Making Traditions (Whether You Mean To Or Not)

Memory LaneWe are the makers of memories!

What are your best memories from high school? What stories do you retell when you go to a reunion or get together with your old classmates? Arguably, most booster clubs aim to make great memories, so I think it’s crucial that we try to put a finger on what made our own experiences stick with us over time.

Sometimes experiences are memorable because of random events–spontaneous downpours, chance encounters, or the serendipity that sparks both romantic and platonic love. However, many experiences are memorable because of a consciously created atmosphere. As leaders in youth development we create atmospheres where bonds are created, traditions forged, and memories made through shared experience.

Building traditions is a conscious project for youth activity organizers. There’s no better example than summer camps, which I think of as an uninterrupted stream of extracurricular activities. In summer camps, tradition structures experience. Participants walk away feeling a strong group identity. I was reminded of this recently by a radio episode of This American Life about summer camp. The show profiled a former camper named David, now a counselor, who creates new traditions in the form of songs, activities, and inside jokes. His motivation?

“Camp, it’s number one with everything I do, I guess. [It changes people’s lives]. People base their life around camp. I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for camp.”

Ira Glass, the radio show’s host, identifies the elements that make the summer camps so successful, not just economically, but as molders of campers’ identities and generators of positive memories.

“[Part] of what makes camp thrilling [is] using all of the stagecraft that all the world’s religions have always used,” he says. “The ceremonies, the chanting, the repeated words, the official honors and offices, but for an entirely secular purpose– to thrill children, to make them feel part of something big and special.”

Traditions develop quickly

Extracurriculars make young people feel part of something big, too. There are rituals, like having freshman participants carry the water bottles or equipment for the upperclassmen. I also love bonding events, like the annual parody in my track team. Juniors would perform imitations of outgoing seniors. It was a mix of flattery and embarrassment. When you watched the performance, you couldn’t help but think of your time on the team. When you performed, you’d think “what will parodies of me be like?” When someone parodied you, it brought you back to your first years on the team. Though it seemed like a silly game, the parody tied players together through time and created a space for meaningful reflection and bonding.

Fundraisers create traditions, as do award dinners and any other events that involve an extracurricular’s extended community. Some traditions develop naturally, which we usually think of as without conscious thought. However, many of the traditions we cherish were formed quite intentionally, even if their origins are shrouded in the fog of history. Families, for example, seed traditions over decades. Office traditions often take hold from founders and managers, solidifying in just a few years. But with the high turnover of students, high schools, middle schools and summer camps’ traditions take root in just a year or two.

High school is a transitional place where students rotate through constantly. Students create traditions and trends in fashion and music. But it’s up to parents and administrators to create traditions that last a bit longer, that can connect school spirit across classes.

‘Stagecraft’ in extracurricular programs

Booster club board members and school officials guide this process. They design events, from homecoming to senior dinners and cast parties. And though they might feel like they’re flying by the seat of their pants, logistical decisions end up making traditions. Do freshman carry equipment for seniors? Does the student director give a speech before opening night? Do parents bring donuts for the end of every travel game?

If done once in a student’s career with the club, these actions might be lost in the annals of childhood history. Who remembers every meal we ate at home? But repetition, even just a few times, can cement traditions in a young person’s mind. With ritual, booster clubs can ensure that their good will sticks with students. What’s the point? Well, let’s just say that it would be nice to see your kids bring donuts (healthy ones of course) to your grandkid’s travel game.

I write a lot on Boosterland about efficiency, optimizing, and the “financial sense” of managing booster clubs. Creating traditions is part of that, a little bit. Again, here’s Ira Glass talking about summer camps:

“A camp director in Wisconsin told us […] that financially, you cannot run a camp without lots of repeat customers. These traditions bring kids back year after year.”

Bringing kids back year after year means keeping a club strong, full of participants, and engaged parents who pay dues and/or contribute their time and passion to the club. It also means living up to expectations. If participants receive roses after a show or medals at a tournament, they might expect the same in future years. For example, board members might say that celebration or a fundraiser wasn’t successful. Maybe it didn’t thrill participants the first year, or generate a lot of contributions. But what volunteers sometimes can’t sense is the number of people who enjoyed it, missed it, or will bring people the following year. Often the words “second annual” can draw a pretty big crowd. (For more about traditions and fundraising, see “Kill Bad Fundraisers.”)

However, I don’t think traditions are just a shrewd logistical move. Traditions and positive memories should be part of the end goal of booster clubs. Along with the life lessons, extracurriuclars give us a sense of what it’s like to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It gives us a sense of what it means to be part of a culture. How to participate in a culture, mold it, and pass it on. I don’t remember a single field hockey game. And I may never pick up a field hockey stick again. But I do remember the traditions.

Traditions in the digital age

Our coach used to make photo slideshows for the end of the year. It was a great way to reflect. Maybe slideshows are out of date, and you’re more likely to find activity photos on Facebook. But posting photos, looking for them after the game, and commenting on them are important ways to connect the team’s community. Team leaders can facilitate this by curating places for those photos and comments to go, whether it’s a website or a Facebook page. In an era when it’s less likely to find your team covered in the local newspaper (or have a local newspaper), this is more important than ever.

Of all the characters in the This American Life Story, I identified the most with David, the camp counselor. I see myself passing on traditions, and creating new ones. Whether it’s setting the tone as a manager in an office, or teaching family recipes to my nieces, I’ve learned to be conscious about passing on tradition. Every once in a while, I notice a tradition that just creeped up on me. And I realize that some of those traditions have become part of my identity.

What traditions do your booster clubs have? What traditions have cropped up in the activities you support? Got any ideas for new ones? Send them to me or leave a note in the comments below.



  1. […] crucial for community building. Without award dinners, post-game celebrations, etc., how do you create traditions? How do you connect participants, parents, and other members of the community? You can still cut […]

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