The world of sports offers a comprehensive blend of real-life experiences: wins, losses, injuries and more. This microcosm of life itself provides valuable lessons and opportunities for personal growth — especially for student-athletes.
Traci Rossi, Executive Director of Friends of the Children (FOTC) in Portland, and a Board Member with the Multnomah Athletic Foundation, aptly describes sports as “the best playground” where athletes learn not only about physical activity, but also about themselves and life’s trials and tribulations.
No matter if a student athlete excels on the field, slopes, court or track, a special connection, reflecting more than athletic achievement, develops between a young person and the adults who encourage and guide them.
Whether a student-athlete works with a coach — who may offer structured guidance and clear plans to improve performance and develop skills — a mentor — who offers friendly guidance based on their own experience — or both (and sometimes one person has both roles), coaches and mentors play a pivotal role in the lives of these athletes.
Beyond instructing a sport or a life skill, these influencers help build character, resilience and success — shaping young athletes into well-rounded individuals who contribute positively to their communities. This in turn leaves a lasting legacy of personal growth and inspiration.
Coaches and mentors offer a safe haven for students, “where failure can be viewed as a privilege, not a setback,” Rossi says. She explains that this safe space empowers youth to learn from their mistakes, eventually seeing stumbling blocks as opportunities for growth.
Jacqui Monahan, ski coach at Lakeridge High School, a former MAC ski coach, and a board member with the Multnomah Athletic Foundation says the whole student has to be considered when developing them as an athlete. “Just coaching for athletics doesn’t really work,” she explains.
“The athlete is not just: ‘What can they produce during the race?’ It’s important to understand everything going on in their life, and help lift them up across the board.” This includes understanding the entire spectrum of an athlete’s world as they navigate social pressure, academic stress and the ups and downs of life, she says.
Rossi calls the nature of mentor-student relationships, “profound.” She has certainly seen the impact with FOTC, which hires professional, paid mentors who are each paired with eight students for twelve-and-a-half years — from kindergarten until the student graduates high school. The long duration allows for consistency — and “consistency is key to making a positive impact,” she says.
In describing the incredible impact mentors and coaches have on student-athletes, Rossi emphasizes the importance of personal connection. Mentors and coaches build trust and create a safe space where the true, authentic self of a student-athlete can shine.
“The biggest impact comes from a mentor or a coach taking the time to see and listen to the individual,” Rossi explains. “All of us can relate to mentoring; in life, people yearn to actually be seen for who they are — for their authentic selves.”
Aaron Olsen, a track & field coach and health pathways teacher at Ida B. Wells High School, agrees. Profoundly influenced by his own coaches, he believes a coach should be more than an instructor; they should be an active presence in the lives of their students. He says having a regular presence both in the classroom, and on the field, allows him to get to know his students as individuals, not just athletes.
Olsen began his coaching career at Ida B. Wells as a young, enthusiastic student in his last year of college, eager to impart his love for football on the next generation in the same high school he attended. “I quickly realized that winning or losing wasn’t the sole measure of success,” he says.
Connecting with his athletes and helping each feel seen, forms the basis of his coaching. Although with almost 200 kids on the track team, getting to know each one individually is a challenge. But, after 25 years working at the high school coaching football, basketball, golf, now cross country and track, his impact ripples into the community through the many students he has encouraged and inspired.
A Holistic Approach: The Life of a Student-Athlete
In the world of student athletics, setting and achieving goals is a fundamental skill. This one-on-one connection with mentors and coaches goes beyond mere listening or athletic advice. These individuals help student-athletes realize personal goals and create a vision — a significant aspect of mentorship, says Rossi.
Paul Boddie with Friends of the Children worked for twelve and a half years as a professional mentor before becoming the program manager. He recounts a youth who was excited about going kayaking — but he really wanted to become one of the guides. Having conversations with his mentors helped him set specific goals. He said, “In three months I’ll do this; in six months, I’ll apply,” said Boddie, explaining that with encouragement, the youth was able to apply for the position, get an internship, and then get a job with the rafting company.”
Monahan says a student-athlete’s goals are generally about more than athletic accomplishments: they are deeply intertwined with the student’s life. “Their lives are centered around the sport they’re involved in. It’s where their friends come from; it’s a refuge from other things happening in their lives; and it’s a place where they learn how to be productive,” she explains.
Her wisdom lies in encouraging her athletes to adjust their goals when necessary, acknowledging the whirlwind of challenges and opportunities high school life brings. It’s not about lowering expectations, but understanding that personal goals may require some recalibration, she explains.
Zoraya Hernandez, a Multnomah Athletic Foundation (MAF) scholarship recipient who is a high school senior at Summit Learning Charter and competes in swimming, says her coaches and mentors encourage her to look toward the future, but keep the present in mind. They “have helped me overcome many challenges over the years by always reminding me of my hard work and what the future can potentially hold for me,” she says. “They remind me I am not only an athlete in my life, but a student, friend and daughter as well.”
Coming Full Circle in the Community
Experiences go beyond the slopes or the field, teaching young athletes that sports are a reflection of life’s challenges. The success of these initiatives often lies in a coach’s ability to build a supportive and inclusive environment where mutual respect and teamwork are fostered.
“The best attribute for a mentor or coach is leadership by example,” says Tommy Pempel, a MAF scholarship recipient at Central Catholic High School who plays football and competes in track. “The best coaches practice what they preach. Not only does it demonstrate great role modeling, but it teaches kids to be intrinsically motivated.”
So what motivates mentors and coaches to dedicate their time and effort to student-athletes?
Olsen finds fulfillment in watching young individuals become responsible, compassionate community members, regardless of challenges. His approach involves nurturing strong athlete relationships, addressing their unique needs, and instilling core principles. He emphasizes developing leadership skills, comparing it to a muscle that needs exercise. Olsen also encourages athletes to assume leadership roles within the team, promoting camaraderie and belonging.
Monahan speaks of the pride she feels when she sees a young athlete accomplish something they never thought possible; the transformation of a struggling student into a confident and determined individual; or the gratification of witnessing her athletes give back to their communities — these experiences fuel her passion for coaching.
This type of resiliency underscores the larger difference sports make in the community. Considering the people she works with, Monahan says, “Those with a background in team sports demonstrate different collaboration, understanding and a willingness to put ‘we’ before ‘me.’ This attitude makes a significant difference in communities and workplaces.”
In the local narrative of mentorship and coaching, the Multnomah Athletic Foundation, through its support for student-athletes, exemplifies the power of community involvement in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
Established in 1991, MAF is a steadfast supporter of youth involvement in athletics and education. The foundation is committed to fostering discipline, leadership and skill development. It enhances access to opportunities for student-athletes in the Portland metro area through community grants and scholarships. These grants fund nonprofit organizations creating a positive environment for student-athletes, while scholarships aid them in their future endeavors.
It takes a village to raise a child, and in the world of student athletics, this couldn’t be truer. Family, friends, teachers, administrators and the community as a whole, must all collaborate to ensure the well-being and success of every student. But within this collective effort, and under the wing of a respectful coach or mentor, a nurturing environment evolves where student-athletes can reach their full potential.
Written by Jennifer Holzapfel-Hanson. Originally published in the 2023 December issue of the Winged M magazine.”