Program of Excellence honoree: Tappan Zee High School
Printed on a small piece of paper inside the athletic offices at Tappan Zee High School are the district’s standards for effective coaching. They include acting as role models and maintaining a positive environment for student-athletes. Nowhere does it mention winning.
That message is consistent in the words of Tappan Zee coaches and dozens of motivational quotes from legendary sports icons posted around the school. Everyone wants to win, but victory doesn’t come at the expense of education, making this New York school one of our honorees in the 2013 Interscholastic Sports Program of Excellence.“Our goal is to give the kids a positive experience that they can look back on once they graduate,” said Athletic Director Liam Frawley. “The life lessons that these coaches are teaching, they translate from the field into real life.”
Coaches and administrators are strongly invested in the education-based athletics philosophy, and it’s one that has garnered total support from the district. Setting standards is one thing, but Tappan Zee’s model wouldn’t work unless its 60-plus coaches believed in developing a system that was about something more than wins and losses.
An overwhelming number of coaches credit the leadership for the program’s accomplishments. George Gaine, the boys varsity basketball coach, described the athletic department as a family environment. Program leaders commonly share ideas and work closely with one another off the field. Community service is a major priority in all the school’s sports, and student-athletes are eager to help those outside of Tappan Zee’s walls.
“We try to tell the kids on the field that we’re like a family,” Gaine said. “They’re taking ownership and Liam has really taken ownership of this athletic program. I feel fortunate and it makes you want to work harder as a coach when you have the same philosophy.”
Pride in volunteering
Sports programs at Tappan Zee are encouraged, not required, to find ways they can give back to the community. It just so happens that all of them have stepped up and taken the lead on dozens of different causes.
James Amandola, the boys varsity lacrosse coach, takes every opportunity to have his team volunteer or rally behind a positive cause. It’s all part of character development, which is a common phrase among coaches at Tappan Zee.
Each year the lacrosse team dives into the Hudson River as part of the Penguin Plunge, which raises money to support sick kids in the community. The organization presented the team with an award for its continued participation.
The team also joins the annual McHugh 5K Run, which was created to honor a fireman who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Amandola said his athletes are eager to get involved, and he’s beginning to notice that it’s drawing more of them closer to program.
“It’s a culture now where people care what’s going on,” he said. “More of it has to do with the extra stuff regarding character and not just the wins and losses.”
Gaine makes similar efforts with his basketball team. The boys collected canned goods for a local woman whose husband was killed while serving in Afghanistan, and they participate in an annual coat drive. One season while the team was having a tremendous amount of success on the court, the athletes brought presents to children at a local cancer hospital.
“Watching them do that was very rewarding,” Gaine said. “Sometimes as a coach you get caught up during the practices and games, and it’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture.”
Committing to community service projects requires a core of mature, dedicated athletes, and coaches are doing everything they can to develop those attributes. That’s one of the goals behind many of the school’s character development efforts.
Prior to each season, Gaine asks each of his boys to stand up in front of their teammates and describe what it means to them to put on the Tappan Zee jersey. He wants his players to take time to understand what they represent and the sacrifices of those who wore the jersey before them.
A few years ago, Amandola created the “lunch pail award,” given to one player who displayed selflessness and hard work on the field. He recalls finding a coal miner’s old, rugged lunch pail the first year, packing it with a “blue collar” liverwurst sandwich and root beer lunch. It’s his way of recognizing athletes who represent everything his program stands for.
“We can lose a heartbreaker where emotions are up and down and the kids are crying, but then we do this lunch pail and it’s like you become family again,” Amandola said. “It became something that the kids own. At our banquet at the end of the year, we don’t give out any awards except for the lunch pail. That becomes our MVP award.”
It’s each coach’s responsibility to develop their team and athletes, but it’s Frawley’s job to find the right coaches. It doesn’t appear that’s been problematic.
The athletic department at Tappan Zee experiences very little turnover, with a number of coaches saying they’ve been in the district for more than five years. Andy DiDomenico, coach of both the football team and girls lacrosse squad, said he has coached at four schools, and the Tappan Zee athletic program is by far “light years ahead” of the others. The way everyone works together toward a common goal is part of the reason.
“You must have the desire to improve in your craft and the ability to work with the athletic department to be here,” DiDomenico said. “You must have the ability to juggle those kids and work together with the coaches and create opportunities for everyone to succeed. We all have to be on the same page and everyone must be pulling in the same direction.”
Frawley is willing to do anything he can to help his coaches, but he’s not going to step in and dictate Xs and Os. He occasionally passes along emails or news clippings, providing interesting tidbits he thinks can help coaches in their efforts to enlighten or educate their student-athletes.
Frawley joked that he once sent out a professional development email every day for six months that was appreciated but a bit too much for coaches to take in. He now keeps it to about one or two each week.
“They’re in the position they’re in because they are the experts in that area,” he said. “My job is to support them, and part of supporting them is with professional development and encouraging them to seek out professional development.”
Frawley has used outside help. Joe Ehrmann, motivational speaker and author of “InSideOut Coaching,” has made several guest appearances at Tappan Zee’s annual coaching summit. Frawley also relies on material from the Positive Coaching Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps coaches build character in their student-athletes.
Part of the program’s philosophy is “paying it forward,” a phrase spoken among some coaches when referring to their roles as educational leaders in the athletic department. Frawley said most coaches choose their profession because at some point they had a coach of their own who made a positive impact on their development. Now all they want to do is be that same role model to a new generation.
“We have a lot of coaches that are either in or approaching double-digit years in their sports,” Frawley said, “and they’re already seeing some of the positive effects they’re having on these kids.”
Tappan Zee coaches believe the unselfish character of their recent graduates is proof the school’s philosophy is working. Gaine said a handful of his former players made their way back to the school, assisting with practices or volunteering to host basketball clinics. Amandola has fielded calls from former lacrosse players, asking what they can do to give back to a program that had such a profound impact on their lives.
“I get emotional because that means so much more to me than anything else,” Gaine said. The culture has taken on a life of its own and athletes now understand wearing the Tappan Zee name is something special.
“If the kids care that much and they’re emotionally invested, they will not do something to jeopardize that,” Gaine continued. “Not too many people can say they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”
There’s no doubt the school’s athletic department is making great strides, but Frawley is the first to admit none of it would be possible without help. And it comes from all over.
Parent and alumni booster clubs support a number of athletic events, and parents are even given a role on coaching interview committees. Frawley meets regularly with the PTA president to evaluate different aspects of the athletic program.
Coaches take the lead in welcoming parents into their programs, and several of them have developed unique ways to do it. Amandola’s lacrosse team created a father-son fishing trip that drew more than 60 people its first year. He said it was an opportunity for everyone to feel like they had stake in the program, and the transparency helps stave off potential conflicts in the future.
“We do a good job of getting people involved in all the extra events we do,” he said. “If you’re honest with the student-athletes and with the parents, the writing is on the wall and you don’t have any issues.”
Maintaining any exceptional athletic program has to start at the top, and Frawley said the support from principals, school board members and the superintendent has put the sports programs in a position to thrive. Many of those district leaders have backgrounds in sports, so they fully understand how an education-based athletic program can enhance a high school student’s experience.
“They’re our biggest supporters,” Frawley said. “They realize the importance that athletics has in a young person’s development and it’s been nothing but positive in my tenure here.
“I feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to but this perfect storm together with the coaching staff. They do a tremendous job of representing Tappan Zee and what we’re about and the student-athletes do the same. We tell the kids when you put the colors on, you’re representing multiple people, coaches, families and the community. I think more and more are seeing that to be true.”