Building Authentic Communities

What do pizza and ice cream have to do with sports? Put a pin in that—we’ll revisit. First, let’s talk about what makes sports enjoyable to watch and play.

As an Athletic Administrator, we get to attend more events than the average fan during any given year. Last year as an example, I was able to catch part or all of over 150 Varsity athletic contests. So, over the course of my 10 years as an AD—I have seen well over 1,500 events, and that’s just counting the high school games I have seen at Eastview. That doesn’t account for the hundreds more youth contests my kids have participated in or the thousands more I have watched on TV as an avid sports fan over the years. So what makes a game stand out? Is it a great play? A championship result? Or is it something more simple? For me personally, it is all about the smiles. That smile on an athlete’s face often tells such an incredible story. Yes, a great play or a championship result can definitely put a smile on an athlete’s face, but on a more regular basis—nothing makes someone smile more than a sense of accomplishment or a sense of belonging.

The sense of accomplishment is what many see as the sole benefit in sport. Setting goals, working hard and then achieving them is, without a doubt, a very useful lifelong skill. All sports have some individual goal setting that shows results. In some sports that goal is measured by a stopwatch and in others it is measured in statistics—but in both cases, the realization that a goal has been reached will put a smile on anyone’s face. The harder the journey, the bigger the smile. Those moments in sports are priceless as it is most often the story behind the journey that makes the moment so special. For some it involves overcoming obstacles such as injuries and for others it is a goal that was years in the making, but for all there is no better feeling. As an AD these moments are inspiring to watch.

As impressive as those individual accomplishments in sports are, I would argue that there is no individual accomplishment that can ever compare to the ones that happen with a team or group that has a true love for one another and a bond that transcends sport. At the end of a season or the end of a career, some are fortunate to have experienced this type of team. Too many falsely connect a team who wins with a team that had a “championship” experience.

This is where the pizza and ice cream comes in. Some teams do a lot of team activities together, but that may just be surface level. Other teams take the most “regular” team activities and turn it into something much deeper. Many times at coaching conferences or student leadership workshops participants want to jump right to the “silver bullet” activity that will ensure their team has a great experience. The reality is—the focus should be on developing authentic relationships based on a feeling of belonging rather than the activity. We have likely all been in a situation where the “event” itself was great, but the way we were made to feel turned things sour. The opposite is also true as I am sure we can all think of a time where we did the most ordinary thing, but because of who we were with it turned into something quite memorable. Bus rides in high school sports can be a great example…some are really fun and others are simply just uncomfortable transportation.

As a coach, our challenge is to help build authentic community versus expect it to happen. If you think a lot of pizza and ice cream will make for a better culture you might be right…or you might be wrong. One thing that has been proven over and over again is that the number one thing participants remember about their high school athletic experience is the relationships they had with teammates and coaches…for better or for worse. As coaches we have the incredible opportunity to foster a sense of belonging for every athlete that participates in our program, but it doesn’t happen simply by showing up and playing a game.

As an AD, the excitement in watching a group of high school kids playing not WITH, but FOR their teammates, is second to none. Those are the groups that—win or lose—will still get together after a game for pizza and ice cream and enjoy every minute they get to spend together. My challenge for all of us in education-based athletics is to help create a culture where these types of experiences are the norm and not the exception.