Some Takeaways from a Summer of Studying Sports Leadership

I spent this summer studying what I’ll call Sports Leadership. In other words, I have been studying leaders in sports, but specifically in basketball. These leaders range from coaches and players, to Presidents of Basketball Operations, to agents, to Psychologists and Sociologists. My studies took me to each coast of the continental U.S. and 5 states. After nearly 100 pages of notes, I thought I’d reflect on and share some of my favorite ideologies, sound bites, and stories that I’ve come across so far.

My interest in Sports Leadership began a couple of years ago. I’ve been playing basketball since something like the 3rd grade, but I had never really thought critically about that fact until my sophomore year in college. Being a student at Oberlin College encouraged me to think critically about who I was, and how and why I got there. I started to think more closely about the role basketball had played in my life. Until that point, basketball basically was my life, meaning my identity was almost entirely built around being a basketball player. Many of us don’t learn to do life outside of basketball until it is too late. Far too often, we hear stories of people giving the game all they have and wind up with nothing to show for it. In my case, I was always a good enough student, but Oberlin was a challenge academically like I had never had before. I’m proud to say I adapted, though, and after a freshman year of struggling to achieve a 2.5 grade point average, I improved in that regard every single semester to finish with a 3.2. I took hard classes too!

People always talk about sports providing life lessons, but at this point, I don’t think basketball inherently teaches lessons–well, outside of how to put a ball in a hoop 10 feet above the ground–but it can be a setting where lessons are taught and learned. Instead, it seems, people teach lessons. Sometimes people teach other people lessons, and sometimes people learn them themselves based on their own observations or interpretations of situations. Sometimes these lessons are taught in a basketball setting. In such a tumultuous time in our country and the world, I became fascinated in stories of the people who do it right, especially when that setting is related to basketball. In other words, when is the game good for everyone involved?

I think the foundation into my study this summer actually began a year ago. By the end of my 2nd year in college, I was named a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. This meant that I received support to conduct independent research. By the end of my 3rd year, I had begun a study into the intersections of race and college basketball at Oberlin College. This is when I was first introduced to the Oberlin College basketball coach, Dean, and legend, Pat Penn. I discovered that everyone who knew Pat Penn revered him, and all of the stories of the athletes who played for him were overwhelmingly positive. Most importantly, his players went on to lead successful lives outside of playing the game. Satch Sullinger, one of the nation’s most celebrated high school coaches, played at Oberlin College under Pat Penn. He is quoted as saying “If after 30 years of coaching, I have one player feel about me the way I feel about Pat, then I will have had a very successful career.” I’m motivated to take this further, and impact many lives. This is why I study Sports Leadership. I care about people more than a sport, and after a summer of seeing some of them up close, I think the great Sports Leaders believe in that as well. 

 

Coaching Soundbites

“People are people because of other people.” –Kevin Eastman

 

At the Coaching U Live Clinic in Orlando, Brendan Suhr, the longtime college and NBA assistant coach, says coaches talk in soundbites. I think sometimes it’s easier to learn in soundbite form so here are some of my favorite soundbites that I heard this summer. As a side note, I felt it important to point out that coaches take things from others all the time, so I am only sharing where I heard it from, not its origin necessarily.

 

My most impactful soundbites from Coach Brendan Suhr:

• Coaching is the highest form of leadership.

• Be fair to everyone, but coach them differently.

• Be positive. Shout praise. Whisper criticism.

• Don’t leave scars on your players. They never go away, and they never forget.

 

My most impactful soundbites from NBA Champion Coach Kevin Eastman:

His most important word is Truth, and he says you need to be able to:

• Live the Truth.

• Tell the Truth.

• Take the Truth.

Coach Eastman really believes in building relationships with his players. He also stresses two basic tenets of Ubuntu, which Wikipedia suggests is an Nguni Bantu (South African) term meaning “humanity towards others.”

1) People are people because of other people.

2) I can only be all I can be if you are all you can be.

When he was with the Los Angeles Clippers, he said they tried not to focus on measuring talent. On bad teams there are players with talent. They wanted talented––ed is an extra dimension, something more than your talent. They wanted guys that would pull for other guys.

 

Growing as a Leader

“We can all learn to lead.” –Simon Sinek

 

Many people believe in this adage that “you’re either a leader or you’re not,” or, “it’s just something you’re born with.” I call BS. I, for one, know my leadership skills have improved dramatically. I know I can continue to improve, and I know everyone can learn to lead. It seems that every leader I’ve come across is committed to learning and growing. They not only want this for themselves, but for others as well. With this said, I’m sharing my homework assignments with you, a collection of recommendations I was given this summer.

 

Homework

 

Coach Suhr, at the end of the Coaching U Live clinic, offered us an exercise that should be done in order to grow as a coach (leader).

He said to us “When you finish here, you have to go home and talk to yourself–answer these questions.” To me, it's important that we understand that we can substitute “coach” with “lead,” when working through these questions, or life for that matter.

1) Define–What is coaching? If you don’t understand the purpose of coaching, it doesn’t matter what you run on offense or defense. What do you really get paid to do?

2) Why do you coach?

3) What do you think it feels like to be coached by me? Are you leaving scars? How does it feel not to you, but to the kid you’re coaching?

4) Would I want to play for myself?

Coach Suhr encourages us to answer those questions at least once a year.

Book Recommendations:

Strengths Finder 2.0

Written by Tom Rath, who is regarded as one of our time’s best thinkers, this book is not meant as a psychological test. It is intended to help you understand the talent you’re working with.

All of Jon Gordon’s books

Jon Gordon is regarded as one of the world’s most influential leaders. He has inspired everyone from Fortune 500 companies to professional sports teams.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

At Coaching U, Coach Eastman told us, “Do those four things and you’ll have a shot.”

The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse

This book was recommended to me by multiple people, multiple times. It details how the Cubs broke the longest championship drought in pro sports.

The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players

Pat Riley delivers a game plan to inspire change, motivate teamwork, and reveal our winning spirit in life off and on the court. Legend has it that Doc Rivers gets pre-game speeches from this book.  

Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

A Sports Psychologist who I consider to be a mentor recommended this book to me. A few weeks later, while on the phone with a customer service rep for Microsoft, I learned he was going to be starting his own business soon, and I recommended it to him! Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi offers strategies to operate a “good” business, or one that emphasizes trust, commitment to the personal growth of employees, and creating value for humanity.

Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court

I recommended this one to myself. I’ve always respected Kareem’s thoughtfulness, integrity, and willingness to not just “stick to sports,” and I can’t wait to see how his relationship with Coach Wooden impacted his life, and vice versa.   

 

Real-World Leadership

“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.” –Colin Kaepernick

 

I’ve been interested in how Sports Leaders have interacted with the topics of race and politics in these times. Colin Kaepernick obviously stands out as someone in sports tackling these issues, but what about everyone else? Stan Van Gundy, the current Head Coach and President of Basketball of Operations for the Detroit Pistons had this to say in the days following the election of Donald Trump:

“I didn’t vote for Bush, but he was a good, honorable man with whom I had political differences so I didn’t vote for him. But for our country to be where we are now, we took a guy–I don’t care what anyone says–I’m sure they have other reasons and maybe good reasons for voting for Donald Trump but I don’t think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic and ethnocentric and say ‘That’s OK with us, we’re going to vote for him anyway.’

We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking that this is where we are as a country. And it’s tough on [our players], we noticed it coming in. Everybody was a little quiet and I thought maybe the game the other night and so we talked about that. Aron Baynes said ‘I don’t think that’s why everybody’s quiet. I think it’s last night.’”

For Coach Van Gundy's entire quote, click here.

Coach ended the media session by saying “That’s it for me, I don’t have anything to say about the game tonight.”  

As a leader in the basketball world who took a stand in these times, I wanted to know how he came to the decision to make those statements and if he had talked about the subject with his players, who were apparently distraught by the recent events as well. At the Coaching U Live clinic, I had the opportunity to submit this question.

As he began to answer my question, I could see how forthright he was, as he is known to be. I appreciate that. Come to find out, this wasn’t a one-off. He had been engaging in political and race-related subjects with his players since a couple of his players had broached the topic of police shootings of young Black men–the players wanted to do something. At the time, they decided to follow the lead of the Seattle Seahawks, locking arms during the anthem as a sign of unity. Van Gundy told us they also put together a town hall meeting in Detroit, bringing together the Deputy Commissioner, one of the Councilmembers, and activists to talk for 3 hours. He told his players that everything else that is happening in the world is important too. He told them they had to get involved in the political process, so they had officials come register the players to vote. He also mentioned that it is still tough with players now, and that they still talk about it often.

I found this so powerful because he didn’t just “stick to sports.” Although his job title likely says nothing about speaking with your players about these sorts of things, he believed in leadership in life outside of basketball, and he took it upon himself to lead and use his voice to call out injustice when he saw it. I can’t say for sure, but I’m sure his players appreciated that, and appreciate him for it. Moreover, it’s likely that having their coach speak out further empowered them to engage with critically important issues for the rest of their lives.

Another highlight of my summer was serving as an Assistant Program Director and camp counselor for this year's BOSS (Business of Success beyond Sports) camp, hosted on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. Real-world leadership in sports means preparing our young people for a life outside of sports. Statistically, just about all of our young people with professional sports aspirations will not make a roster. There just aren't enough spots. Due in part to a lack of leadership by figures in sports, too many athletes are left behind as used goods when they can no longer provide value on the field or court. 

That's why Everett Glenn, a pioneer and leader in athlete representation, started BOSS. BOSS seeks to help young athletes adopt athletic, academic, and life balance so that they can excel beyond sports. This summer, we were treated to a variety of speakers who are leaders in the sports world, training by top athletic performance specialists, academic enrichment, and real-world experiences through field trips. For the full recap of this year's camp, click here. BOSS is a process, so following the 2-week initiation camp the boys will engage in year-round programming. I can't wait to see what's in store for these young men.  

It's inspiring to see so many leaders in sports lead beyond of sports today. Now, more than ever, we need real leadership. Leadership can come from anyone, and everyone can learn to lead.