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Developing athletes into leaders

June 16, 2008

Developing athletes into leaders

Jen Thomas ’98, ’99 wears many hats in the PLU athletic department. She’s the assistant athletic director, a senior woman administrator and assistant athletic trainer. She’s also the mentor for the Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). The council is one of several methods the athletics department is employing to develop student leadership and more effectively connect athletic programs to the university as a whole.

“We have some great leaders in our programs, but sometimes the only people they interact with are their own teammates,” said Laurie Turner, director of athletics. “Our goal is to provide leadership opportunities for athletes beyond their teams and contribute to the larger campus community.”

Developing leaders in athletics fits with the mission of the university, Turner added. “It’s why we do what we do. We believe that we can have an impact on these young men and women for a lifetime.”

Thomas is finishing her fourth year overseeing the SAAC. Her work supports the National Collegiate Athletic Association requirements that the committee be made up of student-athletes to provide insight on the student-athlete experience and offer input on the rules, regulations and polices that affect student-athletes on campus.

Thomas’ work is clearly paying off. At the outset, SAAC met once a month. Attendance – and effectiveness – was irregular as committee members sought to determine the council’s role on campus. Much has changed in the intervening years. Twice-monthly meetings are now well attended, with most of the sports sending multiple representatives.

The council has taken a strong leadership outside athletics as well, initiating programs that have improved the student-athletes’ connection to the university. For instance, SAAC annually sponsors the Fall Kickoff that takes place the first week of classes. It gives all student-athletes the opportunity to meet the athletics staff, socialize with athletes from other sports, eat pizza and pick up an athletics T-shirt.

Another strategy is the creation of an ASPLU Senate seat for student-athletes. The senator will be a strong advocate for athletics within student government while also building stronger connections between athletics and the general student population.

The athletics department regularly sends representatives to NCAA-sponsored leadership conferences. There, student-athletes from around the country gather for several days to learn leadership styles and deal with real-life issues in team settings.

Carl Field, SAAC football representative, attended the 2007 Student-Athlete Leadership Conference and came back with the “buddy team” program. It pairs PLU athletic teams with others of similar size as a way of building support and interdependence among the teams.

For instance, volleyball and men’s tennis were paired during this past school year. Several members of the men’s tennis team were regulars at the volleyball matches, and a number of the volleyball players returned the favor during the spring tennis season.

“I think there’s been some success (with the program) that we can build upon,” Thomas said.

SAAC president Missy Waldron, a member of the softball team, will be the Northwest Conference SAAC vice president during the 2008-09 school year. She and men’s tennis representative James Odan will attend the NCAA Student-Athlete Development Conference this summer.

“The opportunities I’ve been given have helped me develop more as a leader,” Waldron said.

Next school year, Waldron added, the council will spearhead a campaign to increase faculty knowledge of, and interest in, PLU athletic programs.

“We want to connect more to faculty around campus,” she said, “and to get faculty more involved in supporting athletics.”