Staying on Track: Emphasizing the Journey
But Tony Natali has another approach.
“We emphasize the journey,’’ says the head of Bethel’s head track and field program. “Sure, we want to win. But we emphasize the process more than the results. We get better results that way and have more fun.’’
That journey — that process — includes a good work ethic, spiritual health and close team camaraderie that puts some blood families to shame.
If anyone doubts that it works, here are the results: The men’s and women’s teams both were conference champions last year. The men’s team won the NCCAA Indoor and Outdoor. The women’s team was the national runner-up. Natali and all his staff were honored as national and conference coaches of the year.
In the past decade, the program has grown from a handful of 12 to 14 team members to around 100. What’s probably even more remarkable is the fact that the team has no regulation track facilities on campus. In the 12 years under his watch, what would seem like a debilitating factor has been turned into an energizing, positive challenge.
“We have a meeting in August and I go through my philosophy,’’ says Natali. “I just tell them that we’re not going to use the lack of (regulation) facilities as an excuse.’’
On campus the Pilots have a rather well-worn practice track that was built more than a decade ago. Space limitations on campus have prohibited construction of a full-sized, regulation track. Dennis Engbrecht, Ph.D., senior vice president, says the recent acquisition of 13 acres south of campus may eventually allow for development of a full-size track that could be used for meets.
The team also practices on the track of a nearby public middle school, and also makes use of the basement of Bethel’s newest residence hall, nicknamed “The Lodge,” for ‘‘straightaway” sprint work.
But the lack of a regulation track on campus is viewed as an opportunity.
“It gives us a platform to talk about how Christ is in the middle of our program and points to an inner strength that says facilities are secondary.’’ The practice of seeking first the kingdom of God (his favorite Bible verse, found in Matthew 6:33) helps students look at the big picture which, in turn, “helps the small picture.’’
The team is Christ-like in another way: They’re itinerate. Since there are no regulation facilities on campus, all meets are away. They get to practice their faith in hotels, restaurants and all along the road.
“People see how we treat other people on the road, and it’s by our actions that they will see Christ in us,’’ explains the coach.
At home, the practice of seeking God’s kingdom first is played out in daily routines.
“We talk every day about character and integrity. You have to remember, these are still 18- to 21-year-olds and there’s always the temptation to say ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to go to class,’ or to take a shortcut on a workout. I try to help them understand that they’re shortchanging themselves when they do that.’’
Hard work and self-discipline were things Natali learned by playing basketball under Marvin Wood. Wood guided the Milan High School team to a state victory in 1954, and then became the subject of the 1986 hit movie “Hoosiers.”
Long after the 1954 win, Wood came to settle at Mishawaka High School, where Natali attended high school and played basketball in the late 1970s. The famed coach’s emphasis on persistence and inner strength helped drive home the importance of higher goals. “I was an athlete, but not a very gifted one,’’ says Natali. “So I had to work hard, very hard, for whatever I got.”
He also credits college basketball for his focus on teamwork. While earning his undergraduate degree at Purdue University, Natali worked as a student assistant for the Purdue basketball team under Gene Keady, longtime basketball coach. Another influence is Bruce Weber, a former Purdue basketball assistant and now head coach at the University of Illinois.
“Track can be very segmented into sprinters, distance runners, pole-vaulters and throwers,” says Natali, who is also Bethel’s assistant men’s basketball coach. “But I’m not too concerned with putting the individual ahead of the team. We do teambuilding exercises to get motivated, and we cross those natural lines of track.’’
Then there’s the supportive atmosphere. When individual track members finish competing in a meet, they’re required to stay and support other team members instead of heading back to the bus.
The team also attends chapel together and, in a pack, goes to Spiritual Emphasis Week in the fall.
Natali, who is an elder at River Valley Community Church in Mishawaka, also initiated special team services there in the fall and spring. Pastor Rick Callahan gives the sermon and a worship band plays the music.
Natali and his wife, Andrea, also invite all track team members to their home for dinner three times a year. She and their daughters, Cassie, 19, and Hannah, 15, have been part of the Bethel track family all along. Cassie is a freshman at Bethel who sprints for the team.
On campus, Natali’s door in Wiekamp Athletic Center is always open to students, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves being accessible.
“When I got out of college (Purdue) in 1983, I worked in a sales and marketing job for about a year, but decided that just wasn’t for me. I decided I wanted to be a coach. I went back to get my master’s degree in athletic administration at Bowling Green, and I had it by 1986.”
And when he recruits high school students to Bethel, he points out right away that instead of track facilities, the college has an intriguing collection of professors with whom they will have excellent working relationships.
Yeah, a lot of college coaches focus on winning.
But Tony Natali loves the journey.