Teressa Vellrath is many things: a former figure skater and ice dancer, a motivated coach and leader—and the first graduate of the Master’s in Sport Coaching and Leadership program at Michigan State University.
The fully online program was established in May 2016, and Vellrath graduated in August 2017. As part of her capstone project to complete her degree, Vellrath helped create an after-school figure skating program for young girls in the Oakland, Calif. area, designing a space that focuses on learning, community and youth development.
“We could not have had a better first graduate of our program,” said Professor Dan Gould. Gould is director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and was an instructor for some of Vellrath’s classes. “Teressa applied what she learned about fostering youth development in her courses to her coaching, opening up new opportunities for underserved girls who would otherwise not have had those opportunities.”
Vellrath’s advisor, Andy Driska, agreed.
“She had this ability to take a pretty ambiguous idea and turn it into reality,” said Driska, assistant professor and coordinator of the master’s program. “The master’s program was designed for working professionals looking to make a career in coaching and other aspects of sport. We ask students to find some aspect of their current work where they want to improve, make some gains or launch a new initiative. Teressa was a great example of that.”
Vellrath helped launch Skate Oakland in February 2017. Created for girls ages 10-13, it includes after-school tutoring and figure skating instruction two days per week. The program initially began through the efforts of the local skating community; Vellrath’s dedication to formatting the skating and tutoring elements is a major reason why the program, which currently serves six girls from the local community, continues today.
Skating can be an expensive sport, she explained, but the fact that this program is free helps bring diversity and opportunities to girls who might not be able to become involved in the sport otherwise. The program is intentionally kept small for now as it builds up and works to be sustainable for years to come.
Program tutors are on-hand to help with homework and to learn fundamental moves for skating, but Skate Oakland also aims to build other skills in the participants.
“We try to incorporate team building and leadership into all we do,” Vellrath said. “Skating is a hard sport, but if you push through and work hard, you can build characteristics in yourself for the future … We want to help make these girls great athletes, but also an adult who is contributing to their community.”
Vellrath knows a thing or two about coaching: While earning her undergraduate degree in communications at the University of California, Berkeley, Vellrath was a junior skating coach at the institution’s rink. She had previously skated for more than 20 years competitively.
“I wanted to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. It stuck! I’ve been coaching ever since.”
Skate Oakland—modeled after Skate Harlem, based in New York (and a new chapter that recently opened in Detroit, Mich.)—came to be through a collaborative effort. The skating director in the area rink donated ice time, and local parents have helped with outreach and getting the program running. It was a community-based idea, and a community-based creation, Vellrath says.
But it almost didn’t happen. Vellrath was hesitant to contribute to Skate Oakland while a student at MSU. She felt there were pieces missing, the curriculum wasn’t fully developed.
“Andy said: ‘At some point, it’s never going to be perfect, and you have to take the jump.’ That really encouraged me. The faculty and the courses really inspired me and supported me to create this. I don’t know if I would’ve reached so high as to start this after-school program if it weren’t for MSU.”
Making a difference
“What excites me about Teressa’s project is that it typifies the ‘Spartans Will’ attitude that Michigan State espouses,” Gould said. “Through her coaching, Teressa is changing girls’ lives by fostering skills such as discipline and responsibility that they can use both on and off the ice.”
Vellrath’s project is an example of what the new MSU program is all about, Driska added. Not only is she expanding figure skating to a wider audience, she helped develop something centered on learning and personal growth.
“So many children participate in organized youth sport; a good coach can really make a difference. They need someone who not only knows how to teach a sport, but takes a larger role in the holistic development of the children and the people they work with,” he continued.
The program has a grounding in sport science and kinesiology, but also includes management, administration and psychology aspects as well.
“If we do this right, the graduates of our program have the ability to go out into their community and make a difference.”