The Pow­er of an Ath­let­ic Depart­ment That Focus­es on Cul­ture, Rela­tion­ships & the Extra Mile

For­mer coach and ath­let­ic direc­tor Cory McCarthy shares how focus­ing on three main pri­or­i­ties made a huge impact on New Mis­sion High School — and how they can do the same for your school.

The Pow­er of an Ath­let­ic Depart­ment That Focus­es on Cul­ture, Rela­tion­ships & the Extra Mile

For­mer coach and ath­let­ic direc­tor Cory McCarthy shares how focus­ing on three main pri­or­i­ties made a huge impact on New Mis­sion High School — and how they can do the same for your school.

Bas­ket­ball trans­formed my school, New Mis­sion High School (Boston, Mass.). We were once an alter­na­tive edu­ca­tion school with low stu­dent growth. Our bas­ket­ball teams had jer­seys with num­bers made of tape. We had to take pub­lic trans­porta­tion to the games. Prac­tice was run­ning two miles to a train sta­tion and back. Hav­ing gym time was about as impos­si­ble as shav­ing while skydiving. 

But we had play­ers who believed this chance to play was their oppor­tu­ni­ty to sur­vive. I remem­ber sit­ting in the back of a bus from Somerville field­ing ques­tions like, Cory, you think I can make it? Can you tell us about col­lege? Why you still here man? We’re ter­ri­ble.” We weren’t talk­ing about bas­ket­ball, we were talk­ing about life.

Two years lat­er, that same team was in the state cham­pi­onship game with only six play­ers, one just eight post-op from her­nia surgery. Our small alter­na­tive edu­ca­tion school with the taped jer­seys won a state cham­pi­onship, and our entire school was there to wit­ness it. 

Two state championship teams in two years.

Anoth­er year lat­er, we had attract­ed even more stu­dents and clinched anoth­er state cham­pi­onship. And final­ly, when a school on the oth­er side of town closed, we got a gym of our own. 

Because of sports, we cement­ed our iden­ti­ty. Because of sports, I began to see more par­ents at games and meet­ings. Coach­es can eas­i­ly see the inher­ent val­ue of sports — our chal­lenge is to get kids to believe in them­selves, change their course and inspire others.

Through­out my years as a five-time state cham­pi­onship coach, I’ve learned there are three major com­po­nents in build­ing a pro­gram that will pro­vide stu­dent-ath­letes the best expe­ri­ence and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment possible.

Cul­ture

Not only do coach­es need to do what­ev­er it takes to help play­ers believe in their own val­ue to the team, they must also under­stand that it’s not always the game plan that wins the game — it’s the team’s iden­ti­ty and philosophy. 

Think of cul­ture as a loose ball. You got­ta dive for it. My focus is on mak­ing sure my play­ers han­dle the hon­or­able vari­ables of being an ath­lete, like time on task, engage­ment, ran­dom acts of kind­ness and, most impor­tant­ly, the two extras” that help you win in the class­room — extra cred­it and extra help. 

There are so many things coach­es can do to build a strong cul­ture. I spent my first pay­check as a bas­ket­ball coach on mak­ing 300 t-shirts with our team logo and mantra. I hand­ed those out to any­one who would lis­ten. Months lat­er, many of our fresh­men showed up to school with New Mis­sion t-shirts already on their backs. These kids had nev­er played for me, but they were already con­nect­ed to our team cul­ture. They were Titans. 

My focus is on making sure my players handle the honorable variables of being an athlete.

Rela­tion­ships

If you have no idea what your play­ers’ home sit­u­a­tions or back­grounds are, how can you expect to coach them? Play­er devel­op­ment is not exclu­sive to skills and drills anymore. 

It’s the con­ver­sa­tions that hap­pen after prac­tice. It’s the bus ride to or from games. It’s the impact a coach can have on a play­er in their most vul­ner­a­ble moments. You don’t even have to talk — it’s more impor­tant to listen. 

Rela­tion­ships help play­ers buy in. I always kept an iden­ti­ty chart of my play­ers so I could help them under­stand the val­ue of being their best self even when it was hard. Be the exam­ple — teach them how to show who they are by show­ing them who you are. 

The Extra Mile

Coach­ing is a job where when you win, some­one else gets the cred­it, and when you lose, It’s on you bruh.” It’s full of ups and downs. But when all else fails, trust in your players. 

As coach­es, we need to remind our­selves of the impact going the extra mile can have. It mat­ters if I dri­ve the 20 miles to take a play­er to a col­lege vis­it or show up to a par­ent meet­ing. It might be the dif­fer­ence between life or death if I don’t check up on a kid in the sum­mer to make sure drugs or vio­lence hasn’t swal­lowed them whole. 

How to Get Started

  1. Build rela­tion­ships with all of your players. 
  2. Have the NCAA qual­i­fy­ing con­ver­sa­tion with them in 9th grade, and use the guide­lines to help them in their academics.
  3. Cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that reflects suc­cess and fam­i­ly. Devel­op mantras, post quotes about your pro­gram phi­los­o­phy or cre­ate incen­tives — what­ev­er it takes to help them under­stand that who they are on the court is who they are off of it.
  4. Be inten­tion­al about your goals. Every step for­ward is a step clos­er to a championship.

Every­one seems to hate the phrase, Ball is life.” But from my expe­ri­ence, it is. 

Cory McCarthy spent more than a decade coach­ing bas­ket­ball. As Direc­tor of School Cul­ture and Cli­mate at New Mis­sion High School, he has helped lead the school to being named the 2012 EdVestors’ School on the Move, 2013 Nation­al Blue Rib­bon School for Improve­ment, and the 2017 Title One Dis­tin­guished School. McCarthy has rep­re­sent­ed Boston Pub­lic Schools at con­fer­ences such as ASUGSV Tech­nol­o­gy Sum­mit in San Diego and COSE­BOC in Boston, MA and New York, and has been a guest lec­tur­er at Emer­son Col­lege and UMASS Boston.