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Athletics: No slice in Savannah Smith's coaching game

Savannah Smith watches one of her Pequot Lakes Patriots girls golfers Monday, May 13 during the Mid-State Conference Championship at The Vintage at Staples. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Savannah Smith is a rarity, and that's unfortunate.

The Pequot Lakes High School graduate and recent Concordia University grad is a female high school head coach in the Brainerd lakes area. The 23-year-old is one of just six female head coaches this spring in the lakes area and the fall and winter seasons aren't any better.

At the age of 23, Smith is balancing a new career and a new husband along with coaching two different sports in two different locations and appears to be succeeding.

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Q: You started coaching while you were still a college student. What made you decide to do that?

SS: When I decided to pursue golf in college, it was very difficult to give up Alpine skiing. It was something I was still truly passionate about. When the opportunity came around to coach Jefferson High School ski team, I was thrilled. Since it was during the golf offseason, it worked out perfectly to coach skiing in the winter. It allowed me to be a part of the ski world and got me on the ski hill.

Q: Because of your early coaching experience you're already a veteran of sorts. What keeps you doing it?

SS: The athletes are my motivating factor. Sports played such a big role in shaping the person I am today and I want everyone to have those same opportunities. I truly love giving back and sharing my passion and experiences with them. Seeing them get excited about golf/skiing and trying to improve every day is what brings me back. I feel blessed to be participating in my two favorite sports and to call that my career is amazing.

My original plan out of college was far from what I am doing now. I studied psychology and kinesiology at Concordia University St. Paul and planned to attend graduate school to pursue my doctorate in psychology. I got into my graduate school of choice and was ready to make that commitment until about a month before graduating. Something didn't feel right and I began to rethink things. I started asking myself, "What makes you truly happy?" Sports and coaching were the two things that kept coming to mind. It was a big life choice to say "no" to graduate school, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I joined the PGA shortly after graduating and am on track to becoming a full PGA member by next year. Not only do I coach the Pequot Lakes girls golf team, but I am also the first assistant PGA Golf Professional at Braemar Golf Course in Edina. In the winter months, I am a Team Gilboa Alpine ski coach out of Bloomington.

Q: I've been doing this for awhile and I've heard the horror stories of coaching. How have your first few years gone?

SS: I can honestly say that I have been fortunate enough to coach some really great people. The first few years of coaching have gone very smooth. It has been an easy transition from season to season. Probably the most challenging part is learning how to read people and knowing what to say and when to say it. Figuring out what motivates people and how to help them achieve their goals. Every day is a new adventure and you never know what's going to happen. I wouldn't say this is a bad thing, it actually makes my job that much more fun. In school they always told us to find a career we love so it doesn't feel like work. I can truly say they were right.

Q: You've coached Alpine skiing in the metro area and girls golf here in Pequot. What are the similarities and differences between coaching those different sports and the different settings?

SS: One thing that is nice with both skiing and golf is that they both deal with manipulating equipment to be successful. I feel that even though both sports are widely different, I can take the same coaching approach to be effective in both. There is a lot of patience involved with both sports because of the tiny movements that need to be executed. Having attention to minor details is crucial in helping the athlete reach their fullest potential.

On the other hand, skiing only takes about 30 seconds where golf takes around four hours. The motivating factors in both sports are very different and pinpointing these is my job as a coach.

Coaching in the metro, the population size of each sport is much larger and the travel times are a lot shorter between each event. The skill level is much more diverse in the metro area because of the population sizes. It is great for the growth of sports, but it does take a different coaching approach. Being able to jump from an elite athlete to a beginner in the matter of minutes can be challenging, but always keeps you on your toes. In the Brainerd lakes area, I feel there are smaller team sizes and the athletes fall into a more narrow skill level because they tend to pick a sport and stick with it. Working with the smaller team can be beneficial due to the fact that more one-on-one coaching can take place. Both coaching areas, even though different, have great opportunities and many talented athletes.

Q: The Brainerd lakes area has 46 spring sports teams between boys and girls programs. Yet, there are just six female coaches. Why do you think women are reluctant to get into coaching?

SS: I would say that pursuing a coaching job as a female can be a little more intimidating because in years past, it has been a male dominated field. I do believe that this is slowly starting to change because of the benefits of both male and female coaches working together to make a stronger, more well-rounded athlete. Not being afraid to stand up for yourself and having confidence in your coaching abilities are crucial to making an impact in the sport. Being able to have different perspectives and seeing situations in different ways, whether that being from a male or female, is very important to the future of all sports. Doing things the way "they have always been done" is dull and not very inspiring. We have to break down the walls and learn how to get our athletes more engaged and motivated to improve.

Q: What do school districts, activities directors, maybe even student athletes, have to do to encourage, help more females get into coaching?

SS: I think building strong female role models is the first step to getting more female coaches. Encouraging strong female athletes to mentor younger ones is important not only to the success of the team, but also future teams. Having guest speakers, more educational opportunities, and the right leadership/mentor is a great start to this process. I am currently starting a committee for the ski team I coach, Team Gilboa, that involves empowering female coaches and athletes to promote inclusivity, confidence, and a lifelong passion for the sport. I will be organizing educational opportunities to help women feel more confident in their coaching roles. Involving male coaches in this process is also important because everyone should be involved in supporting each other.

Q: You're recently married. You've taken on a new job and yet you still find time to coach. What is it for you that despite all the hurdles you still find time to coach?

SS: It definitely is a balancing act right now. I try to stay very organized so I can stay in control of my ever-evolving schedule. Staying in constant communication with everyone involved is one of the secrets to my success. I couldn't do what I am doing without the help of my assistants and coworkers. They have been so understanding of my many commitments and have stepped up when I have needed them most. My husband is very supportive of my goals and dreams and loves to see me so passionate about the work I am doing. We both are very busy, but do get to spend quality time together, especially with our two puppies, Butters and Biscuit. I do spend a lot of time in the car, but I use that time to think about my lesson plans, make up golf games and think about my "to-do" list for the week.

Q: I realize times are changing, but my guess is growing up you were on the golf course quite a bit playing. It certainly helps that your parents own Crosswoods Golf Course in Crosslake. However, there are so many free or inexpensive opportunities for junior golfers just in the lakes area. How do we get kids interested? How do we get them outside playing sports again?

SS: There are a number of great opportunities in the lakes area, I think it is just about getting the word out. All of the courses in the area have their own junior programs, camps and instructors that are ready to teach kids about this life changing game. One hurdle is the cost, but with great programs like the MGA's "Youth on Course," where golf only costs $5 a round, and the US Kids Golf Club program, where sets are measured properly and offer a free trade up set, the game is becoming more accessible.

Last year, I was part of the planning committee for the Brainerd Lakes Area Golf-A-Palooza held at The Legacy, where kids could come and experience all the fun of golf for free. We offered free instruction from the area PGA professionals, had contests, food, music, and also helped fit kids from proper clubs. We had over 300 kids show up. It was a great start to something we want to do every year. They are planning this year's Golf-A-Palooza 2-5 p.m. May 19 at the Chris Foley Golf School at Cragun's Legacy Courses. It is a great opportunity to see what junior programs are in the area and how to sign up.

The main thing about junior golf is to make it fun. Breaking the mold of the way golf used to be taught is the only way to keep kids interested. Playing games and making memories will keep them hooked.

Q: I know you've helped your parents with junior clinics and running those. Is that maybe why you found the transition to coaching easier than most?

SS: I think that played a huge role in my coaching career. Being exposed to the coaching side of both sports at a young age helped me think of sports in a new light. It gave me a deeper understanding of why things happened the way they did. I think this helped me as an athlete as well. Having my younger sister on my same golf and ski team was important, too. We were always very competitive, but in a sisterly kind of way. I wanted to see her succeed just as much as I did and we pushed each other to be better. Those are memories that will last with me my whole life. Not many people can say they were teammates with their sister and then had the opportunity to coach her as well.

Q: Aitkin has a few girls on the varsity. Wadena-Deer Creek and Crosby-Ironton are playing junior varsity schedules. Staples-Motley is struggling to field a full varsity team because of injuries. Pequot has remained solid in numbers as has Pierz over the years and Pine River-Backus is a success story because of its program's growth. Why is it so hard to get girls to play golf?

SS: As I mentioned earlier, there are multiple factors to the decreasing numbers in golf. Time, money, difficulty level, and other sports just to name a few. Golf is not a quick sport. It takes a lot of patience and dedication. I have been playing golf for 20 years and am nowhere near perfect. If an athlete decides to play golf, it will take some time to get the mechanics down and then applying those mechanics to the course will also take time. If an athlete can work through the beginning stage of golf and form a deeper connection with the sport, I believe they will learn so many life lessons and can play it for a lifetime.

Golf is also expensive. Clubs, green fees, golf balls, uniforms, and shoes tend to add up very quickly. I try very hard to fundraise so these costs don't fall on my players. Making golf as accessible as possible is what will lead to its overall growth. If girls see that golf is fun and that they can play it long after high school, I think they will be more encouraged to join. It is also a lot easier when their friends are involved. The girls on my team have grown very close and it makes my job as a coach much easier because they enjoy their time at practice and at the meets. I think with the growth of younger, very involved, women on the LPGA Tour, we will hopefully see an increase in girls golf numbers in the area.

Q: You were an all-state Alpine skier for the Brainerd Warriors. Do you miss the competitive nature of downhill skiing? Was it ever an option for you to go to a college that offered it?

SS: I am not going to lie, skiing was my first love. I started when I was 2 when we lived in Oregon. Throughout high school, I always thought I would pursue skiing in college, possibly even on an international level. When I realized how many opportunities there were for collegiate golf, my plans started to shift. I am very glad I made that decision looking at where golf has brought me, but yes, I do miss Alpine skiing. I think that all the sports I played shaped me into the person I am today and I think skiing helped make me a better golfer. I know that sounds strange, but having the same competitive mindset as skiing helped me stay "in the zone" while on the golf course.

Coaching Alpine skiing has helped me stay in that world and I am so happy to still be able to share my passion with young ski racers.

Q: The Brainerd lakes area courses have done a pretty good job of promoting golf for women, in my opinion, but I've heard some complaints by some of the better players that the area courses aren't really set up for female players. Do you agree with that?

SS: I do think that every course plays a little differently, and all players, male or female, will find some courses more challenging than others. Golf is the great equalizer sport in my opinion. It doesn't matter whether you are male or female, the person that makes it around the course in the least amount of strokes is the winner. Every persons' golf game is a little different and that is why not all courses will play the same. Personally, I truly enjoy every course in the lakes area. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a place where golf was around every corner. Each course has beauty in it's own unique way and I think accepting the challenges is why the game of golf is so fun and interesting.

Q: Your parents have done a really nice job of growing Crosswoods into one of the more popular and certainly one of the busiest courses in the area. Do they ever get to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

SS: If you ever take a sunset golf cart ride on a warm summer night at Crosswoods I think you will experience what Minnesota golf is supposed to be like. Now imagine that your two hands built that golf course and watched it grow into the business it is today. It gives me chills every time. My parents have dedicated their lives into building Crosswoods into the little golf haven it has become. Even though our family is extremely busy during the summer months, we use the winter to relax and unwind. I think seeing where golf and Crosswoods has taken my sister and I, my parents can see how truly special it all is. Most of my childhood memories took place running around the golf course, whether I was playing golf or not. As my sister and I got more involved throughout high school, we were able to get our dad out to play more. Whether that be a couple holes at dusk or playing a putting game after school, we made it fun. My mom married into golf, but I have actually been giving her lessons and she is doing great. I am so proud of how far my grandparents and parents have grown the business and I hope to someday add to its success since I plan to take over in the future.

Q: Your younger sister Alex choose Augustana over your alma mater Concordia University in St. Paul. What were your thoughts on that?

SS: My sister and I are very competitive and always have been. Like I said earlier, we have always pushed each other to be better. I never questioned her decision to play at Augustana. It is a great school and has a fantastic golf program. I think the schools we chose were better fits for our educational choices as well. I studied psychology and kinesiology while she is currently studying accounting. Things became interesting when she gave me an Augustana shirt for Christmas last year. But in all seriousness, she always supported me in my endeavors and I plan to do the same for her.

Jeremy Millsop

My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.

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