Sanford Sports Academy lessons last beyond the final buzzer

Camps, clinics, tournaments and teams develop players into healthy people

Sanford Sports Academy lessons last beyond the final buzzer

Macy Matheson got her first real taste of volleyball at summer camps at the Sanford Pentagon as a 10-year-old and was back again a year later trying out for a team.

This summer, Matheson, now a student at Colorado State University, will be coaching volleyball at summer camps at the Pentagon.

It is safe to say her affiliation with the Sanford Sports Academy left an impression. So much so, in fact, that she wants to pay it forward by passing along what she has learned about the game to others.

“I think two of the main things that I took from my Sanford experience was I met some of my best friends playing volleyball,” said Matheson, who was part of two state championship teams at O’Gorman High School. “And my coaches were great, too – I never had a bad experience with a coach at Sanford.”

Matheson made the Academy’s camps, clinics, tournaments and teams a part of her life growing up. This skill-building element of Sanford Sports also offers expertise in baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, golf, football and volleyball.

Why sports are important

The lessons learned at the Academy can be applied directly to the sport – figuring out how to hit straighter 7-irons, for instance, or making more 3-pointers – but can extend well beyond that.

“We get a lot of questions about why sports are so important to us,” said Steve Young, president of Sanford Sports. “They’re important because kids are our future leaders, our future health care workers. These are our future doctors and our city council members. This is our opportunity to really invest in them.”

Within the framework of Sanford’s overall mission, the Sanford Sports Academy offers access to credentialed coaches who can provide the knowledge, encouragement and wisdom to make involvement in athletics more fun and more rewarding.

Young is coaching his 6-year-old daughter’s softball team this year. In a meeting with parents, he defined achievement this way: “This will be a successful season,” he told them, “if at the end of it your daughter is looking forward to playing softball next season.”

It would have been coaches with that same goal who greeted the 10-year-old Matheson, who kept coming back the next year and now will be a coach herself.

“The one thing that I heard at every camp and from every one of my coaches were that they were looking for energy and effort and no one is going to fault you if you’re giving all you can,” Matheson said. “Every one of my coaches really instilled that in us. I want to do the same.”

It’s not just for travel teams

Goals advance as athletes advance, of course. The point is that the benefits of participation will be there regardless of whether it’s a rec league or a traveling team experience.

Those involved in one or more Academy sports have access to Sanford Sports Performance programs and other Sanford Sports offerings that include sports science, biomechanics, mental performance and sports nutrition.

The Sanford Sports Academy counts:

  • 110,000+ athletic contacts per year
  • 100 teams, including 80 summer teams
  • 800+ families involved
  • 7 sports: baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, golf, football and volleyball

Those numbers will increase this year with a full slate of activities for the 18 additional playing fields now ready for their first full summer in Sioux Falls.

“One of the things we really pride ourselves on here at Sanford Sports and at the Academy specifically is that we have programming for everybody,” said Todd Kolb, director of the Sanford Sports Academy. “It’s not just for travel teams. Though that’s a big part of what we do, it’s also for the kid who is thinking, ‘Hey Mom and Dad, I want to try basketball. How can I do that?’”

Academy baseball director Steve Phillips, a longtime presence in the sport in Sioux Falls who played and coached professionally, is embracing the opportunity to be part of Sanford Sports’ new complex with its more than 170 acres of new turf.

In conversation with Phillips you realize that while the new fields are a huge addition to the community, its athletes and their families, sports are always going to come back to essential core values. It is in that space the Sanford Sports Academy exists.

“It has always been about the development of people,” Phillips said. “Baseball and softball serve as our vehicles for that. Learning discipline, learning commitment, learning teamwork – all of those things come into play.”

Additional fields a game-changer

Phillips has been a fixture in baseball in the region since 2010 with the Sioux Falls Cyclones, an independent travel baseball program that became a part of Sanford Sports in 2022.

Phillips has dealt with the search for available fields in the spring on a yearly basis for youth programs. It speaks to the strong interest but also to what had been an inadequate supply of suitable outdoor fields.

“We could be on the field 8-to-5 Mondays, 8-to-5 on Tuesdays practicing, and we still needed other fields,” Phillips said. “Here at the Complex now we can have three or four teams practicing during the day at the same time. We have batting cages and pitching mounds and as coaches we can go from field to field. It’s going to be a game-changer in our minds in how it’s going to give us the opportunity to expand how we prepare.”

When Phillips took over as baseball director, he had already seen the benefits of players working with Sanford Sports’ certified experts on developing skills and increasing athleticism.

“The last two winters we’ve worked with the biomechanics department pre-testing and then testing and putting together a program with the performance side of getting kids’ arms stronger and getting body strength improvement to help their arm,” Phillips said. “We’ve seen velocities go up quite a bit. That’s been huge and it’s something we’re planning on continuing. It’s a definite difference-maker and something that separates us from other programs.”

Getting better at baseball

One of those people was Bryce Ronken, a Washington High School senior who had been affiliated with the Sioux Falls Cyclones since he was 10 years old and is now seizing the chance to play baseball at the Academy.

“Steve Phillips has been around the game a long time and he knows what it takes to be successful,” Ronken said. “He has instilled those things in me. A lot of baseball is teamwork. You surround yourself with good teammates and good coaches and you’ll develop into a better player as long as you put in the work. I think they’ve done a really good job with that.”

Ronken, along with his teammates, has taken advantage of the Academy’s access to biomechanics.

“They were able to tell me some things about my throwing motion that I wasn’t doing right,” he said. “We talked about how to fix those things and some drills I could do to help me with them. I can throw five miles an hour faster now. It’s a really cool setup they have. It’s crazy what they can do with it.”

A game provides life experiences

Like Phillips, Sanford Sports Academy basketball director Freddy Coleman works to develop skills on a micro level while never losing sight of the bigger picture.

If played and coached correctly, Coleman will tell you basketball has life experience embedded in its fiber. As he sees it, the Academy’s role is to act as a mentor for the young people hoping to benefit from its lessons.

“Our mission is to impact kids positively through the game of basketball,” said Coleman, a former player and assistant coach at North Dakota State who has been affiliated with Sanford Sports since 2019. “Our goal is to help them understand that there are a lot of things that you can learn through the sport of basketball that you can carry with you throughout the course of your life.”

The programs Coleman oversees deliver skills-based teaching designed to enhance all aspects of becoming a better player. At the same time, there is a focus on developing the strength, speed and agility that can lift those skills.

Year-round access to staff expertise is available through one-on-one sessions, camps, clinics and team workouts and travel-team opportunities.

“What we’re doing is not just about hoops,” Coleman said. “It’s about mentorship and leadership and instilling great qualities. Kids grow up and they become husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and can look back on their eighth-grade year and think about the great experience they had in basketball.”

Guiding principles

The quality of the basketball squads’ coaches is a source of pride for Coleman and Sanford leadership. The guiding principles begin with a foundation based on having fun, making an impact and finding opportunities to teach athletes.

“If you can deliver those three things on a consistent basis, kids are going to have a positive experience,” Coleman said. “Our coaches understand that players are going to have fun if they’re impacted in a positive way – and there are opportunities to teach during the process. We have a lot of people on our coaching staffs who are schoolteachers – guys and gals who understand how to communicate with young people.”

The Academy has teams for ages 10-18 throughout the spring and summer and fifth through eighth grade teams in the fall and winter. Basketball training is available year-round for individuals, camps and small groups.

Academy athletes have access to Sanford Sports performance programs, Sanford orthopedics and sports medicine and the opportunity to benefit from Sanford’s sports science, which includes guidance on nutrition, biomechanical analysis and mental performance expertise.

“We’re doing this year-round and we have a phenomenal group working for us who love what they do,” Coleman said. “They love the impact they can have, they love to teach, they love the fun. This is a well-oiled and well-rounded machine when it comes to the game of basketball. Being part of the Sanford platform allows us to elevate what we do to a higher level than others are able to do.”

A message for all levels

Academy volleyball director Mark McCloskey has been involved with Sanford for more than 10 years now and is credited with building programs that have significantly impacted the sport’s level of development and engagement in the region.

That goes for the elite traveling teams at the top end as well as for the youngsters getting their first taste of the sport.

“For the young ones, it’s probably about 75% P.E. class – kids are learning about how to move their bodies – and about 25% volleyball,” McCloskey said. “Obviously, as they develop and get older that switches to considerably more volleyball.”

Coaches work as a team to get athletes from point A to point B with consistent feedback and information from a staff passing along a unified message.

“We’ve got kids who are seniors in high school now who started with us when they were third graders,” McCloskey said. “It’s a process where we have everyone doing the same things so that when they return next year they don’t have to start over. They already have a foundation they developed in the years before.”

Something for everyone

The Sanford Sports Academy golf program, which offers instruction for both youth and adults, meets golfers where they are and helps get them where they want to go.

This can mean teaching the basics of the game to those just starting school or helping their parents or grandparents revive their interest in golf by becoming better players.

“We have something for everybody and there are different layers to that,” said Sam Vosler, a certified PGA instructor who directs golf programming. “At the end of the day if somebody comes through that door, our team has a great opportunity to help them get better at golf.”

The Academy refers to this as “finding your success.” The essential point is that goals and the paths to them are determined largely by the athletes themselves. It’s a philosophy that is prevalent throughout the Academy in golf and its other sports.

“Sometimes I think people hear the term ‘academy’ and think it’s an elite thing,” Vosler said. “We certainly love to work with elite players who are passionate about the game, but we’re here for the everyday person, too. We also work with kids who are trying to make their high school teams and adults who want to move their handicap from 30 to 20.”

The Academy is staffed by teaching pros and supported by Sanford Sports Performance programs. Programs offered include one-on-one and small group instruction and is available year-round.

It also provides opportunities for team golf modeled after high school and college programs.

Getting better, getting smarter

Riley Christensen, a freshman at Harrisburg High School, began working with Sanford coaches as a fifth grader. Last fall he won the South Dakota Class AA state high school golf title by five strokes.

He progressed from a kid who didn’t play much but liked watching the majors on TV with his dad to becoming a state high school champion. Along the way he has worked with several Sanford coaches who have helped him “find his success.”

“I love my summer sessions at Sanford,” Christensen said. “We’ll have one-on-one sessions and then we’ll also have some group time. The group time is usually about competition. The individual sessions are like ‘All right, let’s get down to business. How are we going to get better today?’ It’s a great way to get better in a small amount of time.”

Though his progress has been impressive, this 15-year-old realizes he still has a ton to learn. To that end, the Sanford staff keeps challenging him as his knowledge of the game increases.

They have not just helped him with his swing, they have taught him more about it. It’s a distinction that can come in handy in the middle of a round.

“Instead of calling a coach and being like ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I’m figuring out how to put some of the pieces together with what I’ve learned and go from there,” he said. “That has helped me a lot.”

Commitment to community

The additional fields at the Sanford Sports Complex will give more athletes opportunities to advance their skills by allowing for a more robust schedule of local tournaments. This will serve the community by bringing more people to town and will also give traveling teams the opportunity to stay home more often.

“Traveling for tournaments can get expensive for kids and families,” Kolb said. “By being able to host more tournaments here, our families might only have to travel three times a summer instead of five. That would cut down on the cost while still providing memorable experiences.”

Sanford Sports includes Sanford Sports Performance, which offers youth and adults the opportunity to get more athletic and more fit, regardless of the starting point for that venture, under the guidance of professionals.

Sanford Sports also provides extensive and ever-expanding facilities for the communities to operate sports programs.

The Sanford Sports Academy, then, represents the skill-building wing of the mission. It is where athletes gain insight into what it means to improve at a sport and what it will take to get there.

Within the goals of athletes, that fits in perfectly. Within the goals of Sanford’s overall mission, it represents an accumulation of experience, life lessons and inspiration.

“Sports engage more individuals, more families, and more communities in a shared activity than any other movement in America or in the world right now,” Young said. “For us, it’s an opportunity to provide a window into the mission, vision and values of Sanford Health. Sanford Sports exists to improve the human condition, and we do that through creating experiences that encourage a transformation and enhance community well-being.”

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Posted In Fargo, Orthopedics, Sanford Sports, Sioux Falls, Sports Medicine