The Defender Way.
About four years ago the Dordt athletic department sought to define the Defender Way and what it is/was. It’s a term that was used to sum up Dordt’s unique approach to athletics and is summed up as a commitment to:
The Great Commission and cultural mandate.
The equipping of student-athletes to be servant leaders.
The ongoing academic development of student-athletes.
The pursuit of championships.
The Dordt track and field programs, both women and men, enjoyed great success in the past school year. A GPAC title for the men at the indoor championships in February and a runner-up finish at the NAIA National Championship. A pair of relay national titles and numerous outdoor NAIA All-Americans in May punctuated a year unlike we’ve seen.
So, the natural question is, how do you tangibly work with the Defender Way and pursue excellence for your program? I posed that question to track and field head coach Craig Heynen.
I asked Coach Heynen to reflect on what goes into building, or, maybe a better word is remodeling a program. As you will read it is much more than simply recruiting athletes who are fast runners or great jumpers and throwers. No, it’s a culmination of hitting it just right in recruitment and then having support in place to coach and mentor—and that gives you a chance in this ultra-competitive field.
When I reflect on what factors have been most significant in the development of the track and field program at Dordt University, the two things that come to the forefront are resources and people.
Any coach will tell you that they are only as good as the athletes they coach, and the resources available to them to be able to run a program. Dordt track and field has been blessed with significant resources and administration that has been willing to assist in finding ways to improve resources. When I started coaching at Dordt, I believed there were some significant things in place that could be built upon.
The facilities at our disposal have been a very significant factor. In 2007, the year I started, there was only one 200 meter indoor track in the conference. The administration at Dordt had the vision to “go big” when they designed the Rec Center, and installed a top-notch indoor track.
For college track and field, an outdoor facility requires a significant commitment. Dordt University and the joint use cooperation with the City of Sioux Center and the public school system has allowed us to consistently upgrade the facility with significant improvements. These upgrades allow us to host meets and participate in the full slate of college events. In the past 15 years, we have added a steeple chase pit and hammer throw cage at the outdoor facility and these upgrades have been a key part of the program and contribute to our ability to compete on a conference and national level as a team, as well as hosting home meets. Looking at the 14 years I have been at Dordt, the combination of our indoor and outdoor facilities put us at the top of the conference for facilities.
The coaching staff is another important resource. In the years before I started coaching at Dordt, and the early years of my tenure, the coaching staff was quite small. The team roster was also smaller– about a third the number of athletes currently in the program.
Greg Van Dyke was the cross-country coach and distance coach for track and field. We both knew we needed to grow the program to be more competitive. That worked out well as Greg was an admissions counselor. We were able to grow the team, and that was a significant benefit. Our conference has an entry limit of eight individuals per school in each event at the conference meet. Because that number is high, it is a significant competitive advantage to have a large team. In addition, outdoor track and field has 22 events. Even with 125 athletes in our program there are multiple events we don’t have athletes entered at the conference meet.
Our expanding roster size put pressure on our coaching staff, and when Greg Van Dyke transitioned to full-time admissions the administration made the decision to hire a Cross Country coach that would be the assistant track and field coach and that position was filled by Nate Wolf. That change was a significant factor in the program’s development, as it allowed us to expand the distance program. Currently, about half of the track and field roster are distance/middle distance runners. In addition to that coaching staff change, we have been able to add Graduate Assistant coaches.
When I began coaching at Dordt, my position (head coach) was the only one that was not an adjunct position. The adjunct positions were difficult to fill because of the time commitment and hours required for those position–it was also very difficult in many cases to find assistant coaches with expertise in field events, which is a significant area of need for a track and field program. By adding graduate assistants, we have been able to expand our ability to recruit and bring more coaching expertise to the program.
Also impacting the program was the addition of Joe Snyder as a throws coach. The first few years I was the head coach, we struggled to coach the few throwers we had. When coach Snyder came on board he provided stability and excellent coaching to the throws program. The throwing events are very competitive in our conference, and coach Snyder was able to help a number of athletes qualify for conference and even place and qualify for nationals. We have also been blessed by a volunteer Javelin coach, Tyler Kallemeyn. Tyler has helped develop a number of javelin throwers in our program that have placed in conference and even qualified for nationals.
The coaching staff bridges the two key elements of resources and people. A quality coaching staff is imperative to growth and success in track and field. We have been blessed with a coaching staff that is philosophically on the same page. There is strong buy in with our coaching staff for the Defender Way; tenets of spiritual development, academic development, athletic excellence, and service. Along with that, we have been blessed with athletes that exemplify these same tenets. I have always believed that the most important factor in building a strong program is to cultivate a culture that reflects your best athletes. Not necessarily the most gifted athletes, but the ones that, in the case of DUTF (Dordt University Track & Field), exemplify the Defender Way.
Over the years, we have had athletes that have been transformational in our program. Some of them would be very familiar names, and some would not. One specific example for transforming as an athlete is the approach our athletes have had in the weight room. There have been a number of athletes in the program that have provided leadership in the weight room by bringing a higher level of intensity and consistency resulting in a very efficient, intense, and consistent use of the weight room. Those characteristics of the group carry over to more intensity on the track and healthier and stronger athletes.
We’ve seen the bar set higher by our athletes by winning events at the top levels. We have had athletes that have won national championships and were also champions at large meets like the Drake Relays. In some cases, it might even be a conference championship or qualifying for Drake in an event that previously the team was not strong in. These accomplishments do not happen in a vacuum, but are a result of teamwork—influencing the team as a whole. When athletes train together on a daily basis and see their teammates significant accomplishments at these high levels, they begin understand what is possible and they have a firsthand view of the level of consistency and training required to achieve those accomplishments. There is also a mental aspect to this. When athletes see their teammates win at the national level, they begin to believe that they can do that also.
They train with and learn from these successful athletes, and success breeds success. That was exemplified with our team this year as we won a conference championship, national runner-up, and were able to win both men’s and women’s 4 x 800 relays at outdoor nationals. These accomplishments were built on the success of previous generations of athletes in the program.
In our athlete handbook, we have a page that outlines the “circle of champions”. The circle of champions really is a summary of the Defender Way. The circle of champions is illustrated by a target. The outer circle is the worldly circle. The characteristics of that circle are things like disrespect, laziness, lack of discipline. The middle circle is the lukewarm circle. That circle is exemplified by doing things the right way (discipline, respect, leadership, faith) occasionally, but not consistently. The bullseye of the target is the circle of champions. This circle is exemplified by a healthy balance in life, discipline, respect, and leadership.
It is a goal of DUTF that as many athletes as possible will strive for and reach the circle of champions. That is how we define success- the growth of our athletes as people. Going forward, I believe the track and field program at Dordt will continue to have “success” at the conference and national level.
Success, however, defined by team placing, All Americans, etc. is really a byproduct of athletes growing and learning and understanding what it means to consistently be your best in all areas of life. And doing it in community as a team. That is what we will strive for and hopefully we will be able to find athletes that want to be challenged in our environment.