April 13th, 2012

Hyland's Heroes: Martha Stephenson

Paul Najjar

CSN Staff Writer

Hyland's Heroes: Martha Stephenson
photo from Martha Stephenson

Stephenson keeps her student athletes on the run

The following feature is a part of a weekly series, sponsored by Hyland, Block & Hyland, called "Hyland's Heroes" - a set of profiles that will spotlight Louisville area Catholic volunteers, coaches and administrators who assist athletic programs and teams, and help promote excellence in all aspects of sports. Know someone that you think should be featured as the next "Hyland's Hero”? Send your recommendation to editor@catholicsportsnet.com.

A mother, a fund-raiser, a leader, an avid tennis player, a coach, a wife. That sums up the interview with this week’s Hyland’s Heroes feature, Martha Stephenson.

In addition to her job as the Director of Development at her alma mater, Presentation Academy, the energetic Stephenson has devoted the past 10 years to coaching tennis, cross country and track at the high school and elementary levels. She and her husband Mike are the parents of 7th grader Lilly and 1st grader Eli, both at St. Stephen Martyr. As a coach, Stephenson brings a positive attitude and an encouraging presence to the student-athletes she coaches.

The oldest of four siblings, Martha (Brown) Stephenson grew up in the St. Agnes parish and was one of those all-around athletes. She cheered, played basketball, softball and volleyball for her school. At Presentation Academy, Stephenson played volleyball and softball. She recalled several memorable, positive impressions from her playing days as a young student-athlete, most specifically the impact that her coaches had on her and how she’s used those memories to fuel the foundation of her coaching today.

“I remember being influenced by really good volunteer coaches,” she said. “Being a part of a program back then wasn’t as competitive as it is today, but I remember being encouraged and always being taught good fundamentals. And sportsmanship was always a big deal with the coaches I played for back then.”

One of those coaches, Barbara Wine, is now the principal at Presentation.

A big supporter for all of her student athletes, Stephenson takes any and all interested in running into her cross-country and track programs at St. Stephen Martyr, and she makes it clear that she wants these kids to enjoy the sport and have as much fun as possible in the process.

“We have the younger kids pair up with a mentor and we often have a game at the end of practices,” Stephenson said. “Whether it’s a relay or a scavenger hunt or our version of The Amazing Race where we leave clues throughout the park where they have to team up and find the clues, cross country running has to be fun. We try to make it as fun as we can and give them something at the end of every practice that they can enjoy.”

With the emphasis on fun, Stephenson gets her cross country teams engaged almost by sleight of hand. And before they know it, those youngsters have run 2 or 3 miles.

“With every practice we try to incorporate something fun,” she said. “We try to make some sort of game of it. We’ve used water balloons, frisbees and things like that to get the kids to move and enjoy themselves while they do it. And for every practice we try to bring some type of healthful snack.”

A pretty simple recipe: have fun while you run and have a snack at the end. Sign me up for that, coach.

Practicing most days at Joe Creason Park, Stephenson has plenty of room for her runners to move and challenge themselves. And through incentives for her young runners, she feels like the kids understand the work they have to put into the practice as or before they can have a little fun.

“They know they have to work for me before they can have their fun or get their reward,” she noted. “This seems to work for us and keeps the kids upbeat about running. We try to keep them motivated with positive running messages. One kid asked me, ‘Are you going to be disappointed if I run last?’ I’ll never forget that. This isn’t about finishing first or last, it was about that young kid having set a personal best and his personal best was to finish the race still running. Every race he did exactly that.”

She has spent two seasons as cross country coach and has helped with the tennis team at SSM for three years. Before that, the avid tennis player who still plays on a USTA team coached the Presentation tennis team.

“Cross country isn’t like volleyball or basketball or some of the other big sports,” she said. “But we’re trying to get the kids to understand that it is a big sport and that you can have a lot of success with it. We’re trying to change the image of the sport with the kids and I don’t mind being flexible with the other sports. We cheer as hard for the kids who come in the top ten as we do the kids who finish towards the back of the pack.”

Both of the Stephenson kids are active in sports with Lilly playing volleyball and Eli just starting tennis. Another aspect of her service to SSM is that she is a member of the parish choir.

“You wouldn’t believe how much of an effect that has on the kids when they see you in church,” she said. “It’s a good lesson for the kids to see their coaches involved in the church. I want all of the kids to feel special about what they have accomplished and I want all of them involved in giving their teammates as much support as possible.”


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