It’s been a busy summer for Mara McClain, a soon-to-be senior goaltender at Bloomington Jefferson High School in Minnesota.
She’s juggling the typical 17-year-old fun in the sun with work as a youth tennis instructor and training for her upcoming hockey season. Last week, that training included the second annual Minnesota Wild Leadership Summit, an event supported by Minnesota Hockey, which brings together some 300 high school and college captains and coaches for an inspired day of learning.
For McClain, a two-sport captain, the summit delivered insights she’s excited to use on the ice, the tennis court and beyond.
“The two main things that stood out to me were the mental game tips and also the speeches from Jason Zucker and Chad Greenway, who talked about the importance of community involvement,” said McClain. “Hearing about how these pro athletes are still involved in their community and how important it is to them – it just shows us that, as younger athletes, we should get involved in our communities as well, whether it be helping youth teams or something bigger, such as fundraisers or community events. I just think that was really important to hear.”
McClain knows community-building can take many forms.
One highly visible and time-tested example is providing mentorship to local children, which she and her fellow Jaguars do throughout the season in an initiative pairing Bloomington Jefferson High School players with local youth teams.
But community involvement doesn’t begin and end with the youngest demographic. Within her own age group, McClain and three other Jaguar tennis captains have discovered that it’s possible to strengthen a team – and a community – by hosting open tennis sessions during their captains’ practices each year.
“It can be anybody from returning Jefferson players to people who’ve never held a racquet in their life and they’ll just come out and hit the ball back and forth, see if they like it and if they want to try it in the fall,” said McClain. “And I think that’s really special to see people who’ve never tried it before come out, play with a couple of friends and get involved in this community that is probably about 40 or 50 girls.”
For McClain, community involvement also extends to causes. One she’s particularly involved with is the Alzheimer’s Association, for which she raises funds and participates in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
The Wild Leadership Summit inspired her to keep up those efforts, and also keep boosting her and her teammates’ cause athletically.
“There was an emphasis on how important it is to really work on your mental game as much as you’re working on your physical game,” said McClain. “And there was a statement about how you’ve got to make that little voice inside your head a positive voice. That really hit home for me. Hockey is hard, because you get in your head, and you really need to have those positive thoughts driving you to get better. If that voice is negative over and over, you’re going to get negative results and it’s just going to hold you back.”
Another key summit emphasis was on the captain’s role in unifying a team. The message was familiar but still useful for McClain, especially given the challenge of mixed-age roster construction at the high school level.
“It’s really important for us to hear that, because high school sports do range sometimes from eighth graders to seniors, and it is kind of difficult to get the whole group to function, especially when there’s that big of an age difference.”
McClain lived it, cracking the varsity roster as an eighth grader. Ever since, she’s continued to hone her skills – both in the physical sense and the leadership sense – eventually progressing to a spot in USA Hockey’s Girls Under-18 National Player Development Camp last summer. The experience made a lasting impression.
“I absolutely loved it,” said McClain. “It was incredible because I got to play at that high level with girls from across the country, and I’ve never had that experience. There were girls from out east, and my goalie partner was from Alaska. Being able to play with all these girls who are clearly very talented to get to that level – it was a really cool experience. And going from that into the season, taking the skills I learned from the camp, I felt really confident in my play.
“It was great just to play at that higher level and get used to those great shots and take what I learned from that and bring it to my high school team and up my play, as in I was faster, stronger and I could react to the puck better because I had been with these girls who are very, very talented. I could definitely implement what I learned there into my high school program.”
She’ll do more of the same this fall, building on her physical skills, and thanks to a worthwhile summit experience, her mental skills, too.
“My coach, Mike Ryan, reached out to the seniors on our team about the summit and he suggested we should go,” said McClain. “And I’m glad he did, because it was definitely a great opportunity.”