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Member Spotlight: St. Louis Park High School Provides Unique Leadership Training for Student Athletes

by Sara Thompson   |    

There is culture change taking place in St. Louis Park High School Athletics thanks to a new initiative focused on equipping student-athletes with leadership skills. After receiving a cold call from St. Louis Park resident Kevin King, Athletic Director Andy Ewald saw an opportunity to create a unique leadership opportunity for captains of St. Louis Park High School’s athletic programs.

St. Louis Park High School students meet with Athletic Director Andy Ewald, Leadership Consultant Kevin King, and Coach Breitenbucher to discuss the first year of the Captain’s Leadership Training.

King is the president of Premier Team Building Solutions, LLC – an agency that trains corporate executives, athletes, coaches, leaders and athletic teams in the areas of leadership, workplace and team culture, media and social media. Prior to starting the company, King spent more than 13 years on the faculty of various colleges and universities.

“When I moved to St. Louis Park, I reached out to Andy to gauge his interest to see if leadership training was being done in St. Louis Park Schools,” shared King.

What King and Ewald developed together is right now being called “Captains Leadership Training.” Each season, Ewald and King meet once a week for eight weeks before school with the captains of every varsity athletic team.

Captains are challenged with questions that start deeper conversations such as “What are your core values?”, “How experienced are you with managing conflict?”, “Why do you want to be a captain or leader?”, “What is the culture of your team like?”, and “What is your vision for your team?” They stress to the students that leadership is not about them – it’s about creating an environment so that others can succeed. The captains spend time talking about the principles of good leadership and developing vocabulary so that they can articulate what good leadership is and looks like.

Ewald says that there has been 100 percent buy-in from not only the student-athletes, but from coaches as well. “Coaches have had unanimous support for this and are already seeing instant impact,” Ewald said. “There’s a language that is being spoken now. The culture of their team has changed and captains are talking and interacting with their teammates in a more purposeful way.”

“The students are engaged, they ask questions, and I’ve been happy to see them apply it,” King said. “I’ve also had complete support from coaches. They have given me access to their practices, games and postgame talks. They have not restricted me in any way as far as me interacting with their programs and that’s been exciting and rewarding.”

Dave Breitenbucher coaches girls tennis in the fall, boys basketball in the winter, and boys tennis in the spring at the High School. He says he has seen a number of positive changes on his teams.

Leadership Consultant Kevin King meets with student athlete captains.

“At first I wondered what the training was going to look like and if there was going to be conflict with what King was teaching and with what I was teaching, but it’s just been great,” Breitenbucher said. “I’ve seen a real willingness from my captains to go to the next level with leadership that I haven’t seen before. During the basketball season I saw a willingness of the captains to step in and help the coaches when there were issues. Something has definitely changed here.”

The conversations around leadership have also caused St. Louis Park coaches to rethink how they select captains for their teams. Ewald said that several years ago he attended a workshop where it was stated that 85 percent of athletic team captains are selected for the wrong reasons, including popularity, seniority and skill in a specific sport. “We want our head coaches to be more intentional and more purposeful and take more time with how we’re selecting these leaders (captains) for our programs,” Ewald said.

Class of 2018 Seniors Maddie Lund and Jonny Sorenson were both multi-sport athletes and captains. Lund played tennis and lacrosse, while Sorenson was quarterback of the football team that made the school’s first state tournament appearance last fall, and also played hockey and baseball.

“I think he (King) connects with us because he’s a down to earth guy and he really wants us to improve, not only as captains of our athletic teams, but using these qualities in life and becoming better people,” Sorenson said.

The initiative’s value extends beyond athletics; it also falls in line with key parts of the district’s mission which strives to “prepare all students to contribute to society; offer high quality opportunities for lifelong learning; provide multiple pathways to excellence; and challenge all learners to meet high standards.”

“We’re learning really basic life skills such as listening, communication, patience, and opening yourself up and finding vulnerabilities,” Lund said. “Whether it’s with starting a family, building a career, or continuing with athletics later in life, all of these skills we are learning are really important with anything you do.”

High School Principal Scott Meyers commends Ewald for starting this initiative.

“Athletic directors like Andy already have a full plate to ensure that our athletic programs run smoothly,” Meyers said. “I really applaud him for finding the time

and resources to undertake an initiative like this that positively impacts our athletic teams and gives students an opportunity to learn critical life skills.”

“It’s easy to say I want to see all of our programs win state championships. The competitive aspect is part of it, but I think what’s more important is our student athletes are developing as young men and women,” Ewald said.

“I think a lot of schools would like to do something like this, but just haven’t been able to figure out the logistics of it,” King said. “What we are doing here shows that it can be done, that it is being done, and that St. Louis Park is really on the cutting edge of forward thinking as it relates to leadership.”

Sara Thompson is the director of communications and community relations, St. Louis Park Public Schools.