At the end of a game, each team receives a designation: winner or loser. It’s the basis of sports, and most coaches don’t give the labeling process much thought.
Luke Mertens, however, does think about it—a lot. In early 2017, he was hired as head football coach at Lake Zurich (Illinois) High School, where a hazing scandal in 2016 roiled the powerhouse team and made national headlines. Charged with changing the culture of the program, Mertens carefully considered the role of winning in sports.
“Just because we win a game, we’re not winners, and losing a game doesn’t make us losers,” he says. “As a coach, it’s my job to keep the focus on what’s really important about sports—work ethic, camaraderie, teamwork and many other life lessons.”
The former head football coach at Lakes High School in nearby Lake Villa, Illinois, where he had led the team to state playoff bids for eight straight seasons, Mertens’ approach to obliterating hazing from the program has been to get at the root of the problem and change the culture of the team.
“The first thing I did was tell them they have to own their mistakes,” Mertens says. “‘Stop hiding from what happened. Stop saying you weren’t involved. Once you own it, people will be more understanding of what’s going on.’
“Then I talked about how it all comes down to respect for other people,” he continues. “We tend to put athletes up on pedestals starting as early as grade school. Talented athletes learn, unintentionally, that they can disrespect other people because they’re older, bigger or more talented. I’m trying to break that down and get them to understand that if they’re older or more talented or more powerful, that’s all the more reason to be of service to others instead of disrespecting them.”
To do this, he implemented a thoughtful curriculum, which he first developed at Lakes High School. “We focus on a different topic each week,” Mertens says. “We talk about it as a team and they have a homework-type assignment related to it.”
Topics include attitude, effort, character, respect, not making excuses, passion and vision. For example, one week he asks team members to describe the difference between selfish and unselfish football players. Then he moves into a broader discussion of selfish and unselfish people. “I start with football because that’s what’s utmost in their mind,” Mertens says. “But what’s most important is taking it into the rest of their lives.”
From there, he asks players to identify which traits of a selfish player and selfish person they each individually possess and pick one of each to improve during the week. They also have to provide examples of what they plan to do to work on these shortcomings.
“I often incorporate the parents into the assignments as well,” says Mertens. “In this case, I share the players’ goals with their parents and tell them, ‘You need to hold your kids accountable for this. We want you to help guide them and remind them this is the goal they set for themselves for becoming less of a selfish player and person.’”
Another exercise involving both players and parents focuses on attitude and effort. “We ask parents to rate their sons in several different areas,” Mertens says. “These include: Does he keep his room clean? How many times do you have to remind him to do his homework? How well does he study in subjects he isn’t good at? The parents and players talk about these ratings and then the players write a reflection on the experience.”
Hand-in-hand with the curriculum, Mertens often speaks with the team about life’s challenges. With the hazing scandal not far behind Lake Zurich, he honed in on how to handle difficult scenarios in 2017—and how that could make them successful in the long run.
“I (told) them, ‘We’re all going to face uncomfortable situations,’” Mertens says. “‘Sometimes we will be forced far outside our comfort zones. The more you learn to do that in all aspects of your life, the easier it will become. You can’t pick and choose when to be a winner. You have to practice it in all parts of your life.’”
Getting the team on board has not been difficult, but Mertens made sure to spell out his philosophy at the start of the season. “I explained to the players that I’m taking time away from football to work on these life skills because they’re much more important than who scores a touchdown on Friday night,” he says. “I want them to understand that the way we carry ourselves and the way we treat other people will be our legacy—not how many games we win or lose.”
Doing the right things off the field often has a way of carrying onto the field, however. Lake Zurich advanced to the Illinois Class 7A state title game in Mertens’ first season as head coach.
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Photo Credit: @LZBearFacts on Twitter