Changing the focus of why students play sports

For far too many coaches, student athletes and their parents, sports is all about winning.

For Eastview High School Athletic Director Matt Percival, sports culture is about much more than the final score. He is helping lead a growing movement in Minnesota and across the nation to refocus the emphasis of youth sports from winning to developing young people’s potential and providing them with skills that will prepare them for their futures.

“Having goals, like winning a state championship, are important, but it’s not our purpose,” Percival said. “We are playing for greater purpose here. We are playing to help students grow and gain skills that will last them for a lifetime.”

Percival is a local, state and national leader in providing education-based athletic coaching training through the Minnesota State High School League’s (MSHSL) WHY WE PLAY program and the NFL’s InSideOut Initiative. He is one of just three athletic directors in Minnesota who provides InSideOut training to other athletic directors in 17 NFL markets across the nation.

The WHY WE PLAY program challenges Minnesota coaches to provide students with more than physical development and become intentional about helping students grow as people, on an off the playing field. Percival said the program is based in part on Joe Ehrmann’s book InSideOut Coaching, which poses four questions to coaches as a pathway to becoming an intentional coach: 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?”

To become certified in the WHY WE PLAY program, participating coaches must also complete online classes and develop a transformational purpose statement.

“These (statements) are focused on the core values that are near to our hearts as coaches,” Percival said, “that are not just performance based. We (coaches) keep our statements in front of us as our platform for how we teach our student athletes each season.”

Percival said his purpose statement is about his role as a husband, father, friend and teammate – as a human being. “It’s not about winning,” he said. “I want every kid who leaves Eastview to be team-oriented, service-minded and to empathize with others by being able to walk in someone else’s shoes.

“When we use the InSideOut Coaching model and are intentional as coaches, students gain skills such as responsibility, drive, learning from mistakes and failures, helping others succeed, overcoming adversity and being a contributing team member.”

For students at Eastview, this coaching model is helping them grow personally and inspiring them to help others.

Percival said individual students and whole teams collectively are also developing purpose statements. This year, for example, he said the dance team’s purpose statement is to be creative, strive, preservere and care. “It is a simple but powerful message that these girls are committed to upholding through every practice, performance and throughout our school,” he said. “Our entire school community benefits from this work.”

This mindset has inspired teams to give back beyond the school community as well. “Last spring, our track team coordinated a spring clean-up event and cleaned the yards of seniors living in Apple Valley,” Percival said. “Through this work, these students are creating a school culture that is inspiring and that anyone would say, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

Percival said this work is helping with issue management as well. “In the programs that are most focused on the growth and development of these kids, we see far less conflict and far fewer issues,” he said. “These students and their families are reporting that their experience was better.”

Percival said this coaching mindset is continuous for schools like Eastview and Eagan High School that have adopted the InSideOut model. “The focus for our coaches is to make this experience not transactional, but transformational for every student, every day,” he said. “We will never be done with this process.

“Success is not defined by a win. Instead, we (coaches) are asking students, ‘What did you learn? Did you have fun? Did you improve? Did you do your best? Did you help others succeed? Were you a great teammate? How did you handle winning?’ Now, that’s defining success.”

Eagan Athletic Director Sandra Setter-Larsen is also a leader of the WHY WE PLAY program and partners with Percival to educate other coaches within and outside of District 196.

“I am honored to be part of a group of athletic directors in this state who have taken a risk to grow and better themselves though WHY WE PLAY and InSideOut Coaching,” Setter-Larsen said. “The program has mattered in my life and is providing important growth for our coaches, student-athletes, community, and staff.

“Matt is providing important education regarding how we can better ourselves and our coaches through InSideOut Coaching, He helps to make us all better at what we do for students. I am so proud of what he does and how he represents our district, our conference and our profession of athletic directors.”