Creating Positive Change in Our Athletes

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An athletics program based on character

From the Winter 2011-12 Caller

By Sandy Luu, Catlin Gabel athletics director

Character development is my top priority as I guide Catlin Gabel’s coaches and student athletes—and I would like to see excellence in all athletic programs at Catlin Gabel. In my career I have seen many coaches who taught physical skills—but thought that the development of character would just naturally arise from being part of a team. To develop athletes of character, we need to intentionally teach the skills that will help them make choices based on beliefs and principles. Our job is to build habits in our athletes that will help them make tough choices, and to consistently follow through with them.
 
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be great athletes and win every game we play? Unfortunately, just like other areas in life, it’s not always easy, and we have to work at it. When athletes have to sit on the bench for the first time, they learn to be better teammates. When they have to battle injury for the first time, they learn to push themselves harder than they have before. The resiliency we learn through sports will last a lifetime. Take our boys varsity soccer team, for example. Last year they won the state championship and graduated 11 seniors off that team. This year they had a new coach, Roger Gantz ’89, and only three seniors. At the beginning of the season I watched these three seniors as they rallied their young teammates, learning what it takes to become leaders from Roger and from one another. They had tough losses, but they learned more about each other as they went through the semester. I was pleased by the growth that I saw as this team came together and learned to trust and rely on each other.
 
Our primary goal in athletic programs is to love and care about the kids we work with. I learned its importance personally, in my first experience with high school sports. After my father died when I was in 8th grade, one of the many changes in our lives was that I had to go to a new high school as a freshman, in our town near Sacramento, California. I had just grown five inches and turned from a confident athlete who was a leader on the court to a nervous, awkward new kid on the block. After the first volleyball practice, the coach cut me from the team, saying, “Sandy, unfortunately, you don’t have a future in volleyball.” He didn’t know about the difficult transitions I had gone through; he was only worried about having the best team out on the court. I learned that I had to be resilient and not feel sorry for myself. If I was going to make it happen, I had to work hard. I ended up playing junior and senior years on the varsity team (and also played basketball and softball) and received a scholarship to play at Concordia University. If I had listened to that first coach and stopped playing the sport I loved, my life would be very different today. I want to make sure we don’t have any kids who are made to feel the way I did. In one of the schools where I worked before Catlin Gabel, we had a sports team that was dysfunctional on and off the court. We made a difficult decision to replace the coach. I told the new coach that I hoped to see character growth as his number one priority. After losing the first three games, he came into my office, dispirited, slumping in his chair. I assured him that the team would improve as soon as he helped them learn to be better friends and teammates. Over the next two years, he helped them grow into one of the best teams that school had ever seen. He held them accountable for any negative behavior and taught them how to be good basketball players, but more importantly, to be athletes of character.
 
Coaches are the key to creating positive change in our athletes. This begins with modeling respect and responsibility. Coaches share their vision of what is right, teaching confidence, commitment, and the importance of fulfilling obligations. The daily lessons we teach about being ethical are as essential as the training we do in each sport. Developing these lessons such as honesty and responsibility will last much longer than any championships Catlin Gabel wins.
 
During my last year at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, the new head baseball coach’s team lost their first nine pre-season games. I told him that, even if it was difficult, to exude as much positive energy as he could muster. I asked him to remember that it’s great to win, but that winning is the icing on the cake—that character development was our goal. He went back and told his team that he believed in them, and he stayed optimistic. It paid off in the end: they went on a winning streak and ended up only one game away from making playoffs. The boys never gave up, and I was really proud of that. These athletes learned to overcome, rather than hanging their heads low and blaming the new coach, or each other. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but we want to teach our athletes about resiliency.
 
I am tremendously encouraged by what I have seen at Catlin Gabel during my first year here. I spent the first half of the year observing our teams and our coaches. I asked questions about character, and I have been impressed with the answers. The coaching staff has impressed me with their ability to relate with the athletes; it is clear that they truly care about our kids. The athletes here have a strong work ethic and show a tremendous amount of trust and care for each other.
 
I would love to see our students participating and contributing to our program all year long. It is important that we build a strong connection to younger students so that they feel more connected to our program.
 
To make Catlin Gabel athletics the best it can be, we need the best coaches guiding our athletes, great athletic facilities, and students willing to become athletes of character. One head coach said it best—we should strive to make Catlin Gabel athletics as amazing as our academic program. It’s wonderful at Catlin Gabel to see alumni coming back to campus to shoot around with their coaches, attend games, and spend time with current athletes. Our coaches understand how important it is to find the connection and build on it. I’ll definitely be part of continuing this tradition. I look forward, as the years go by, to hearing about our students’ successes—and their important challenges—as they go through their lives.
 
Sandy Luu has been athletic director at Catlin Gabel since August 2011. She played volleyball, basketball, and fast pitch softball during her years at Concordia University and earned a master’s in athletic administration from Ohio University. She taught and coached in China, Vietnam, and Taiwan for 13 years while she lived there with her family. In Taiwan, she served as athletic director for middle and high schools.