I began athletics at age 6. I was small and soft spoken. In my early years, I played soccer, baseball, football and I wrestled. I was pretty miserable at all of them. I was scared of getting hit by the ball in soccer, I cried when I struck out, I didn’t get much playing time in football, and I cried when I lost in wrestling. I wasn’t exactly a born leader. After a few years of playing sports, I started developing skills that would alter my life forever and become part of my very identity. I could have never known at the time but I was practicing more than just skills and drills on the field and on the mats. I was learning how to work hard, how to be disciplined and how to persevere. As coaches, we so often talk about the value of athletics in terms of these buzzwords: hard work, discipline and perseverance. When you look past the cliches, these are characteristics of sport that are inherently leadership lessons in as well.
Hard work: For whatever reason, I took more to wrestling than any of the other sports. It soon was apparent that hard work lead to success. As I graduated from youth to middle school to high school and college, I was always the hardest worker on the team. I gauged myself against the efforts of my peers. This success lead to being named as team captain. As a leader by example I was named leader by position. In the real world, this means being promoted, given more responsibility and paid more. As a coach, the work ethic of my athletes mirrored mine. Similarly, as a non-profit director, my efforts as a leader tend to influence the amount of effort of my board and volunteers. As a business owner, my employees play the role of the athletes to a coach or the volunteers in the non-profit. Their effort is determined more by my effort than even the wage they receive.
Discipline: “There are two pains in life. The pain of discipline and the pain of regret.” I’m not sure of the origination of this quote but I learned the lesson before I learned of the quote. The pain associated with finishing my high school career far short of my goal was tremendous. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t found the success for which I’d worked so hard. When I arrived on campus at the University of Virginia and began practicing with some of the best athletes in the nation, I quickly realized what true discipline was. Although I had been more disciplined than my high school counterparts, I was not exercising the same level of discipline that brought success to the most successful Division I athletes in the nation. Discipline means doing the hard work on a daily basis that is required to succeed at every stage of life and in every role.
Perseverance: Every champion in athletics, from Michael Jordan to George Foreman, has a tale of woe. They had reasons to quit, to give up, to believe that they’re not good enough. You and I have been there too. Maybe, in some facet of your life, you’re there now. It is how we deal with these set-backs and obstacles that defines the outcome of our lives. Coaches play a key role in shaping how an athlete reacts to failure. Failure is part of success and it is only through perseverance that this most valuable lesson can be learned. I failed to reach my goals in high school. I was the lowest rated recruit on the team when I arrived at the University of Virginia. The preceding and subsequent failures (and there were many) were handled properly through the guidance of good coaching. The result was my becoming the most successful wrestler on the team and one of the best in the nation. Academically, I was the first one in my family to get a college degree, finishing with a Master of Teaching. As a business owner, I face obstacles every day that would turn back most people. But with the lessons of athletics firmly rooted in my heart and mind, I somehow have found success where it often seemed impossible. There are many reasons why athletics is important to an institution as well as the individual. As a coach, I implore you to learn the stories of athletes who have worked hard, lived a disciplined life and persevered through adversity. It is through these stories that your athletes can relate to the lessons that you want them to learn. Stories stay with us. They talk to us when our coach isn’t there. And they will live with your athletes through the rest of their lives until they realize that they themselves have become the story. Athletics has changed this meek, timid, tearful child into a confident leader. That, I believe, is the fulfillment of the mission of a coach.