Coaching Character: Training student-athletes at Southeast goes beyond on-field performance

Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Southeast Missouriís State Universityís Marquis Terry says a prayer with Mike Litzelfelner before the SEMO homecoming game against Tennessee Tech at Houck Field in Cape Girardeau in 2017. SEMO won 31-3. (Southeast Missourian file)

Sports teach us important lessons. Teamwork, competition and discipline -- all things employers look for in new hires.

Does this mean all college athletes make a good hire? No. But athletic director Brady Barke and his team at Southeast Missouri State University have put programs in place to give athletes the best chance to succeed, both during their college career and after they graduate.

Barke, now in his third year as Southeast athletic director, says earning a degree and attaining competitive success in their sport are two indicators of success.

"But beyond that, we have to be able to make sure that they're ready to go and are able to contribute to whatever the next chapter is in their life," Barke says.

Just like competitive sports, the latter part takes practice and mentorship. For this, the university implements a mentorship-based program called Students Owning Academic Responsibility (SOAR). In this program, incoming freshmen are paired with staff mentors to learn lessons such as time management. As they advance in school, the frequency in visits decreases, but the mentor is still available. It's about putting the student-athlete in a position to succeed academically.

Another mentorship program utilized by Southeast is the Redhawks' Building Responsible Individuals and Delivering Gainful Experiences (BRIDGE) program, an eight-semester curriculum that addresses soft skills. Some of the topics covered include social media, financial literacy, personal branding and resumé writing. They also host community leaders who talk about their area of expertise and alums who share what they wish they would have known as a young person.

Barke says the program does not cost the university a lot of money, especially when viewed in the perspective of helping to prepare many student-athletes for life after college, students who will not go on to play professional sports.

One of the community leaders who has spoken with students through the BRIDGE program is Jeff Brune with First State Community Bank. A former college quarterback at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Brune knows the challenges that come with being a student-athlete.

"Student athletes -- regardless of gender or sport -- it's a fraternity or sorority with former student-athletes," Brune says. "Once I mention that I'm a former student-athlete at the very beginning, you immediately get their attention because they know you've been through it."

Brune, along with other former student-athletes at the bank, participate in the training. In the fall semester they work with college sophomores, and in the spring they focus on working with college seniors. Brune says the latter group, especially, is important because they are nearing graduation.

One of the ways they teach is through a game: student-athletes are given a mock paycheck. With this, they have to allocate resources to cover a monthly budget.

They also have conversations about unexpected scenarios like losing a job. Brune says one point of emphasis is that the soon-to-be college graduates shouldn't be dead-set on one particular profession just because they majored in it.

"It's been a really good program," Brune says. "We get a lot of good feedback of student-athletes saying, 'That was really eye-opening.'"

Coaching character

There are numerous business and personal-development speakers who talk about creating a good culture. A winning culture. And it's more than free snacks and Ping-Pong.

Part of culture is character. For the Redhawks football and basketball teams, this includes having a character coach available to students.

After a number of years without a large footprint on campus, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) now has a growing presence at Southeast Missouri State University.

In 2014, conversations began with FCA area director Mike "Litz" Litzelfelner about having a more formal relationship with the football team. That led to Litzelfelner and former Southeast football player Nick Grassi coming on board to serve as team chaplains. Both men can be found on the sidelines at games and provide value beyond the gridiron.

"I think if you were to ask Coach Tuke, he's one of those people who talks about culture is everything, and until you get the culture right within your program, really nothing else matters," Barke says.

For the football players looking to grow in their faith, Litzelfelner and Grassi are a resource. But those not seeking the faith-based support can also find value in the friendship.

Men's basketball coach Rick Ray reached out in Fall 2018 about a similar partnership. Litzelfelner was able to connect the coach with Justin Pobst, a local pastor, business instructor at Southeast and general manager of KHIS Radio, the local Contemporary Christian Music station.

Barke says the character coach/chaplain plays an important role for some athletes when they hit a rough patch in life, such as an injury.

And the mentorship extends beyond the students: many of the Redhawks coaches, too, set an example by gathering regularly so the FCA director can lead them spiritually. Barke adds the voluntary gathering also has an unintended benefit of growing the coaches professionally, strengthening the coaching bond across sports. Barke meets regularly with his own pastor, the Rev. John Dehne, at St. Andrew Lutheran Church.

"It's having someone you know who cares about you and you can spend some time and fellowship [with]," Barke says. "As a society, we probably don't do it as much as we should."

Student-led Bible studies are held at City Church on Broadway near the main campus, Barke says. Some nights, that means 60 to 80 people are in attendance, providing a different perspective for students while also allowing them to share commonalities. It's yet another form of coaching: students coaching students.

Coaching is taking place, and not all of it happens on the field. Whether they are learning about discipline from a football coach, financial literacy from a banker, or diving deeper into their faith with the help of FCA, these student-athletes are being set up to succeed both now and when their work becomes something other than sports.