Kelowna head coach Chris Cartwright exchanges a sideline high-five this past season with Owls' player Noah Gross during AAA action against St. Thomas More at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Football

How to establish a high school football culture! Owls’ HC Chris Cartwright helps kick off BCHSF Zoom Coaching series by telling a T.O.U.G.H. story

When Chris Cartwright gets his chance next month to speak to the brotherhood of B.C. high school football coaches he is so proud to be a part of, his words will be coming straight from the heart.

“Humbled and honoured…” to be part of the BCSSFA’s virtual Zoom Coaching Series set to debut June 1, the head coach of the Kelowna Owls’ Triple-A program, along with St. Thomas More co-head coach and offensive coordinator Joe Adams, will each present on various topics at a time when coaches and players are normally gearing up for spring football practices.

“I just want to make it clear that whomever is going to be watching, that I have been inspired by so many of you,” Cartwright said Thursday of his gridiron peers. 

“There’s going to be guys in the (virtual) room who have been coaching way longer than I have,” continued Cartwright, 32, and a 2005 Hugh Boyd Trojans’ grad who played along the offensive line in the AUS at Acadia before embarking on his career as a teacher-coach. “Those guys have forgotten more about football than I have known. And I am definitely going to log-in and listen to coach Adams speak about offence. I am a learner, and I am so excited about this.”

Fittingly, for one so passionate about the game and the positive effects it has on student-athletes, the topic of Cartwright’s session will centre around establishing culture within a high school football program, that intangible and ever-elusive state which can’t be physically bottled or held, yet when discovered can manifest itself like a kind of joyous putty within the DNA of a team.

“Now, more than ever, we’re dealing with a different generation of kids,” says Cartwright, set to enter his fifth season at the helm of Owls’ football this fall.

“Gone are the days when you can simply tell kids to go through a wall,” Cartwright states. “This generation of kid will ask you ‘Why?’ and we need to tell them and show them. And that’s not a bad thing. We need to ask ourselves ‘Why do I need to take ownership in this?’ and through that, there are great conversations you can have. And it’s so enriching when you see the a-ha moments.”

On his way to fine-tuning the key tenets of establishing a team culture, Cartwright admits he had a few a-ha moments of his own.

It was back in 2015 that Cartwright, at that time the offensive coordinator with Hugh Boyd’s JV team, attened the annual Football B.C. clinic with his fellow Trojans’ co-coaches Bryce Miller and Kyle Haddow, as well as his dad, UBC offensive line coach Neil Cartwright.

“I can remember Bryce saying, ‘We’ve got to be tough, that needs to be our motto,’” said Cartwright. “The word stuck with me, and I was driving home from the clinic with my dad, and it was one of those a-ha moments. I took out a notepad and my dad and I came up with an acronym for what each letter would stand for.”

And thus TOUGH, a one-word catch-all for Team, Ownership, Universal, Growth and Heart was born.

The tenets of the Kelowna Owls’ TOUGH motto are clearly visible on the back of defensive coordinator Trent Schmuland’s game-day hoodie. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2020. All Rights Reserved)

Cartwright, Haddow and Miller applied it during that 2015 season at Boyd yet by January of 2016 Cartwright and his wife had been hired as teachers in Kelowna, and it wasn’t more than a couple of months later that he accepted the head coaching spot, which just happened to open up, at Kelowna Secondary.

“I had never been a head coach and so it was a huge learning curve for me,” remembers Cartwright. “I had brought the TOUGH philosophy with me from Boyd but it was a slow start for me in learning how to run a program.”

The second so-called a-ha moment, however, allowed him to galvanize its power and thus instil a culture he has continued to build to this day.

Cartwright attended a seminar in early 2017 in Seattle in which a Texas high school coach named Randy Jackson spoke to the merits of a positive team culture.

“I can still remember him saying ‘What makes Texas high school football different isn’t the Xs and Os. We all run the same type of stuff. It’s the culture and what we do to make sure that kids are a part of a program they can’t live without.’”

After he attended that coaching seminar in 2017, he bought a copy of Jackson’s book, fittingly entitled ‘Culture Defeats Strategy’.

Cartwright will get into the details of his belief system on the topic when he speaks to the rest of the B.C. high school football coaching fraternity on June 1.

Needless to say, branding culture is no easy task, and when it succeeds, there is an entire army of people working behind the scenes to make it happen.

Cartwright lists too many individuals — from past and present coaches, teachers, administrators, athletes and parents — to include in this story, because he wants them all to know how grateful he is for their belief in the TOUGH system.

“In my journey, I have discovered that you have to be a learner, that you have to find people who in areas are smarter than you. Then you let them do what they do.”

That’s the kind of wisdom which tells you that the best never stop being both the student and the teacher.

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