SFC’s unique leadership academy bolsters athletic program, campus

Santa Fe Christian Athletic Director/Basketball Coach Chad Bickley
(Ken Grosse)

Chad Bickley was already nine years into what has now been a successful 13-year career as boys’ basketball coach at Santa Fe Christian when he was asked to replace Tom Seitz as the school’s Athletic Director in March of 2015. The affable, 42-year-old Santa Maria native, a star basketball player himself in high school (Valley Christian/Santa Maria) and college (Christian Heritage/now San Diego Christian), admits he had serious reservations about taking the position.

“It was honestly something I never wanted,” said Bickley, who has 219 victories and a pair of CIF Division I titles on his SFC hoops resume. “My biggest fear was being stuck in an office making sure referees were there on time—that didn’t entice me.

“I wanted to do something that was relevant to the big picture of our campus. When you start thinking about things like ‘why we exist,’ you ask yourself ‘what are we doing to accomplish this?’ I wanted to do things that helped answer that question.”

Shortly after his first full year in the AD’s chair, Bickley attended a conference in Cary, NC. There, he heard Jeff Janssen, the well-known founder and president of Janssen Sports Leadership Center speak about a book he had written that covered the idea of creating “academies” to develop the leadership skills of an institution’s student-athletes.

“That was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do,” said Bickley enthusiastically over three years later. In short order, he returned to North Carolina spent three days at the Janssen facilities, got credentialed and implemented the program he had listened to Janssen outline. While the concepts and materials provided by Janssen made it essentially a turnkey operation, Bickley was easily able to integrate the touchstones of Santa Fe Christian’s mission and culture into the framework.

“The image I originally had in my head of an AD was sitting in the office or sitting watching games,” recalled Bickley. “But I did not picture separating myself totally from the students—I had an idea of a ‘captain’s club’ but didn’t know where to start.

“Then God brought me to Jeff Janssen with a full-blown curriculum for developing leaders. My focus as Athletic Director has been way more about creating and sustaining culture than anything else.

“The leadership academy complements the basics of what we’re trying to do as a campus and a program. We talk about the idea of student-athletes becoming champions—with Christ, in relationships and on the field—as well as our vision of being a model Christian school. The leadership academy helps us achieve a big part of that mission and the decision-making process leading to the implementation went directly back to our identity”

The Janssen model as applied by SFC consists of three basic components. The first, Leadership 101, involves all freshmen athletes and is introduced during physical education classes. The emphasis is on athlete responsibility, taking charge of your choices, self-discipline and owning/ learning from mistakes.

Leadership 201, with the theme of “emerging leaders” at its nucleus, takes it a step further. Sophomores and juniors are eligible, chosen after being identified by their respective coaches and going through an application process. The pool of applicants is whittled down to a class of 50-60. The core subject is “leading by example,” while stressing the “four C’s”—commitment, confidence, composure and character.

The final segment, open to juniors and seniors who have completed the emerging leaders chapter, is Leadership 301 or “veteran leaders.” Here the focus is on leading others—stressing vocal leadership, team-building and conflict resolution.

The Leadership 201 and 301 programs consist of six group meetings of about an hour and a half. The 201 gatherings are spaced about a month apart throughout the academic year. The veteran unit has all of its meetings at 6:30 a.m. in the fall to allow time to apply what’s been learned in their team environments. Veterans also play guest roles at selected emerging leaders meetings where they can share what they’ve learned and how they’ve put it into practice. A sampling of internal reviews would seem to affirm the merit of the undertaking.

“It was one of the most positive aspects of my time at Santa Fe Christian and the opportunity to learn from other people who were in similar situations was really valuable,” says 2018 graduate Jack McRoskey, now playing basketball at Colorado College. “The program gave me some great life perspectives and helped me be more confident as a person.

“I believe in myself more and found my teammates were able to believe in me as well.”

Another 2018 grad, Camryn Tastad, a four-year member of the Eagles’ girls’ volleyball team, found the leadership academy helped push her natural instincts to a higher plain.

“I’ve always felt like a leader and never had a problem taking that kind of role but the program provided an opportunity to better understand and fine tune those raw skills,” said Tastad, who transferred to USD after seeing action in 32 matches for Oregon’s NCAA Elite Eight squad last fall. “Being able to talk through and sort of practice leadership strategies before actually being thrown into those types of situations was extremely helpful.” Bickley says scenarios such as that described by Tastad are common.

“A lot of these kids are already doing things they don’t even realize but this puts a lot of their actions in context,” he said. “On the other hand, they’re being exposed to a lot of proven ideas and principals that may not benefit them until much later but the seeds are planted.”

Rising junior basketball player Keatten Smith got his first taste of the program last year, liked the outcome and will be looking to add to his repertoire in the veteran portion.

“It was fun, gave me a new awareness of a lot of things like body language, tone of voice, leading by example that I hadn’t thought of as that important,” said Smith. “During my freshman year, I would say I was a little more demanding in my approach, now I try to be more encouraging—I never saw that as a way of leading.

“Overall, I think it’s made me a better teammate.”

There have also been tangible outcomes on the competitive ledger. Santa Fe Christian had gone three years without placing a team in a CIF final before starting the leadership academy and has had 13 in the three years since.

Janssen’s program isn’t just a ‘drop off the books, handouts, power points and then see-you-later-type of operation.’ He stays in touch on a regular basis (including a quarterly all-schools video conference) and participants in each phase of the program do evaluations which go to the center in North Carolina to be assessed with findings returned to SFC for use moving forward.

Bickley has added some twists unique to SFC, like individual meetings during the year with captains of all teams, sending re-caps to parents of participants and securing a title sponsor (Nuna).

“I think Santa Fe Christian is one of the best programs we have at any level,” said Janssen. “There is buy-in from the people at the top levels who understand and embrace the goals. It has become a big part of the fabric of the school.”

Janssen, who works with hundreds of institutions, primarily colleges, points to the facilitator as perhaps the most important element in regard to the success of a particular program. “Chad has been great to work with and is fully-immersed,” praised Janssen. “We’re seeing excellent results.” At Santa Fe Christian, student reviews give Bickley similar high marks.

“Buy-in from the athletes involved is important,” says Tastad, “but Coach Bickley does a wonderful job of organizing and running the leadership academy.

“I have huge respect for him and feel the respect the athletes, in general, have for him is instrumental in the overall success of the program.”

On the same topic, Smith says, “Coach Bickley is a really good communicator. He’s able to get kids to listen and also encourages and drives participation.

“It’s not just us sitting there and listening. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, question-asking and team stuff. He likes to hear our opinions.”

Next fall, Bickley will be relinquishing his duties as Athletic Director to take on a new challenge as Executive Pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa. He will stay on, however, as head coach of the SFC boys’ basketball team and continue directing the leadership academy. Both were easy choices.

“I really believe in it, I made a five-year commitment when we initiated the leadership program and need to see that through,” said Bickley. “But, more importantly, I love Santa Fe Christian, love the leadership academy and want to continue to be part of it.

“We’re one of the few high school programs anywhere that has this type of comprehensive leadership package and it’s something that really makes an impact.”