Quickly identifying the value of these conversations, our coaches and advisors were hooked. The time spent together in conversation enabled a collective growth and established a shared common language among our staff, which then radiated through all our communication and practices. I could feel a collective shift in our school from “me-centered” to “others-centered.”

Using what we had learned in our discussions, we each then developed an individual transformational purpose statement. The InSideOut philosophy centers on the belief that to be a better coach, you have to be a better you. To be a better you, you must spend time reflecting on your own experiences. Ehrmann’s four questions can be a great starting point. Mine, for example, is: I serve to use sports as a vehicle to change the world by making better people, not just better athletes. (For more examples, see “Why Do I Coach?” below.)

We expanded this activity to create a collective transformational purpose for our school. A group of coaches met over the course of a year and produced this statement of purpose: To provide the best experience possible with HEART (we strive to promote positive traits exemplifying Honor, Effort, Attitude, Respect, and Teamwork).


Since we began the InSideOut process five years ago, I’d say the biggest change is that now, in all we do, we strive to be purpose-led. And we do this as a group, with coaches excited about helping me redefine goals and procedures.

For example, together we have developed procedures to hire, train, evaluate, and support transformational coaches. Job postings are designed to attract candidates with a student-centered mindset to our pool. A revamped evaluation process focuses on areas related to our purpose: Ehrmann’s four questions, promoting student growth, the connections made with students, and coaches’ own personal and professional growth. Coaches know that as long as they are good for kids and coaching from their purpose, they have a job at SAVHS.

In addition, rather than bog down staff meetings talking about the various management responsibilities that come with a coach’s job, we focus our time together on leadership and staff development. We use technology (shared documents, email) as much as possible to take care of the administrative minutiae.

Some of my best professional moments as an activities director have involved the collaborative work our staff has produced as part of the InSideOut Initiative. And my meetings with coaches now have a greater understanding of purpose. Whether we are talking about team goals or a new idea, we are speaking the same language and are focused on student growth.

Rest assured, winning is still a goal. We plan, prepare, and play to win. But winning does not define who we are and what we are trying to accomplish in our programs.


So how does this all trickle down to the student-athletes? To start, our coaches are more focused on the experience of the students. They take their transformational purpose statements seriously and work hard to live them out. For example, one of our assistant coaches, Eric Brever, drives 45 minutes each way to participate in volunteer work. Why? Because one part of his purpose is “to encourage student-athletes to be productive members of the community and to give back to others.”

Our coaches also implement character education lessons from the InSideOut Initiative with their teams on a weekly basis. The activities offer parables and real life stories, providing students with opportunities for moral, social, emotional, and civic growth while reflecting on how we can learn from our mistakes. They also offer lessons about bouncing back from a loss, working with difficult teammates, and sportsmanship.

When I asked some of our athletes how the weekly sessions are affecting their teams, one senior explained that they helped produce dialogue that teammates wouldn’t have had otherwise, tackling difficult topics such as drug and alcohol use. Another athlete said the lessons made her more open-minded and she “noticed people come out of their comfort zone during conversations to share their own views and experiences.” A third student-athlete said the messages have changed him for the better in his everyday life.

One difficult virtue for high school-aged students to tackle is empathy. It was especially heartening that another athlete said the weekly meetings “made us think about how we treat others and the results of our actions … reminding us about the importance of treating everyone with respect and compassion.”

We try to get creative with lesson plans. One of our coaches crafted a series about “Why We Played,” relatable stories of coaching staff members’ life lessons gleaned through sport. As much as possible, we strive for the discussions to create an opportunity for athletes and coaches to grow together.

Team captains take the lessons a step further by constructing their own transformational purpose statements. They watch one of Simon Sinek’s TED Talks, which sets the stage by explaining, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Captains examine why they want to be a leader and what true success means for each of them. One senior captain’s purpose statement this year was “to lead in a positive manner while being a good role model for players and the community through hard work, dedication, and kindness.”

At the end of their time at SAVHS, senior athletes have one-on-one exit interviews with me. They talk about their best and worst experiences as a high school athlete and answer questions such as “how did it feel to be coached by … ?” I ask them to plot on a line where they believe their coach operates on a transactional/transformational continuum. These conversations produce some of the best constructive feedback I am able to give our coaching staff.


The collaboration and critical reflection among our athletics staff and student-athletes has been fantastic, but our efforts do not stop there. It is just as important for the community to understand and embrace this new way of thinking.

Efforts to do this at SAVHS have taken many shapes, and are ongoing. Our coaches give their purpose statement and explain why they coach to start preseason parent meetings. In addition, several of our coaches have had the opportunity to present their statements to our school board. When community members hear our coaches state their purpose, they better understand the value of school sports and what a coach’s job is all about.

This has also opened the door for conversations in the community about youth sports. We are working toward having a new common language among all stakeholders. When parents, athletes, or anyone else holds an alternative perspective on success, coaches and administrators make every effort to return the dialogue to what our goals are.

And coaches have responded to the initiative with enthusiasm. Our Head Boys’ Basketball Coach, Chris Hergenrader, says this: “It has taken us from developing basketball players to developing well-rounded young men. Our athletes learn that sports are used for greater purposes than simply counting wins and losses.”

Ellie Kantar, our Head Girls’ Tennis Coach, explains her experience this way: “It has given the players a constructive outlet to discuss the challenges and opportunities that arise from being a student-athlete and a member of a team. As a coach, the lessons have been a wonderful opportunity to engage in discussions with my players not only about athletics, but also about the influence athletics has on who we are as people.”

Our Head Boys’ and Girls’ Cross Country Coach, Travis Macleod, says, “The atmosphere at SAVHS is built to service and benefit the student-athletes, not the coach or administrator ego. It is so encouraging and refreshing to see a school’s culture and atmosphere focus on the positives of athletics instead of only having the short-sighted and narrow vision of winning at all costs.”

When properly administered, interscholastic sports can serve as a vehicle for positive youth development. At SAVHS, the InSideOut Initiative has been the perfect pace car, helping our coaches, athletes, and administration navigate around the obstacles sports and life sometimes create. Coaches, parents, and school leaders will still take wrong turns here and there, but we are confident the culture created through our new way of thinking has our kids going down the right path.

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