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A Chat with Celia Slater of True North Sports

Celia Slater, Sarah, Ash

Coaching may be one of the most important professions in the lives of young men and women. Coaches influence millions across the United States yearly, from peewee football players all the way to professional and Olympic athletes.

That is why Celia Slater, chief visionary of True North Sports in Gainesville, Fla., dedicates her life to making coaches better leaders, mentors and influencers.

In the decades prior to launching her own company, Celia was a NCAA Div. 1 college basketball player, head coach, and executive director of both the NCAA Women Coaches Academy and The Alliance of Women Coaches. Thousands of coaches have taken part in Celia’s programs, seminars and conventions—truly, her influence reaches across the country.

In February, the Center welcomed Celia to Knoxville to speak to student-athletes in the inaugural class of the VOLeaders Academy, the exciting partnership we have with UT Athletics and the Center for Leadership and Service.

After Celia’s time with the students, we were able to sit down with her and talk about why she finds coaching so important, the way she hopes to influence the profession, and her hopes of helping to lead a brighter future for both college coaches and athletes.

So, what is True North Sports?

Celia Slater: We are a company that works primarily with collegiate coaches to develop everything from coaching philosophy to different skill sets—communication, conflict resolution, program management—to how to create a positive team culture. I named my company after Bill George’s work around being an authentic leader and following your “true north” because I really want to help coaches be more authentic and genuine, instead of trying to be the coach that coached them. I want them to really stay in tune with who they are as a person, their highest values, how they want to impact the world, and never forget why they got into coaching in the first place: because they love the kids and they want to make a difference in their lives.

What made you aware of the need for this kind of work with coaches?

Celia Slater: I was a coach and I learned everything the hard way. I made every mistake in the book. You learn on the fly and are never really trained on stressors like communication, or conflict, or how to organize your program. There are people leaving the profession and it’s not because they don’t know their sport. They’re leaving and getting fired because of the stress that comes with the lack of a skill set to handle managing, leading, and motivating people. In my personal experience, I realized how hard it is to just kind of learn as you go. And it’s too important of a profession, where you are touching millions of lives, to not train them.

How many coaches have you worked with since launching your company?

Celia Slater: Since I started TrueNorth Sports, I’ve had one pilot program with 22 assistant coaches—15 women and seven men—from all sports and divisions of college athletics. Prior to that, I did a lot of programming with just female coaches. Since 2003, I’ve probably worked with at least 1,200 women.

How do coaches respond?

Celia Slater: For coaches, the X’s and O’s and strategy are the most important things, and they put a tremendous amount of their time, energy, and money into that. I’m going against the grain when I ask them to think about the other skill sets they need to really be great coaches.

And in our country everything is organized by sport, so I really think coaches become very tunnel visioned within their sport. I really feel this is a missed opportunity to unify coaches. The profession is greater than the sport that you coach and I believe there should be a standard of excellence across the profession.

When you get all of these coaches from different sports in a classroom together, it’s like there is this unbelievable connection. I was just at East Tennessee State University running a session for 18 coaches. I broke them into groups and they were talking about what they struggle with as coaches and I said, “Feel the energy in this room. How many times have you all gotten together to talk and share ideas as coaches across sport?” And they were all shaking their heads. It’s like they walk down the hall and they miss all these coaches in their department that have incredible stories, incredible experiences, incredible ideas.

In a best-case scenario, what do you want to see happen from your work for these coaches?

Celia Slater: I want to see people joyful in their work. I want to see them being creative and innovative because to me that’s a lost art in coaching. I like to see coaches willing to ask for help and share ideas. It’s okay to make a mistake and it’s okay to learn and grow from those mistakes and to love their kids in the process.

Ultimately my dream is that we have a university for coaches to go to in this country. And the NCAA. NAIA, and all the other governing bodies help to support it. And at this university we start to train student-athletes who want to become coaches. We help them explore the profession. And we bring athletic directors and administrators to this university so they can help the coaches learn how to navigate the hiring process. We start connecting our rising star coaches with the right schools. I want to be at the grand opening of that ribbon cutting.