MANCHESTER – East Catholic is the first Connecticut high school to team up with the University of Notre Dame to provide a series of character-building clinics and workshops that benefit captains, coaches, parents and, most importantly, student-athletes.
The program, called Play Like a Champion Today, is part of a national initiative that seeks to create a positive sports culture for young people and educate ethically responsible sports leaders.
“This is one of the most important and meaningful programs that East Catholic has taken on in recent years. It will have a profound effect on our student-athletes, coaches and parents,” said Tom Malin, athletic director at East Catholic, where 85 percent of students participate in sports programs.
“It’s the ultimate game plan,” said Kristin Sheehan, co-director of the program, who teaches at Notre Dame and who recently presented a coaching clinic, a parent workshop and an athlete leadership program for team captains at East Catholic.
These events, held last fall, served to kick off the Play Like a Champion Today program, which is designed to promote athletics as a ministry to both youth and families and build sports teams as moral communities. The program also hopes to encourage spiritual growth, character development, self-motivation and responsible decision-making in student-athletes.
All East Catholic athletic coaches participated in the coaching clinic and earned two-year coaching certifications through the program, which is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education, NCACE.
Topics covered in the coaching clinic included strategies for building character through sport, motivational and team-building tactics and best practices for developing positive relationships with parents. According to Coach Malin, the Play Like a Champion Today program allows coaches to fulfill the dream of every coach, which is to teach the skills of their sport and impart life-long values.
“Athletics is the perfect venue to teach, guide and motivate young men and women to embrace prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. With these cardinal virtues, not only will our children do well on athletic fields but they will do well in life,” said Kathy Reilly, East Catholic’s cross-county coach.
Student-athletes who are captains of East Catholic’s 52 sports teams kicked off the program with an evening seminar. It was part of a year-long athlete leadership program that encourages team captains to consider the important role they play in supporting the mission of East Catholic. The interactive workshop format provided captains with the opportunity to appreciate their leadership role as a ministry and to consider what kind of leaders they would like to become.
“It really put into perspective how similar ministry and sports [leadership] are to each other,” said Kristin Cancelliere, a senior who is captain of the girls softball team and a member of the girls indoor track and swim teams. “The program went beyond basic leadership concepts … and tied into what East Catholic emphasizes. It also related to what we learn religiously.”
Captains were introduced to the GROW approach to athlete motivation, which is based on a compilation of adolescent and sports psychology research. GROW is a formulaic acronym expressed as: Goals + Relationships + Ownership = Winning. It summarizes key elements of the Play Like a Champion Today program, which include maximizing athletic performance by setting appropriate goals, understanding the role that social relationships play in team success and instilling a sense of ownership and accountability in individual players and teams.
Assistant athletic director Michael Mooney said he hopes that the initial workshop and ongoing monthly meetings with team captains will help student-athletes become better leaders. Throughout the year, captains will get new tools, share ideas and perspectives and help each other lead as champions, he said.
“The program helped me fully understand what being an actual leader is all about,” said Mike Piskorz, a senior who is captain of the baseball team. “I definitely think East Catholic has given us an opportunity to learn how to act as a leader. You can apply being a leader not only to your sport but to life. Whether it be in the workplace or at home, there is more than just the game. It’s way more about life.”
Parents are also excited. At a workshop designed to complement coach and captain components of the program, parents received information about how they can help their children form such good habits as sound decision-making, good nutrition and regular exercise. In addition, parents learned how all members of the school community can work together to make the athletic program the positive, spiritual and character-building experience that it was meant to be.
Mary Mitchell, ’87, whose daughter is a freshman member of the cross-country team, was very impressed with the program.
“We received suggestions on how to support your kids in athletics and how to talk with them about sports,” she said. “It was a great refresher and good to know that the school is working hard to promote a program designed to make athletics a positive and life-enriching experience for all students.”
“You should learn a lot more from sports beyond winning and losing,” said Mrs. Mitchell, whose positive comments echoed those of fellow parents, coaches and students.
“East Catholic understands sports as a ministry, which provides athletes with opportunities to grow closer to God and become a person who lives as a disciple of Christ in the world,” said Mrs. Sheehan, who served as facilitator at all the workshops and presentations.
The school will continue Play Like a Champion Today in partnership with the University of Notre Dame next year.
“We plan to incorporate our peer ministry group into the leadership program and initiate retreat opportunities for both athletic and peer ministry groups,” said Coach Malin. “We are excited about where this program will lead us.”
“It’s great to get student-athletes, coaches and parents on the same page and promoting the mission and philosophy of East Catholic High School and our athletic department,” he said. “It’s a program we can all be proud of.”