A good athlete usually reserves a peak performance for when it really counts. It might come as a surprise, then, that 32 of Calvin College’s top athletes hit highs — spiritually, emotionally, socially and physically — before ever taking to the court, field or track.
Participating in the Leaders’ Retreat at Gainey Ranch, leaders from each of Calvin’s 17 sports teams were invited to spend a week in August — before any sports practices began — on a ranch near Glen, Mont., discussing what it means to be a leader when you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.
The new program, which was designed by Aaron Winkle, Calvin’s new coordinator of Christian formation for athletics/team development, assumed three goals for the participants: spiritual development, leadership development and community development. The week-long event was graciously hosted by Calvin supporters Harvey and Annie Gainey.
“We expect student athletes to be leaders, but we don’t always equip them for what they’re asked to do,” said Winkle, a former basketball standout at Calvin. “They kind of fall into a leadership position because they’re the oldest and they’re good.”
The purpose of this program is to intentionally provide student athletes with leadership skills so that they can positively influence their teams and even the entire Calvin community, said Winkle.
“We started off by stressing to them that they would walk away from this retreat and never be the same, that their team would never be the same and that even Calvin College could grow and change if they took the call to leadership seriously,” he said.
One participant, Kristen Kalb, a sophomore volleyball/softball player from Stow, Ohio, feels changed by the experience. “Before the retreat, when I was talking to the leaders about what the retreat would be like, they said it was their goal that we could affect the whole Calvin campus,” she said. “I thought it was a good goal that could never happen.
“Since we’ve come back, though, I have begun to see that truly we can make a difference,” she said. “I think we already are. It’s good to be the kind of person that people want to follow because we’re following Christ.”
The week began with the attendees looking inward, focusing on their own gifts and how they could be applied to leadership.
“There’s not one ‘thing’ that makes a great leader,” said Winkle. “We took a look at the 12 disciples and discovered how different they all were, but how together they changed the world.”
During the second half of the week, the focus widened to include others, and the participants learned about leading their teams.
“We divided them into groups of eight, and they had to work on developing fundamentals such as trust, communication, commitment, accountability and goal setting,” said Winkle.
The athletes participated in a number of exercises — both mental and physical — to heighten their awareness of these skills. For example, each team of eight was asked to put up a tent while blindfolded, requiring an extraordinary amount of communication.
The students were also challenged to consider hypothetical scenarios — such as a teammate’s using alcohol or practicing academic dishonesty — and to develop ways to hold that person accountable.
“This went way beyond just showing up at practice and game time and giving your best effort,” said Winkle.
“I grew spiritually, socially and in my leadership skills,” said Kalb. “To be in that gorgeous place with the presence of God everywhere and with 31 of the most high quality people I’ve ever met in my life and then to have group leaders who are so passionate about this program, who really believe in us, was amazing. I am trying to exemplify to my team every day what I learned.”
A side benefit of the program is the community that developed between the different team leaders, said Winkle.
“Once they realized they were all in the same boat in terms of time commitments, balancing their schedule, confronting teammates, they developed a real sense of camaraderie. I’ve already seen cross country runners cheering at volleyball matches, and at a recent soccer game, the fence was lined with students from the leadership retreat,” he said.
Taking what they learned from the beautiful mountains of Montana and applying it at Calvin is the true test, said Winkle. “They were warned that this is going to be hard,” he said. “There are going to be some excruciating decisions and sleepless nights, but if they do this well, if they live it themselves, the kingdom will grow, and Calvin will be a better place.”
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