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.