The unprecendented Student Athlete Leadership Council is here to improve the athletic culture


Standing on Hudsonville’s football field, amongst the diverse athletic leaders of the OK White Conference schools, senior Claire Baguley looked around, taking in the scattered positions in which different people stood.  

“They would ask questions like ‘step back if you have had to skip a meal in the past week,’” Claire said. “’Step forward if your parents told you [that] you can be anything you want.’ So it was kind of like a perspective thing to show you who you’re actually playing against, and you don’t always know what other people are going through.”

This eye-opening exercise was just one part of the conference though. Every year, the OK White Conference holds multiple day-long leadership summits for athletes. Many of 49 schools attend as well as many guest speakers.

This wasn’t Claire first leadership conference, though. In the last year, she’s attended two others with a small number of other athletic leaders from our school. Together, these students formed the Student-Athlete Leadership Council. After those conferences, those who attended tried to meet every hour-delay Wednesday and inevitably failed.

“We didn’t want things to just die down, and [the conference] to be a one-time thing,” Claire said. “We wanted to actually implement [changes] into our school.”

However, this September was a time for new beginnings for the little-known Student-Athlete Leadership Council. Five motivated student-athletes, including Claire, met with those from six other OK White conference schools at Hudsonville.

One main thing they talked about was each individual’s core values and core values for athletic departments as a whole.

“It’s important to me to have guidelines that I can follow and rely on,” Claire said. “ We talked about what we want them for our athletic program to be. We haven’t come up with any yet, but that’s definitely something to keep in mind in.”

While the council hasn’t come up with any values for the department as a group, senior Kate Ryan had an idea of what one should be.

“It’s really important to me that everyone buys into [their sport],” Kate said. “If you’re going to have a winning record, a losing record, with what kind of season you’re supposed to be having, you just have to buy in. You have to come to practice every day, even if you don’t want to be there and work hard. Just be all in no matter what.”

These core values could be used to enhance FHC’s athletic culture. Kate thought that a key characteristic of the athletic culture was integrity. 

Athletic Director and supervisor of the group Clark Udell shared the sentiment that the culture comes from what the athletes at our school do.

“Ultimately the culture of Forest Hills Central athletics is really defined, implemented, and fleshed out by our athletes,” Udell said. “It’s influenced by the adults in the mix, but it’s really fleshed out by our athletes and our students.”

The main strength of the FHC athletes as a whole is unity. All the sports are supportive of one another. Everyone is simply an athlete and not divided into different factions based on the sport.

“There’s a sense of unity, a sense of pride in being a Ranger,” Udell said. “It’s not like one program competing against the other or trying to show up another program, but there’s really a good flavor. There’s respect; there’s not competition.”

Maintaining and expanding upon this unity is just one thing the council hopes to accomplish. On the other hand, there may be respect between different sports, but the athletic program needs to improve respect for opponents and officials in every sport. This weakness is one of the student section, not just the athletes playing on the court or field.

Additionally, the Student-Athlete Leadership Council believes that another weakness for the athletic department was being entitled. Athletes have begun to feel that they should win just because they are FHC, or that because they work hard, they should be on this or that team.

“It was just that sometimes we take for granted what we have, whether that’s in facilities or talent,” Udell said. “We need to be more thankful than deserving.”

Improving upon these weaknesses is just one goal of the Student-Athlete Leadership Council. Why these weakness occurred is a tough question to discern. However, Kate might have an answer.

“I think that there can be a lot of inconsistencies with how like each individual program is run,” Kate said. “I think it can cause holes in the system and making things a little more difficult when everyone’s not in the exact same page.”

While they have much work to do at their biweekly meetings, it shouldn’t be too large of a task for the council because of the ease of their collaboration. Generating ideas may be hard, but once an idea has been created, all the members build off what one another says.

Claire felt strongly that their like-minds are part of the reason success is imminent for the council.

“We all have similar goals for the school and think similarly,” Claire said. “We’re a group of people with the same mindset and same attitude about things.  We all know when to focus but when to laugh about things.”

Udell came to the same conclusion. However, he also believes part of it is attributed to the high comfort level of every individual at the meetings.

“We have fun, we laugh, they make fun of me,” Udell said. “That is a positive to me that there’s comfort level in there. I mean it’s real, and it’s genuine, which has been really fun. I don’t think everybody around the table is best friends or anything. They’re all just athletes.”

The ideas generated at these meetings have yet to be implemented due to the youth of the council. Many of the ideas came from the example Hudsonville has set with their athletic department. For example, to encourage unity and respect for other sports, each team has a buddy team. Once a season, they attend one practice of their buddy team and support them at their game.

Hudsonville also has a pro-unity homecoming tradition; similarly to how FHC does a point system for challenges, class banners, lip syncs, etc., Hudsonville does as well. The twist is that students can gain extra points for their team by attending games of teams with typically small student sections.

Other interesting changes the Student-Athlete Leadership Council is speculating on are an all athlete team meeting or a varsity quarter-zip jacket to replace the dying, although conventional, varsity jacket. History teacher and FHC pride leader Brad Anderson, a recent recruit, helped spark these ideas.

“He and I are both [people who’ve been at FHC since] kindergarten,” Udell said. “We’re weird. We’re kind of those whack-job FHC people. We figured with Coach Anderson it just seemed to make sense [to involve him.]”

The council is currently working on expanding. They want to involve more students in order to have a more magnified impact on the school and its athletic culture. Along with Anderson, the original five members have enlisted help from some student section leaders and students in younger grades.

Having students from younger grades is so instrumental because the council doesn’t want all their work to fade away. There are many students on the council that are seniors this year, so they wanted to make sure future groups wouldn’t have to start from scratch. But, the important thing is to leave the council in the hands of able and determined leaders.

“It’s multi-sport athletes and people who everyone sees as leaders in the school, in their sport,” Claire said. “They don’t have to be captains, but just like lead with good examples.”

Each member of the Student-Athlete Leadership Council is hand-picked by Udell. He doesn’t have a precise formula to pick each member, but he takes many factors into account. Some of these include coach recommendations, the difficulty of courses being taken in school, and the number of sports played by that individual. Udell also chooses based creating a diverse range of representation among the sports and each individual’s personality.

“Everybody at the table, so to speak, is pretty passionate about athletics,” Udell said. “They’re not really focused on just one sport, so they see a bigger picture. [They’ve] been very open to not just the surface components of athletics but really looking and saying, ‘okay, maybe there is more to this than whether I put the ball in another net.’ ”

The big picture is really what the Student-Athlete Leadership Council is all about. They want to be the core or center of the athletic culture with different spheres of people expanding around them like rings on a tree trunk. This is a difficult task for the council seeing they are still in the early stages of defining who they are as a group and what they want to do.

“I think it will just improve the culture of our school overall,” Claire said. “I do really like this school, and I think it’s filled with great people, but this will just add on to that and make it even better.”

No matter how they choose to impact the school, Udell has his own goals for the council.

“For me, it would be equipping our student-athletes with the ability to be intentional about the culture they’re in and participate in, whatever that is,” Udell said. “I don’t want it to be dependent on me. I really wanted it to become an organic athletic piece.”

Like how September was a significant time for the Student-Athlete Leadership Council, December will be as well. FHC is hosting the next OK White Conference leadership summit on the 7th, and the council will be taking the front seat on running it.

Many details have yet to be worked out, such as conversation topics, but they know that they want to encourage integration between attendees from different schools. Breakfast is the perfect time to do this. Since the summits usually have a breakfast at the beginning of the day, having assigned sets would help intermingle the schools.

The Student-Athlete Leadership Council hopes to represent the school well not just at the conference but in everyday life as well. They have the voice and power influence change, which is not something every student is able to do. They believe that no matter what, improvement can always be made, and that is why this council is so important.

“I see this big picture of where we’ve been, where we are, where we’d like to go [in athletics],” Udell said. “But right now, the here and now is our athletes. It’s their experience. They have invested more than just their time and blood, sweat, and tears. They’ve invested their heart.”