Athletic leadership

Coach and former athlete Mariah Dunham-LaPointe talks to area student-athletes about resiliency during Thursday’s Student-Athletes Leadership Workshop. Speakers gave presentations at the event held at the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Adult mentors had a good reason for asking a special group of teens to attend Thursday’s Student-Athlete Leadership Workshop.

“They see you as a leader or someone who can potentially be a strong leader in your school,” said Kelly Sager, regional school health coordinator with the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, which hosted the event with the NorthCare Network.

The student-athletes from area high schools listened to a variety of speakers who gave them advice on topics like being a role model, healthy relationships and how substance abuse affects athletic performance.

Social media is another realm that’s been affecting the community.

“We’ve had cyberbullying issues, suicide issues, sexting issues, so we need to be aware that this is another area where you guys need to be leaders,” Sager said.

Student-athletes from area high schools connect with each other during the event. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

That requires a different way of thinking.

“If someone sends you an inappropriate picture or inappropriate text, you don’t just let that go,” Sager said.

Instead, they need to tell an adult.

“That’s what a leader does,” Sager said.

One of the workshop speakers was Mariah Dunham-LaPointe of Marquette, an account manager for City Insurance Agency and a Northern Michigan University graduate. She is owner and head coach of Level UP Express basketball.

Dunham-LaPointe, who called herself a coach, mentor and survivor, focused on resiliency and talked about her life experiences.

A Google search on resiliency, she said, brings up this definition: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

Dunham-LaPointe asked the students to relate their stories of what they or others have had to overcome in their young lives.

The original responses dealt with physical challenges such as tearing an anterior cruciate ligament or pulling a hamstring, ailments typical to an athlete. Practicing harder and getting support from teammates, for example, helped them overcome those hurdles.

However, athletes aren’t immune to more serious issues.

A girl tearfully said her dad passed away last summer, and she’s still in denial over the event. In fact, she had difficulty talking about the subject at the workshop, prompting a long hug from Dunham-LaPointe.

“I was waiting for somebody to give me some real-life stuff,” Dunham-LaPointe. “I understand injuries. Injuries are a part of your life. You’re going to get injured playing sports. You’re all athletes.”

However, she commended the girl for bringing up her dad’s death.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say something like that,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “We’ve all probably lost somebody close to us, and it’s hard to speak those feelings.”

She’s had her share of adversity, with both of her parents heavy alcoholics and having been sexually assaulted at age 7 by a neighborhood friend.

Playing basketball then became her outlet, which she loved.

“Literally from the time I woke up to the time the lights turned off, I was outside playing basketball because I didn’t have to deal with my parents then,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “So, basketball holds a very special role in my life from a very young age.”

She also excelled at the sport, even though her parents came to her games drunk, which understandably caused her embarrassment.

That’s when resiliency helped her.

“You want to look at positive outlets and positive things in your life, that you cannot ignore the issue but look at it from a different angle,” Dunham-LaPointe said.

As as sophomore, she accepted an offer for a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, after a successful freshman season, she learned her beloved aunt was diagnosed with brain cancer in Dunham-LaPointe’s sophomore year.

Following this setback, she began to exclude her friends and teammates and was diagnosed with depression. But once she was honest with herself and decided to face reality, she began to talk with them as well as a counselor.

“I started to feel better,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “I would go into practice with a great attitude and I would have energy again.”

Her learned lesson? People are there for you if you ask.

She later transferred to NMU, which brought to her a sense of relief, even though her parents were overcoming their issues. Halfway through her senior season, though, her back gave out.

Dunham-LaPointe considered giving up. However, with the help of her friends and others — as well as back injections — she continued to play, including in the NCAA tournament.

“That was one of the best feelings, not giving up on myself and not saying, ‘I’m just not going to try anymore,'” Dunham-LaPointe said.

Her advice?

“You’ve got to lean on people,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “Number two, you’ve got to learn from what happened to you in the past. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t make the mistakes. Don’t be the person that keeps running into the door.

“Open the door and go through it.”

Dunham-LaPointe is the Amateur Athletic Union coach of Elizabeth Farley, a junior at Westwood High School who attended the workshop. The teen said the participants learned a lot about what her coach endured.

“It’s a good learning lesson for all of us,” Farley said.

Eric DeMink, who works out of Houghton for Dial Help Inc., focused on how substance use affects athletic performance.

Society pressures don’t go away after the teen years, he said.

“Even as you’re an adult, people are going to peer-pressure you into things,” DeMink said.

He pointed out it can take up to seven years for adult brain to become addicted to a substance. For an adolescent, it takes nine to 18 months.

That means a greater chance for a young person to develop an addiction, and that addiction will come more quickly.

DeMink also said addiction is a brain disease, and to stop, people have to ask for help.

For a student-athlete, substance abuse can lead to lower grades, loss of playing time, less focus on the field, decreased training results, lower performance and loss of safety, he said.

“if you’re focused on a substance rather than the play or whatever you’re doing — right? — you’re not going to be up to the same optimal abilities,” DeMink said.

Two NMU athletes, Kenton Mack and Dante Holmes, also spoke to the students.

“When I think of a leader, it’s someone who really can unite others around them, whether that be from not playing a single minute and getting the whole bench to cheer for the people on the court, or getting game winners,” Mack said.

Holmes said: “Just being a leader is everything that you need to be in order to be successul in life.”

Other leaders scheduled to speak Thursday were: Ishpeming High School football coach Jeff Olson; Alan McEvoy, head/professor in the NMU Department of Sociology and Anthropology; and Sam Ali, sports director at ABC 10.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is