2019 Conference Brings Leaders Together to Inspire & Educate
On Friday, June 21st, people from 26 states and 3 countries gathered for two days of education, inspiration, and kinship at the 14th annual Play Like a Champion Today Sports Leadership Conference hosted at the University of Notre Dame. The theme of this year’s conference, “A Team for Every Child”, permeated every talk and discussion as over 150 coaches, athletics directors, educators, community leaders, and CYO representatives reflected on how to unite as a caring community for the benefit of all children. This was an opportunity for sports organizations across the country to refuel and retool. Representation from organizations reaching out to under-served communities meant the message of the conference expanded to include adults as well. As one attendee remarked, “I feel like I took something from every speaker. I have pages of notes that I took, and I look forward to reflecting on them and using the knowledge gained to help the Veterans and their families that I work with.”
Attendees were not just recipients of insights and ideas. As they confronted the challenges facing youth sports together, they actively contributed to new solutions for moving the needle on positive and inclusive sports culture. Founder and Executive Director of the Play Like a Champion Educational Series, Dr. Clark Power, opened Friday’s events with an assertion that we are indeed “stronger together.” The engagement and commitment demonstrated by everyone involved in the conference provided proof of this conviction. Attendees left the conference ready to get to work.
For many attendees, preparing for a new season of youth sports began with the Pre-Conference Retreat, Sports: A Vehicle for Transformation on Thursday, June 20th. This retreat offered a space for renewal and reflection driven by stories of the transformative power of sport. Charles Merrick, Andrea McCabe, Ed Hastings, Anne Stricherz, and the Play Like a Champion staff shared exercises and generated discussions that helped retreatants deepen their awareness of the impact of sport on their lives and the lives of the athletes they serve. That evening at dinner, Play Like a Champion’s Manager of Outreach and Operation Support Peter Piscitello initiated the Conference’s first ever sports trivia competition. The dining room full of coaches, athletic directors, and community leaders did not disappoint. The wealth of competitive energy and sports knowledge culminated in an animated sharing that was a fantastic complement to the quiet and thoughtful reflection of the day’s retreat.
The following day, the conference began in full force. With a welcome message that got all attendees out of their seats and ready to PLAY, Program Director Kristin Sheehan, encouraged everyone in the auditorium of Jordan Hall to connect with the “Why?” of their work. The enthusiasm for articulating and acting on the shared mission of “A Team for Every Child” prepared the group for the powerful Keynote Address delivered by Jamyle Cannon, founder of The Bloc boxing program.
Jamyle’s account of the boxing program he started in his classroom was both instructive and inspirational. As a teacher and coach, he encounters many students who have “perfectly good reasons to quit.” At The Bloc, he said, “we teach them to fight.” For Jamyle personally, there were tremendous obstacles to becoming a National Collegiate Boxing Champion, but he overcame them all thanks to caring coaches and a profound sense of ownership. Raising awareness about protecting kids from all forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse, he called attention to the goal that supersedes all others: the safety of children. He encouraged coaches and administrators alike to break down the “invisible barriers” that keep kids off of teams, telling the crowd in the auditorium to “grant restoration” to kids who might have made mistakes and remind every kid that “they are more than their last mistake.”
There was no shortage of insight or inspiration on Friday as Jamyle’s address was followed by the reflections of two-time Olympian, Molly Sliney. In a presentation titled “My Story,” Molly offered vivid descriptions of her Olympic experiences, allowing attendees to visualize the glory of competing on the world stage. As a distinguished fencer, she is no stranger to success. However, the crux of that success was not in setting the big goals but “looking at the steps to get [her] there.” After a lively lunch with participants joining discussion groups named after sport mascots, attendees were treated to sessions ranging from “Coaching for Christ” with seasoned coach Bruce Scifres (author of A Real Man) to “Yoga for Student-Athletes” with Ironman triathlete and cross country & track coach Joanna Cote Thurman.
Kristin Sheehan shared a presentation packed with tools coaches could take directly to their practices and games to fortify “Mental Toughness and Resiliency” among their athletes. A similar theme was taken up by Associate Professor LaTonya Pinkard in her session on “Mental Fortitude for Athletes in Education,” however, her emphasis was on the need for coaches to support student-athletes’ pursuits off the court and in the classroom. Sports therapist Bill Matthews’ session on “Mindful Self-Compassion Skills” strengthened the attendees toolkits even further by providing techniques for helping young people practice gratitude to confront the increasing anxiety and distress they face today. These sessions reminded attendees that sport has the power to improve aspects of a youth’s life beyond athletic performance; however, this power for positive change is not automatic, coaches must be intentional to change lives for the better.
This message merged well with the Afternoon Keynote in which high performance coach Dana Cavalea shared lessons on being intentional about developing “Habits of a Champion” which stems from his book of the same title. Informed by his own work with highly talented professional athletes, Dana encouraged coaches to “breath confidence” into their athletes to help them reach their highest potential. He passed on powerful ideas about how the mission, vision, and goals of the team and the individual can work in tandem so that collaboration and communication produce success for all. The final speakers before dinner, Javier Chavez and Alegria Castro of Homeboy Industries, shared “A Kinship Story” that illustrated how missed opportunities to support and show love to youth can interrupt and inhibit the youth’s potential with dire consequences for the child and the community. Javier’s story of slowly cultivating compassion for himself after decades of “street life” was an inspiring testimony that opened up a new understanding of what “A Team for Every Child” entails.
In addition to our speakers, Play Like a Champion staff also facilitated Roundtable Discussions to tap the wealth of wisdom in the room. Panelists and attendees alike energetically posited ideas for expanding their youth programs and “defending the human values that are inherent in sports practice” according to the Play Like a Champion’s "Action Plan" for effective sport programming. That afternoon also saw the launching of training sessions for the Play Like a Champion high school and youth sport trainers. These trainers will go back to their communities equipped with developmentally sound and research-based methods for coaching young people in sport and in life.
The day concluded with a dinner in the Downes Club inside famed Notre Dame football stadium followed by a moving Evening Keynote titled “The Adversity Playbook” by former NFL player Devon Still. Every conference attendee received Devon’s powerful book Still in the Game as a special gift, but that gift was enriched when Devon shared some of his experiences in person. He delivered an inspirational charge to face life’s challenges with your “game face” and shared the story of accompanying his 4-year-old daughter through a battle with cancer. When he reached the end of his speech, everyone was on their feet giving Devon a prolonged standing ovation. It was an unforgettable moment!
Riding the wave of emotion and energy created by the motivational speech, Play Like a Champion Educational Series presented its annual awards to honor and celebrate transformative achievements in youth sport. For the first time in the history of the awards, Play Like a Champion was blessed to have the namesake of the award or their spouse present at the banquet. Nan Tulchinsky, who has served the South Bend community for over 30 years as a child advocate, coach, educator, and athletic director, presented the award that carries her name to Andrea McCabe of Bishop Tonnos High School in Hamilton, ON; Anne Stricherz of St. Francis High School of Mountain View, CA; and Charles Merrick of DRW High School in Chicago, IL. All three of these coaches were on the planning team for this year’s retreat and each of them arriving from a different area of the country are transformational in their coaching of high school athletes.
Jackie Mack was in attendance to present the award that bears her husband’s name. The “Jack Mack Champions for Children Award” was presented to Play Like a Champion youth partners and their leaders who have instituted parent workshops in their communities: Marty Raines, Rich Hoyt, Mark Veit and Mark Strawbridge and their respective dioceses of Columbus, Covington and Jefferson City and the Archdiocese of Denver. The final award, Rich O’Leary honor, was presented by Linda O’Leary to Friday's Keynote Speaker Jamyle Cannon. Cannon is the founder and director of The Bloc, which uses the discipline of boxing to support the academic and social development of teens on Chicago’s West Side. The Bloc brings purpose and hope, while encouraging participants to successfully break the cycle of poverty and reduce violence in the community. The evening concluded with several attendees engaging Devon Still in conversation while a large group met up on the football field for a tour of Notre Dame Stadium and a chance to take photos with the Iconic Play Like a Champion Today sign.
Saturday shaped up to be another day of informative and inspirational sessions, beginning with an opening charge led by Play Like a Champion’s own Director of Operations, Jim Power. Next up, Dr. Paul Roetert of the NCAA Sports Science Institute offered the Keynote Address for the morning, educating attendees about the emerging concept “physical literacy” and affirming the beneficial value of multi-sport participation for young athletes. Paul completed his presentation with 7 concrete tips for coaches to help young athletes remain healthy, competitive, and committed to physical activity for life. ND Football Defensive Coordinator, Clark Lea, took this idea further by calling attention to the impact of sport participation beyond the experience of organized team competition. Clark said that coaches should demonstrate awareness of what they model for their athletes and he encouraged coaches to be more mindful of their roles as “professors of competitive responses” who have the ability to create “sacred environments” no matter how fancy their locker rooms or gyms. His brief statement opened the Collegiate Coach Panel facilitated by former Notre Dame Swim Coach Tim Welsh. Panelists Kevin Corrigan of ND Lacrosse, Alison Silverio of ND Tennis and Delayna Herndon of ND Cheerleading enriched the conversation further with insights from their respective sport.
After lunch, the crowd welcomed Anthony Ianni to the auditorium. As a target of bullies throughout his childhood and adolescence, Anthony dealt with numerous affronts to his dignity that could have been debilitating. With the help of his family, he surpassed the obstacles in his life and became the first known athlete on the autism spectrum to play Big 10 basketball. These experiences inspired him to use his platform as former college athlete to spread a message of change and to promote anti-bullying across the country. Anthony reminded the attendees in his session that, as coaches and educators, it is “our job” to help young people become change makers in the face of challenges. The afternoon sessions captured this same sentiment.
Time and again attendees were reminded of how their professional development and commitment to strengthening their craft as coaches, educators, and administrators create a ripple effect in their organizations. Frank Allocco, Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Relations for the University of San Francisco, provided perspective on this reality through his reflection on “Real Lessons Learned from Sport.” Frank’s accomplishments as a collegiate athlete and then as a nationally celebrated coach testify to those lessons gleaned from legendary coaches Ara Parseghian and Digger Phelps. His moving talk resonated deeply with the audience and the listeners honored him with a standing ovation.
As the group moved through the day, one high school athletic director from Joliet, Illinois remarked, “This conference was one of the best I’ve been to. The round table session we had on Saturday was the most powerful session I’ve ever attended at any conference! It never ceases to amaze me to see all the people around the country who are trying to change the world, and the Play Like a Champion Today movement is definitely one of them.” The diversity of the crowd was particularly meaningful for a community leader from Chicago, Illinois who said, “What makes this conference so special is the diversity [and] meeting people not just from my community, but from all over the world. You’re meeting people that you’d never meet in your daily life. PLACES gives people the space to talk about the difficulties and challenges that everyone faces as coaches, no matter where they’re implementing their program.”
As mentioned above, the afternoon roundtable discussions permitted deeper reflection that drove home concepts of kinship, inclusion, and community support with a special emphasis on the “kinship model” pioneered by Fr. Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries. The final sessions by Kristin Sheehan (Parent Like a Champion), author and professor Ron Sandison (Autism and Motivation), and Dr. Carrie Hastings (Trauma Sensitive & Responsive Coaching) contributed to a comprehensive tour of what safe and supportive youth sports culture requires.
Though day two of consecutive sessions could be fatiguing, the attendees’ energy did not fail. The engagement in the concluding events of the day proved that.
Attendees made their way to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for Mass and then met up at the Notre Dame’s Monogram Club for a beautiful banquet. Once everyone was gathered together, the dinner quickly changed from a formal send-off to a family meal, complete with birthday songs.
The second annual Play Like a Champion Olympics ended the night with fun and relationship building as attendees worked up a sweat to beat each other in a series of lawn games. Everyone had a chance to engage in the “play” that is central to our shared work. With an abundance of team cheers, chants, and handshakes, it was clear that those who arrived strangers, left in the spirit of kinship ready to strive together for “A Team for Every Child.”
Save the Date! We want you to join us for our 15th anniversary conference next year: June 26-27, 2020. We can’t wait to join together again for education, inspiration but most of all to continue building kinship as part of Play Like a Champion's national movement.