Sara Heptig

Sara Heptig is the former head coach of the Olathe North Eaglettes, who have been national champions for not only NDA, but for DTU as well.  She is the most passionate and caring coach I know and she was able to motivate her team with focus, positivity and an unparalleled service component that is sure to inspire you.  She’ll also offer some valuable tips for cleaning routines, and getting great results from your team on and off the competition floor.  Sara is now the coach of the Kansas State University Classy Cats.

Tradition vs. creativity:  I always drive as a coach to focus on that tradition, carrying on the things that had been done for years. Some things obviously have to grow and change, but the history of the school was always very important to me and very important to our team. And our school in general. We always wanted to be creative, especially in our pom routines, we do something different.  We want it to be  something that would be remembered, something that just wasn’t your typical pom routine.”

The long road to becoming national champions:  “I think competitively as we started going to Missouri (from Kansas) and as we started going to nationals, it was learning not that we weren’t successful in the past, but how to move up in the ranks in placing.  We started going to NDA nationals.  I remember going there and we had no idea what we’d gotten ourselves into. I remember we were going for the warmup and we didn’t know exactly where we were going. So we found another team and we would just follow them.  Like whenever they would stop, we would stop and set our stuff down. They’d start stretching, we’d start stretching. And then they’d pick their stuff up. We’d pick our stuff up. I can’t imagine what they thought of us at the time, but we were just trying to follow to get to the right path and everything.  And it was an incredible experience, very overwhelming, for the girls and for myself. And I remember training for it because I had been to college nationals so I had an idea, it’s still different, but I had an idea of what to expect. I just tried to tell the girls just trust me, you’re going to get there and you’re going to be exposed to all these amazing teams,and you’re always going to wish I would’ve worked harder.  It’s a long preparation to get ready for nationals. And so that first year it was just me, you know, having them rely on faith and trust and what I was telling them. And after we experienced that, we got back and everybody’s like, you were right. I get it. Now you kind of get that hunger.  We always talk about that journey for the jacket and it’s an object, but it is just such a motivating force for all of us. It just kind of starts to be something that you learn how to train for. You start to practice differently. You start to think of things differently. I might even think of just the way we cleaned routines and the way we practice our spacing.  The process develops as you go.  It was a very long journey for us to get to that national championship title, but that process was so rewarding.  Looking back of course the moments throughout it, you know, there were heartbreaks,  excitement and there was everything in between. But I wouldn’t trade that for the world because I think that also shaped our program, how we trained the technique. I had an amazing assistant Kristen Burton that came in and we started doing technique classes. We decided to carve out time in our week. So we started having Wednesday technique classes where we would do our best. Sometimes we failed, but we did our best where that time was never to be taken away from just technique time and a lot of our dancers at Olathe North were not studio trained. I think that was something that you would kind of look at that as maybe a disadvantage because we were competing against teams that were in dance studios and we didn’t have that, so that was a challenge. But to me, that is also what made it so rewarding. And in that process, it taught my girls how to work hard and to watch the growth that they had as dancers over their time on the team.”

Not just competition:  “It can’t just be about the competition aspect. There’s so many parts of dance team that I don’t even think people realize, that can be a positive experience for everybody involved.  I think looking at how they contribute to the school, I think being part of the football games,  doing for other teams, being involved with the cheerleading team, being involved with the other athletic teams, going and supporting and different things like that. We would always put on an end of the year spring show where it was kind of a celebration of all of our routines and everything, and some new routines from the entire year. We’d bring in guest performances where we’d invite our middle school programs to guest perform. We’d invite our special needs Project Access group to guest perform in our show. So it was bringing the community in. We’d have a Little Eaglette clinic where we’d get little girls or little boys that come when they’re in kindergarten and then we’d even have some of them that would go through the program every year that they were in elementary school. And then we also would have a tryout prep workshops. So after they got finished with elementary school and the Little Eaglette program, they could then do the tryout prep workshop. And then someday they would make the team.  So I think it’s looking for how many different ways you can be involved and there’s a lot of different outlets that you can hit on.”

Team culture:  I think that’s something that does have to be very intentional. I found that as we were getting more competitive we were needing longer practices,  practices were getting even more intense, finding time for that team building aspect can be very challenging. I would encourage any new coach or just any coach to just make that culture and team unity a priority and be intentional about it. I think it needs to happen right from the very beginning, from the first team meeting and the first practices, creating that culture of respect and of kindness.  Our motto was One Love and we tried to  filter that in, in any way we could.  We’d start our circle at the beginning of the morning or whatever practice time was, where I’d have the girls think of three things that they were grateful for. I thought focusing on gratitude was always a good way to start the day or start our practice. And sometimes we would share that, some days it would just be a mental thing for them to think about.  I think it’s  teaching those life lessons and you’re not just here just to dance. I think also getting the mentality that it’s not just about you as an individual, it’s about our team. I think that can be a challenging concept learning to be selfless.”

A team service component:  Sara’s team worked with special needs students and middle school students, teaching them dance!  It taught her dancers compassion and leadership, and was a very fulfilling component of her program.  “Absolutely make time for your team building, but make time to do things for other people. There’s so many different ways and there’s so many different things you can do in your school and your community. And I think making that a priority is really important and really valuable. It’s more making sure that the team knows right up front that it is more than just dance. The dance is important and yes, that is why you’re there, but there’s a much bigger picture.”

Cleaning routines:  I have a very intense demeanor. And I think that really paid off in our practices because I think me having that intensity, I think it pushed to bring out intensity in the girls.  They had to follow it, and sometimes I had to get more intense to get them to follow it, because they’re not going to be at the same intensity level that I am, but if I let myself get lax, then they’re going to get even more lax.  I wanted to create a positive environment, but I also wanted to create an intense environment and I wanted to utilize every second. I did not like to have one second of practice wasted.  I would try to do my best at the beginning to tell them this is what we’re doing today.  I wanted them to have that idea of this is what our goal is that we’re focusing on.  I was a big believer in dancing full-out always.  I know they get tired and I know that makes it challenging, but I feel like that builds the stamina. I don’t feel like you can fix things and clean things if they’re not doing it to their fullest.”

The most important part of being a national champion:  “You have to be pleased with what you are doing as a team. I always told them it’s how we get here is the most important part. I want to look back on our journey and have no regrets. So we worked our hardest. We worked together, we support each other, we did everything that we could because when you get there, there’s so many different things. Dance is so subjective. It is a matter of  opinion and whether a judge likes your routine, doesn’t like your routine, sees something, or doesn’t see something, , you have no control over that and you cannot control what another team is doing. I would just say we gotta focus on what we’re doing and be proud of that.  It’s so hard though, because you have those goals and just learning that it’s not about that end result. It’s the process to get there.”

Sara is now the coach of the Kansas State Classy Cats: https://www.k-state.edu/band/classycats/

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