Athletes and The Culver Way
December 23, 2020
Culver Academies is unique in its approach to athletics. As a boarding school, Culver athletes don’t just attend classes and practice together, they also live together and learn to lead together. Here, Eagles baseball coach Kurt Christiansen talks about the kind of players that develop from The Culver Way.
A grinder is head strong
Josh Wright ‘10 was a grinder. A great athlete, Josh was an option quarterback on the Culver Military Academy football team and a talented centerfielder for the Eagles baseball team. He was fun to watch compete. I brought Josh in from centerfield to pitch against Mishawaka Marian in the 2010 sectional. It was the top of the seventh inning with the tying run at second base. From the stands, this move probably looked like a no-brainer, but a little backstory is necessary.
But just weeks before, Josh couldn’t throw a strike. It wasn’t a mechanical breakdown; it wasn’t a physical thing at all. Josh took a line drive to the head. Getting back on the mound after that is hard. The challenge wasn’t unique to Josh, lots of pitchers have to figure it out, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Josh worked at his mental game to get back in synch. He committed to a breathing routine and using a focal point to relax his body. He used positive athletic memories and pitch-by-pitch planning to focus his mental energy. Josh induced two quick outs. With two down and Josh beginning to pitch with confidence, he hit the next batter. The go ahead run was now on base.
Josh stepped off the mound, took a deep breath, stared at his glove for long moment, then the lefty took the rubber peering in at his catcher for the sign. In the postgame interview with local media Josh shared that he tries to play the game one pitch at time, never worrying about doing anything more than competing for that pitch.
I defined what a grinder is for the athletes in our baseball program, but I did that long after Josh graduated. A grinder doesn’t take a pitch off. He wants the ball and plays with determination. A grinder doesn’t accept failure and is not phased by adversity. He works hard and works smart. Josh was a grinder.
A dirtbag is heart strong
Zach Moffett ’16 was a dirtbag. It was also only after Moff graduated that I defined this term for our guys. A dirtbag brings swagger and plays the game with confidence. He is high energy and willing to do anything to win. He plays with joy and enthusiasm and finishes the game with a dirty uniform. A dirtbag loves the game and loves his teammates.
Every year I tell my team a story. When runners are on third base, I get to coach them between pitches. One of the messages I always communicate is whether we’re in green or red. Green means going on a ground ball, and red means the groundball has to get through the infield before we try to score. We were in extra innings in the 2015 sectional semifinal against John Glenn. Moff was on third with no outs. Glenn coach John Nadolny called his infield to the mound to set the defense. I told Moff “They’re going to be in here; we’re in red. It has to get through. Shorten up a bit and careful to not get too big in your secondary.”
They were in. We needed a fly ball deep enough for Moff to tag; he’s fast and I was already thinking that I might send him on something more shallow than normal. Jack Benner ’16 was at the plate. He would battle and fight; he’d give us a good at bat. He put it in play. We teach runners at third to read the hitting zone and watch the trajectory of the ball on contact. I read down. Shoot. That won’t do it.
Moff breaks for home. He read down, too. But he also read chopper and a high bounce. He ended the game with a headfirst slide, the tag on the back of his legs significantly after he crossed the plate. He was jumping up and down in a cloud of dust as his teammates ran from the dugout to greet him. A walk off win, all because Zach played loose and athletic, with enthusiasm, and with confidence. He made a play. He was a dirtbag.
The Culver Way
The Cardinal Way famously describes the way the St. Louis Cardinals do everything in the organization. We have our own version, The Culver Way. Based on four key philosophical commitments, The Culver Way puts us in a position to develop young people of character and to develop leaders.
We believe in the process. We’re a team that believes the way we go about our work is what matters most. To unpack the concept, we simply expect players to practice fast and hard in order to make the game slow and easy. We demand guys be fully present at practice and in games. Our offensive practice sessions, defensive drills, and mental game training, even our weekend game schedules are built with this commitment in mind.
Two final points flow directly from these commitments; we ask baseball players to show up on time and run on and off the field, and we expect players to wear their uniform correctly. While we’ll look at the scoreboard after a game and can evaluate our performance using wins and losses, our assessment actually depends more on how we played. We’ll look at specific metrics to assess our offense, baserunning, defense, and pitching.
Lessons can certainly be gleaned from winning ugly, but we may learn more from games when we win by playing well, lose but play well, and even when we play poorly and lose because we can point to our approach to explain the performance. No matter what, we’ll look inside the score and assess the process carefully in order to improve.
We’re a team that fights and can respond to adversity. What does that look like? It means we expect players to battle, always. This is especially evident at the plate. We track quality at-bats, like when a hitter forces the pitcher to throw eight or more pitches or when a hitter fights off tough two-strike pitches.
Defensively, we don’t concern ourselves with one error. They happen. Instead we focus on not compounding mistakes. We pride ourselves on not giving up a big inning and on ending the inning on the next hitter once we get two outs. Finally, to compete fiercely demands we also respect our opponent. To be clear, we worry about us and our business not our opponent, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect them.
Equally crucial is building and maintaining a culture of trust. We’re a team that cares about each other. Players must believe in their teammates and listen to their teammates. Players must have high expectations for their teammates. Just like a parent or a teacher expecting a lot out of a young person, we expect a lot out of our teammates. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in our daily catch play. Partners are expected to coach each other. Each throw provides feedback. Each throw is also a feed for someone else to practice their reception.
And, just like Zach Moffett’s 2015 teammates, we cheer for each other. We’re going to high five a guy when he returns to the dugout after a SAC bunt or after a relief pitcher gets us out of a jam. We’re also going to pick up a teammate after an error or strikeout.
Finally, we sacrifice individual achievement and put team success first. More specifically, we explain that sacrifice means each player needs to do whatever he can to help the team. We also explicitly state that all players also do whatever they can to help a teammate. It certainly is team first, but we think it is crucial to state that we help individuals too. The program acknowledges both big and small contributions.
Something uniquely Culver, perhaps as a result of so much student initiative and our focus on leadership at the school, we expect players to notice what needs done and then help make it happen. The staff sees this every day of the season. Guys helping pick up gear, groom the field, and clean the dugout are just doing what we do. It is part of it. We respect the game.
One final story
Hayden Schott ’18 could flat-out hit. For the better part of his senior season, Hayden led the entire state in batting average. He was selected to play in the Indiana All Star game, only the third Culver athlete to receive that honor (David Lower ’99 and Mitch Henderson ’94).
Despite the success, Hayden didn’t graduate with D1 offers. Hayden elected to go to Cypress College, a southern California baseball JUCO powerhouse. His two years playing for the Chargers paid off. Enrolling at Columbia University in the fall of 2020, Hayden will complete his college career playing D1 baseball at a perennial Ivy favorite and getting a world class education.
All the credit to Hayden. Choosing the path less traveled couldn’t have been easy. I do think, however, that Culver and the baseball program can say we played a role in preparing him with the skills and mentality to persevere and achieve, perhaps it is The Culver Way personified.
Culver educates students for leadership and responsible citizenship. We translate the mission into baseball specific lingo, goals, and expectations, but it clearly drives our work in the baseball program. It’s in our unique Indiana boarding school environment where students get to learn, lead, and play, and no place makes a better laboratory than the baseball field. I’m certain our baseball graduates took their brand of leadership and responsible citizenship to the baseball programs at Wabash, Duke, Chicago, Columbia, Denison, and Grinnell.
Culver grads are engaged and present, hardworking and resilient, loyal and trustworthy, confident and curious, and I know some of them developed those attributes playing baseball together.