• Play Like a Champion

2018 Conference Promotes Collaboration, Champions for Life

Updated: Jun 29, 2018

A record crowd participated in the 13th edition of the Play Like a Champion Today Sports Leadership Conference, Champions for Life: Winning Together, held June 21-23rd on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. With attendees from 26 different states as well as Washington DC and Canada, this diverse group of coaches and administrators was treated to two days of expert presentations, inspiring speakers and challenging discussions.

Attendees found the conference both informative and fun. Said one youth Athletic Director from Louisiana, “What a wonderful time I had at the conference! It was the best conference I've ever been to and something I will never forget.”

A Pre-Conference Retreat kicked-off events on Thursday, June 21st as many attendees arrived early to spend the afternoon reflecting on their role as a coach and connecting with other participants. Led by Pastor Darrin Brown and his wife Deborah from the Lawndale Christian Community Church and North Lawndale Wolfpack Basketball program, this year's retreat focused on themes such as relationships, communication and resilience while providing ample time for quiet reflection and kinship.

The full conference began on Friday June 22nd. United by the common mission of providing quality, fun, safe and developmental sports opportunities for all children, the attendees joined speakers, staff and special guests around the theme. The conference opened with a Keynote by University of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who described sports as a "public good" and related the importance of character and values informing those involved in sport. Noting that youth sports are "not in good shape today", he challenged coaches and administrators at the youth and high school level to "reflect the values that we want youth sports to be clear that we are about education and that we are not in the business of sports entertainment." Lamenting specialization in youth sports, he advocated for multi-sports athletes. He thanked the audience for giving him hope for the future of youth sports, citing the power of sports to bring good to the culture and pointing to the focus of the conference and those in attendance to change sports for the better.

The afternoon featured popular plenary sessions by Kathleen Hessert on Generation Z and Dr. Joe Congeni on awareness and prevention of sports injuries. Breakout sessions by Anne Stricherz (Faith & Sports), Bill Matthews (Character Strengths) and Nick Creme (Officiating) offered vistas for youth and high school sports. During the afternoon, Play Like a Champion's faculty prepared the next wave of local Play Like a Champion trainers at both the youth and high school levels. These sessions took attendees through Play Like a Champion's core programming while preparing the leaders of future partner organizations to launch the program in their own communities.

A key feature of the annual conference is the interaction that takes place between coaches and administrators from so many diverse areas. This was apparent in the many conversations among attendees through the weekend, as well as scheduled panels and round-table discussions that took place on both Friday and Saturday. The first Friday roundtable began with a discussion of the impact of the current "pay to play" model of youth sport. Michael Poole, who led the session, invited panel members James McGoldrick (Los Angeles CYO), Darrin and Debra Brown, and Ray O’Connell (long-time Loyola-Chicago men’s soccer coach), and session participants to reflect on what their organizations were doing to serve the children in their communities. This was followed with a conversation on ways in which athletic participation can strengthen academic engagement, a session led by Adam Sargent of Notre Dame’s Department of Academic Services and Seabe Gavin of the South Bend School Corporation. The day’s concluded with a panel session, “Winning Together: A New Collaborative Model with Kinship at Heart,” led by Play Like a Champion’s Jim Power. Panelists Mike and Catherine Matthews and Jamyle Cannon, founding members of the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association (NLARA), reflected how the leaders Play Like a Champion, Old St. Patrick’s Church, and of sports organizations throughout North Lawndale practice kinship through the NLARA. Those interested can read more about that project here.

Saturday featured a panel on Crossing Boundaries led by Charles Merrick, head coach of the DRW College Prep Girls Basketball team. He was joined by panelists Seabe Gavin, Vince Guider of Old St. Patrick’s parish, and Dobie Moser of Cleveland’s CYO. The panel discussed practical ways in organizations working in diverse communities collaborate to enrich children’s lives.

Friday Banquet in the Beautiful Downes Club at Notre Dame Stadium

Events moved on Friday night to the new Downes Club at Notre Dame Stadium and featured motivational speaker Eric McElvenny. A Marine who was forced to have his lower leg amputated following an IED explosion, McElvenny encouraged the crowd to embrace their challenges. While admitting there were difficulties along the way, his story of completing 7 IRONMAN Triathlons revealed a strong faith and a deep commitment to overcome obstacles. The engaging and humorous McElvenny left the stage to a standing ovation from a deeply moved audience.

The banquet dinner also included the presentation of annual awards by the Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series. The Nan Tulchinsky award was given to two recipients in Carrie Hastings and Maggie McDonough. Tulchinsky, who was in attendance to present the awards, has served the South Bend Community as a teacher, coach, athletic director and volunteer mentor for over thirty years. The awards in her honor were given to a pair of women in Hastings and McDonough who have advanced the Play Like a Champion message in unique and meaningful ways. Hastings has been a Play Like a Champion Trainer and Research Specialist in the Los Angeles area for over 6 years (read her bio here). A valued member of the Play Like a Champion team, Hastings was honored for her commitment and contributions to the Play Like a Champion mission and organization. The other recipient McDonough is a rising senior in high school who was awarded for her commitment in forming a CHAMPS program at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA. McDonough was lauded as a talented student-athlete and a young woman of strong faith and character. In a surprise, McDonough's award was followed-up by one given to Mr. Carl Patton, Assistant Head of School and Director of Instruction for Bishop O'Connell. Patton, who was in attendance to support McDonough, received the award on behalf of his high school for their role as a blue-ribbon Play Like a Champion partner, a school committed to mission and educating students in mind, body and soul.

Mike Esposito Receives the Jack Mack Champion for Children Award on Friday Evening

The final award on Friday evening was given to Michael Esposito, who received the distinguished Jack Mack Champions for Children award. A longtime Chairperson of Play Like a Champion's National Advisory Board, Esposito was honored for his deep commitment to the mission of elevating the youth sport culture through his efforts with Play Like a Champion. His vision has helped shape the organization and provide guidance during a time of growth.

Following the dinner and awards, participants were treated to a tour of Notre Dame Stadium that included access to the field and the opportunity to hit the famed Play Like a Champion Today sign. A fitting end to an amazing first day.

Saturday at the conference provided much of the same in high-level education and interaction. Notre Dame Men's Basketball Head Coach Mike Brey provided the day's "Opening Charge." The always enthusiastic and insightful Brey relayed his own coaching philosophies and discussed important aspects of team-building such as giving confidence, developing leaders, and giving his team ownership. He discussed working with parents and kids alike to provide a fun environment that maximizes the student-athlete's potential. Brey called the opportunity to coach young men and women "unbelievable" and channeled his own mentor and coach Morgan Wootten when he encouraged coaches to "be the kind of coach you want your own son or daughter to play for."

Brey was followed on the main stage by Ron Sandison, who discussed the role of sports in his journey with autism, a smart and funny presentation that gave important insight into coaches working with autistic athletes. The morning session continued with Real Stories from the Field: Trauma Sensitive and Responsive Coaching. Featuring Dr. Carrie Hastings with Maren Rojas and Dr. Becky Clark, the presenters used real stories from their own experience to discuss the importance of trauma sensitive and responsive coaching. For many in attendance, the presentation was both moving and educational, as coaches and administrators alike realized the depth of trauma often found on teams and learned strategies for working with the children involved.

Breakout sessions on Saturday included the aforementioned Sandison (Autism, Athletics & Activities), Maren Rojas (Designing Competitive League Play to Foster Healing from Trauma), and Dr. Carrie Hastings, who led two separate sessions on advocating for female coaches (the #WeChampionFemaleCoaches round-table) and creating a safe sports environment. Play Like a Champion Program Director Kristin Sheehan also led two well-attended sessions. Her morning session on FLOW sought to define and nurture the ability of athletes to reach peak mental and physical performance in their sport, while her afternoon presentation of the Parent Like a Champion program took attendees through the popular Play Like a Champion curriculum that helps sports parents understand their role and develop strategies for maximizing the athletic experience for their young athlete.

Bishop Donald Hying closed the Saturday afternoon session with a tremendous presentation on What Sports Can Teach Us About Religious Practice. Citing the recent Vatican document on sports Giving the Best of Yourself and referring to the "massive global phenomenon of sports," Bishop Hying reminded attendees that "coaches and adult figures involved in sports probably have the most formative reach in the lives of our young people." He invited coaches and administrators to embrace this role and noted the importance of the Play Like a Champion program, saying, "the more we are formed intentionally to help our youth to grow in all aspects of their human personality and achieve their potential as children of God, that's what it's all about."

Many in attendance attended Mass at the beautiful on-campus Basilica of the Sacred Heart before re-convening for dinner at O'Brien's in the Compton Family Ice Arena. Dinner featured Play Like a Champion's final award of the weekend, as the Rich O'Leary Community Sports Award was given to Vince Guider. A Chicago resident, Guider leads Old St. Patrick Church's North Lawndale Kinship Initiative, which originally set in motion the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association project (NLARA) discussed throughout the weekend. An inspirational leader and mentor to youth throughout the Chicago area, Guider is a fitting recipient of an award who's namesake was known for his tireless generosity and kindness.

Members of the winning team celebrate after the 1st annual Play Like a Champion Olympics

The conference closed on Saturday night with some fun, as the first annual Play Like a Champion Olympics were held in the Compton Family Ice Arena. The events pitted groups of conference attendees against each other in games such as shuffleboard, Kan Jam, corn-hole and broomball (off-ice). A competitive and enthusiastic affair, tired participants clearly felt the activities were a fun way to end a great weekend.

Asked for their initial impressions of the weekend, several attendees were enthusiastic in their response. A high school cross-country coach from California struck a common cord, saying, "There were so many excellent speakers and valuable information and community shared. I only wish I had known about it years sooner.” A Chicago administrator is already planning for next year: "I am grateful for all that I learned and I look forward to continuing to attend every summer.” Several more responded similarly to an attendee from Detroit who said, "The conference was great, we have a lot of ideas & new insight we can bring back to our league."

Coaches and administrators will want to save the date, as next year's edition of the conference will be held on June 21-22, 2019. Registration will open in January 2019.

Visit for more information on this annual event.

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Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series

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