Brian Townsend loves his job.

As the director of the Michigan Athletic Department’s Leadership Development program, he works with over a dozen teams, honing skills from communication to collective problem solving.  

Going into this year’s season, the Michigan hockey team has taken advantage of the program and has been meeting with Townsend every week since the beginning of the summer. 

Each of the 18 teams Townsend works with is different. Some want to meet every week while others meet every two weeks or every month. 

The focus of the program is determined by what the coach thinks the team needs. Some want to work on communication, some focus on having more courage and others work on developing a growth mindset. For hockey, the focus was on team culture. 

“Each team comes with their set of what I like to call ‘balconies’ and ‘basements,’ things that they want to work on,” Townsend said. “On each team, though, there may be a lot that are similar. Our plan is unique for each team, it’s not totally different.”

For the hockey team, the plan started with a lot of self reflection. Townsend asked the players to start by identifying their personal leadership styles, values and skills.

The goal was to identify differences among players and figure out how to use those differences to the team’s advantage.

Then, Townsend helped the Wolverines identify what values they wanted to define their team, a process that took three months. 

They started with a list of 25 values and spent two weeks narrowing it down to seven. The team spent the next two months trying to live up to those seven ideals. Then, they spent another two weeks cutting it down from seven to five. 

The team decided their culture would be defined by the phrases intentional, team first, positivity, work ethic and accountability.

Players up and down the roster have talked about the benefits they’ve seen from the process. They’ve agreed that the meetings have gotten the team on the same page and made them closer. 

Now that the school year is in full swing and the season is on the horizon, the players are trying to understand how to “live in” the identity they’ve created.

“Right now, we’re going through each week, and talking about what each value looks like academically, athletically, socially,” Townsend said. “What are the words that we’re going to hear and not hear with this value? Each week they pick a team value and live it. But they understand we have to live these values not only just within athletics. We have to live these values academically and socially.”

The whole process has been self-directed by the players. Townsend’s role is to “lock arms with them” and help facilitate the work, but all progress and decisions are made by the student-athletes themselves.

“It’s easy for a coach to say ‘Hey, this is going to be our culture. This is how we need to play. This is going to be our identity,’ but with (Townsend), they’ve been able to do that on their own,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They’ve taken more ownership of our group and our team. I think it’s been really helpful not only for our team but as coaches. We’ve learned a lot of things about our players that maybe we normally wouldn’t have if we hadn’t taken the time for these meetings.”

One reason for focusing on culture was that this year’s roster will include 10 freshmen. The returning players, along with the coaching staff, wanted to make sure the new additions were coming into a team with a strong foundation. 

While the meetings started with just last season’s returning players, the freshmen were added to the conversations halfway through the process. 

“That was pretty huge for us to kind of just get to know each other and get to know (the freshmen) a little bit more,” junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “It allowed them to feel a bit more comfortable when they did come in. Rather than have a bunch of new faces, they kind of recognized us, and it just made it a little bit easier for them to gel with the group.”

Michigan hockey’s captains and alternates have been taking the lessons one step further, sitting down with the rest of the players to have tough conversations. 

“I see (junior goaltender) Strauss Mann as the person that will lead a company in the future because that’s how he is wired, but most importantly is he cares a ton,” Townsend said. “He does a really good job of getting to know people in different ways and building relationships, and I would say that’s true about the other captains too.”

Townsend knows the importance of good leadership from experience. He played football for the Wolverines under Bo Schembechler, bringing home four consecutive Big Ten titles along the way. 

After a couple years in the NFL as a linebacker, Townsend became a high school teacher and football coach in his hometown of Cincinnati. From then on, his career as a coach took off. He experienced what he calls “second year success” wherever he went. In Ohio, it only took one season for him to take the football team from last in the league to first.  

He did the same thing a few years later, when he found himself back in Ann Arbor, coaching football at Pioneer High School. He turned around the program in a year and won the state championship. 

He did it again when he became an assistant basketball coach at Ohio University. And again when he became the Director of Operations for the Michigan basketball team in 2007.

Townsend says he doesn’t consider himself the reason for any of those successes. He just focuses not only on making individual players better, but making the individuals work better collectively.

“I’m a teacher, and I’m a coach at heart, and I’m a cheerleader at the same time,” Townsend said.

That outlook made him a good candidate for his current role as Director of the Leadership Development program, a job he transitioned into in 2014. 

Townsend knows that for any of these lessons to stick, more than anything, it has to be a team effort. 

“It doesn’t happen without Mel Pearson,” Townsend said. “It doesn’t happen without the assistant coaches. It doesn’t happen without your captains. It doesn’t happen without guys buying in.”



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