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A Positive Difference

At all levels of sport, the best coaches incorporate off-the-field teachings into their programs. A big proponent of this idea is Northwestern University Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“I firmly believe every coach’s mission should be to make a positive difference in every athlete they touch,” says Fitzgerald, who has been at the Big Ten school since 2006. “Life lessons are the essence of what you do as a football coach.”

That’s why, along with the formal educational programs developed by the athletic department, Fitzgerald makes time for informal conversations with players. “Coaching is about developing young men to be the best they can be in all aspects of their lives and that lasts a lot longer than the Xs and Os,” he says.

At Northwestern, most of the life skills programs are held throughout the offseason and during training camp. These include presentations from outside experts in areas like social media training, drug and alcohol awareness, sexual assault prevention, and more.

The informal lessons are constant and ongoing. “We try to teach life lessons every moment of every day,” Fitzgerald says. “We talk a lot about choices—choosing your attitude, being positive, and having a work ethic that is relentless so you can build character and trust. Every day there are choices to be made, whether it’s to attend class, hydrate well and eat properly, or be a great teammate or community member. Those are personal decisions that are in our control and really don’t require any special talent. They seem simple, but it’s challenging for men this age to focus on them.”

Fitzgerald also looks beyond team concerns for discussion points. “I talk with the players a lot about local issues, Big Ten issues, and what’s going on in society beyond football,” he says. “I want to make sure that I have a strong grasp of how they feel, where their thoughts are, and the things we need to discuss collectively as a football family.”

Another way Fitzgerald keeps his finger on the pulse of the squad is through a leadership council, which is made up of two freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors, and six seniors elected by their teammates. He meets with this group weekly to talk about concerns, both large and small.

One very big issue was the recent push for unionization by NU players. Although the union bid was ultimately denied by the National Labor Relations Board, it brought more attention to the demands placed on college athletes.

“In that situation, I felt my role was to educate our players on the process, and then I talked with them about coming together as a family,” Fitzgerald says. “It was an opportunity to discuss some things we didn’t expect to talk about, come to a consensus, and have this bring us together instead of pull us apart. I think we were able to achieve that.”

Fitzgerald also relies on experienced teammates to help show the way. “The older players have to own the standards we set,” he says. “Not only do they have to teach them to the younger players, they have to hold everyone accountable. And I’m very proud of the commitment our older players have made to our program and to each other.”

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