Get on Your Feet for Our Great Games

January 27, 2017

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

Somewhere along the winding road in the long history of interscholastic athletics, gradual change has brought our product to a crossroads.

We, in this business of developing the minds, character and bodies of student-athletes, still understand the far-reaching benefits of school-based sports, and the mission of our programs. We understand their importance to community, the incomparable entertainment value for spectators, the bonds built between teacher and student that an hour a day in the classroom usually can’t match, and the memories and lessons that last a lifetime.

Somewhere along the way, however, some of the allure seems to have faded in the eyes and minds of others.

• Perhaps it’s the many options available to today’s young people, both in and out of athletics. Where once school sports and a letter jacket were THE thing, now it’s just another thing, with travel programs, virtual reality games, nonstop cable sports coverage and social media competing to fill free time.

• Maybe it’s parents, chasing the misguided dream of athletic scholarships for their children and in the process doting on the promises of untrained coaches intent on building their pocket books and reputations over building fundamentals and teamwork in kids.

• It could be that sensational stories from professional and collegiate levels warning of long-range effects of concussions and other sports injuries are causing fear in many parents who are making athletic participation decisions for their children.

• It’s possible that those once relied upon to spread the good word of our good work – our friends in the media – are far fewer. Administrators and coaches alike were once on a first-name basis with sportswriters in every community across Michigan. When a feel-good story took place, we knew whom to call to trumpet the news, and when the big game took place, they were sure to be there. The collapse and contraction of newspapers and the rise of faceless bloggers has delivered a blow.

• And, what of respect for authority? We are losing the keepers of our games – the contest officials – in bunches each year. People see the assaults, both verbal and physical, on these special men and women who give far more of their time than they are compensated for and figure it can’t be worth it to become an official, or to continue.

Ultimately, how we got here no longer matters. It’s what we do next. The focus for the 2016-17 school year is to define and defend educational athletics. We know that educational athletics is the best option. We are certain specialization is becoming a real health and safety issue, as real as concussions. We emphasize safety and risk management through our rules and regulations. We will utilize current media to tell our story. In doing so, maybe we can increase our pool of officials as well.

The following reveals the plan.

Teaching the Teachers

The 2016-17 school year is featuring a multi-faceted plan to Define and Defend Educational Athletics across Michigan, and one of the most critical strides aims at insuring that all varsity coaches – the educators of our programs – receive the proper instruction to pass along the mission of school-based sports to all involved, from students to parents to administrators.

For the first time each first-time varsity head coach of an MHSAA tournament sport needs to have completed Level 1 or 2 of the MHSAA’s comprehensive Coaches Advancement Program, the acclaimed continuing education program for school coaches.

Arming those most closely involved with student-athletes with proper perspective will go a long way in securing the future of interscholastic athletics.

“The role of a secondary school coach is so much more complex than it first appears, and it reaches beyond the responsibility of teaching skills to athletes,” said MHSAA assistant director Kathy Vruggink Westdorp, who oversees the CAP program. “The coach is first and foremost a teacher – that educational leader in an athletic setting – and it is often this coach’s responsibility to reinforce the connection between sports and academics. This defines the MHSAA brand of athletics.”

The connection between sports and academics cannot be overstated, and those sharing the hallways on a daily basis observe positive effects when students see that coaches show concern for their well-being beyond the playing surfaces.

Dan Hutcheson is in his first year as an assistant director at the MHSAA following a decade as athletic director at Howell High School. Prior to that, he served as the Highlanders’ wrestling coach. He knows first-hand the importance of the coach-student relationship.

“As a coach who’s in the building on staff, I know that I’m going to be in contact with my kids every day in class or in the hallways,” Hutcheson said. “When kids see that you care about them beyond the classrooms and fields or gyms, it can equate to improved academics. That is something other sports organizations don’t have.”

During the last three years alone, more than 1,800 individuals each year have attended CAP courses ranging from Levels 1-8, receiving instruction on topics such as “The Coach as Teacher,” to “Psychology of Coaching,” to “Effectively Working with Parents.”  These are just three of the 18 courses making a difference in coaches statewide, and those attendance numbers will rise with this year’s requirement.

While some might see the word “requirement” as an added helping onto the already full plates of those who dedicate so much free time, such regulations add value and help define school programs.

“I believe we have a better sense of the bigger picture.  Sure, our coaches want to win. But compared to travel sports, it is more educationally sound,” said Tim Ritsema, athletic director at Zeeland East High School, who serves as one of the MHSAA’s CAP instructors. “For those coaches who complete CAP, it gives their profession more credibility – it tells athletes, parents and the community that they take this seriously and want to be knowledgeable in the best practices. In travel ball, there are no regulations on coaches, it costs a lot more, and there can be selfish agendas. Our coaches are ‘All In.’ They recognize the long-lasting impact that they have on our student-athletes.”

Fellow CAP instructor Mike Garvey, athletic director at Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep, sees the same enthusiasm during his experiences in front of the diverse groups of coaches.

“I see buy-in. Coaches of all ages, with a tremendous range of experience, have shared that they learned, that they have gained insight into the profession,” Garvey said. “I had a coach contact me about a couple of theories presented and indicated that it helped her team in two categories: they had more fun and they performed better. It also drew praise for her from the parents.”

Proven results from the methods employed are a big factor in gaining repeat attendees and spreading the word to coaches who have yet to attend CAP. Nothing increases credibility like positive results and peer recommendation.

A couple other factors contribute to the success, including willingness to participate and the widespread availability of courses throughout the state.

“The best sessions are when the majority of the coaching staff is actively participating, and it doesn't always need to be positive; that seems to add to the program,” notes CAP instructor Karen Leinaar, athletic director at Bear Lake HS. “Sometimes this is the first time all the coaches have actively talked about their philosophy, and sharing just makes it more ‘real.’ Hearing from others that they are doing it right is a big affirmation. Making the program available within a reasonable distance also assists in participation.”

CAP also plays a pivotal role in indoctrinating those outside the school setting to the purpose of school-based sports. Non-faculty coaches might have different roots than faculty coaches, but receive the same messages to take with them.

“There really is not a big difference between faculty and non-faculty coaches in the appreciation for coaches education,” Westdorp said. “We have seen 40-year veterans and first-year protégés indicate similar impact regarding the message of educational athletics.

“However, the non-faculty coaches are definitely better linked to their school and the culture of their school after taking CAP. Each module contains the Ten Basic Beliefs of Michigan Interscholastic Athletics. The very first module in CAP 1 is entitled ‘Coaches Make the Difference,’ and works toward the development of a coaching philosophy, core beliefs, understanding your personal reasons for coaching, promoting high expectations and creating team culture. It includes exercises in making difficult decisions, why there are rules and creating team culture.”

Some of the residual effect might be that today’s coaches will become tomorrow’s administrators, a movement which some sense has stalled in recent years.

The National Federation of State High School Associations recently enlisted global communications marketing firm, Edelman, to assist in rolling out a national campaign this fall to elevate awareness of the NFHS and educational athletics.

“In many cases, we need to re-educate our own people,” NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner said. “We don’t see coaches moving to principal and athletic director jobs much as we once did.”

In Michigan, CAP is assisting in that way.

“We have several athletic administrators, principals and superintendents who recognize the value of their coaches within the building,” Westdorp said. “Many of these administrators have been in CAP sessions and are utilizing the materials. They want trained coaches who know how to deal with student-athletes in regards to safety, sportsmanship and skill development.”

Communication is key to CAP’s success, not only from instructors to the coaches in attendance, but in turn from coach back to other coaches, students, parents and administration moving forward. That’s how the mission of school sports persists.

“I stress that communication is one of the most important things coaches need to do,” Ritsema said. “Being a poor communicator allows for many things to go bad.”

Zeeland East and Bear Lake are classes apart in enrollment, but the rule of communication is universal.

“I am lucky being in a small school; we have very few questions to our rules,” Leinaar said. “I know others that have huge issues, but many have caused their own because they lacked the art of communication. Share with everyone. Make Grandma understand. You’ll not necessarily get 100 percent support, but at least there will be a shared understanding and expectation.”

Ultimately, the component of school sports which ranks above all else is the participants.

“We emphasize working with young people and teaching. Working with young people and leading,” Garvey said, “and keeping young people as the reason for the activity.”

Well-Rounded Task

The MHSAA organized a multi-sport participation task force during 2015-16 to identify the main sources of sports specialization and to generate methods to encourage greater participation in a variety of activities.

During the first meeting last April, Dr. Tony Moreno of Eastern Michigan University and Dr. Brooke Lemmen of the Michigan State University Sports Medicine Clinic each cited research which is inconclusive if specialization is the path to the elite level of sports, but is conclusive that specialization is the path to chronic, long-term negative effects.

The mission ahead for the task force is to change the culture in and around their schools.

“There’s a misconception that, ‘I have to only participate in that one sport to get to that next level,’” Hutcheson said. “But, when you hear college coaches talk, they want the kids who are athletes, who participated in more than one thing.

“I’d hear kids say, ‘I just want to lift weights out-of-season.’ Well, what do you do when you’re tired of lifting weights? You put them on the ground and rest. If you want to be a competitor, you need to compete. Playing another sport provides the opportunity to continue competing and growing as a competitor.”

While the committee discussed potential plans for such items as online resources, printed material and social media discussion to generate heightened awareness, those avenues have already been traveled to various lengths. In fact, the mission has changed little over the years.

“The most remarkable thing is that when I reviewed a couple of old videos we produced on the value of multi-sport participation about 10 years ago, our message really hasn't changed,” said MHSAA Communications Director John Johnson. “We now need to emphasize the injury factor – which is now so much more well-documented – and the fact that an increasing number of recognizable faces at higher levels are now endorsing the playing of multiple sports at youth levels.”

The trick is to develop the most effective delivery system and target those who most need exposure to the topic: coaches and parents.

“The task force sees educating parents as a priority, informing them of the dangers of early specialization in terms of burnout and injuries, as well as the financial burden families take on to advance their child towards a possible scholarship,” said long-time Traverse City Area Public Schools administrator and task force member Patti Tibaldi. “Parents need to understand that only one percent of high school athletes will receive athletic scholarships. Educational athletics should address the needs of the other 99 percent, don't you think?”

In many communities around Michigan, multi-sport athletes are not simply an added benefit; they are a must for programs to exist.

“I’m from a small school,” said Bronson athletic director and task force member Jean LaClair. “For our teams to be successful across the board, we need our student-athletes participating in multiple sports. We had a volleyball and softball team both make the state championship games, and seven kids were on both rosters! And, playing in a championship game, with the small-town support, is something you will never emulate in a club sport.”

It takes support from parents and coaches to build successful school sports programs, and administrators play a pivotal role in steering the ship.

“The biggest thing we discuss is the multi-sport athlete in our high school,” Ritsema said. “Luckily, our coaches are on the same page, and we deliver that message unified to our athletes and parents.”

Those involved with the task force understand the importance of the issues. It’s time for the choir to do the preaching, and project the chords beyond their buildings.

“Multi-sport participation within the school-based system teaches students the valuable lessons athletics should provide: how to work with different groups of people, the discipline of practice, how to respond from failure, how to understand and accept different roles within each sport, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each coach and teammate,” said Tibaldi. “School-based sports have a fundamental belief system that, while every sport has its individual differences, all sports need to comply with the philosophy of educational athletics adopted by the school district.”

As Johnson points out, the sooner that message reaches its target, the better.

“We need to literally reach the bottom of the food chain: elementary school kids who play sports, and their parents,” he said.

To that end, the MHSAA is focusing efforts in two ways during 2016-17: increased communication with its junior high/middle school membership, and the formation of regional strike teams.

Going Back to the Future

As the MHSAA moves forward with several initiatives this school year to help in defining and defending educational athletics, some staff members will be working their way backward – in age, that is.

Various findings in recent years through committees, task forces and personal experiences reveal that often times students are reaching secondary schools without positive prior experiences in school sports. That is about to change.

During the 2016-17 school year, the MHSAA is conducting two Junior High/Middle School Committee meetings rather than one, with an emphasis on the MHSAA more closely aligning itself with various JH/MS events through sponsorship efforts.

“The multi-sport task force has been a great discussion tool,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Cody Inglis, who oversees the JH/MS Committee. “You see that no matter the size of the school, everyone has the same problem; it’s become a true health and safety problem. Kids are specializing too soon and too often.”

One of the steps to help combat the trend is to reach children, parents and coaches before they hit the high school hallways.

“The task force recognizes that parents want to do what is best for their children,” Tibaldi said. “Our recommendations include finding ways for schools to offer earlier and better programming, stressing the development of overall physical skills versus the constant competition at an early age which is leading to an exodus from athletics by the age of 13.”

More than 700 junior high/middle schools across Michigan were members of the MHSAA in 2015-16. But just how many participants and parents – or even coaches at that level – are aware of the benefits afforded by that membership? The answer is likely a stark minority. It is the MHSAA’s charge to be more visible in the coming years.

“We’ll discuss becoming a presenting sponsor at some pre-existing league meets at the junior high/middle school level, whether it be track, basketball, cross country or any sport,” Inglis said. “We want to get into those existing leagues and conferences to have a presence.

“We could help financially, to offset the cost of officials and medals, for instance. And, we can brand those events from an educational athletic standpoint, versus the youth sport model which most kids that age have experienced. The goal is to give them a perspective they’ve yet to have in school-based sports. We want to make sure putting on a school uniform is a positive experience.”

Of course, biggest proponents of school sports are those who have dedicated hours, years and careers to the product. Those people, the ones the MHSAA leans on and appreciates the most, will be called upon again to deliver a huge assist at youth levels via forthcoming “Regional Strike Teams.”

“These local teams could be veteran or retired ADs in various areas who understand educational athletics and are familiar with junior high/middle schools in their communities,” Inglis said. “They can emphasize sportsmanship and multi-sport involvement so we can get in on the ground floor.”

The formation of these liaisons between the MHSAA and its youngest members will be discussed at length during the 2016-17 school year.

The junior high/middle school gyms and fields are not only stocked with future high school students, but they also offer a valuable forum for officials recruitment, training and retention, another critical piece to the welfare of school sports.

“With our Regional Strike Teams of people connected to schools and local officials associations, we can increase the connections made at the local, personal level to attract more people into officiating,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Mark Uyl, who oversees the MHSAA’s services to registered officials. “The members of the Strike Teams will know what events are going in an area of the state which could be conducive to officials recruitment events. The best way to recruit is at the local level between people with shared interests, and the Regional Strike folks can make these local connections.”

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.