Sports, Leadership & Life
The Sports, Leadership & Life series will explore the lessons offered by the games we watch and play. Our lineup of contributors — which includes New England leaders in business, culture, politics and sports — will reflect on how their lives and thinking were shaped by athletics in this weekly series.
Darnell Williams
July 30, 2009
Learning Through Golf

When I look back at the phrase that means the most to me about my attitude towards sports and leadership, I draw upon Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi.

“Show me a person that likes to lose and I will show you a loser.” End of quote.

Winning is not everything in life because you can learn a lot about yourself and the people around you, especially in situations where winning and losing demonstrate and define character.

072909_williams-webI grew up in Gary, Indiana, in a state that is truly known for basketball and track.  I was not fast but I had a decent jump shot.  But as father time caught up with me I looked for additional sports venues that would capture my attention and energy.

Thirty years ago I taught myself to play tennis and found out that I was pretty good and really enjoyed the social aspect and the discipline about the rules of engagement and competiveness associated with the activity.  One day, however, someone asked me whether I had ever thought about playing golf. I quickly snapped that I did not think it was a sport that would capture and hold my attention.  Twenty-two years later I realize how flat-out wrong I was in that assessment.

My wife was expecting our child and requested that I go to the store and get three entirely different items. I knew instinctively that I was in for deep trouble.  I left the house and on the way to that store I detoured and ultimately went into a golf shop and purchased everything I needed to play the game of golf – clubs, shoes, tees, balls, and books.  I brought to the game my attitude and desire.  It has been a long journey.

Every golfer goes through the introduction phase, fever phase, digging-any-golf-course-up phase and finally understanding-your-game phase.   You find yourself wondering where you would rather be: playing golf, at home on the sofa watching the tour, or thinking you are on the local tour in your head on the course.  Golfers know the answer to this quiz.

As much as I love to play, however, the truly important lessons I have learned on this journey are from the really good people whom I’ve met on the golf course. I have the opportunity to play all around the country and outside of the United States.  You learn a great deal about other players in a short period of time.  Their honesty and respect for the rules of the game and how transparent they are in victory and defeat are so revealing.

These simple lessons are immediately transferable to the work place.  For example, if you hit a shot out of position then your immediate objective is to get back on course in the short grass, not try and hit an impossible miracle shot.  This happens at work when unforeseen things happen; the lesson from the golf course is that you should not get overwhelmed and bent out of shape.

What is the nearest objective that can be met without trying to make impossible things happen? You become more level headed and relaxed followed by clearer thinking.  You head is not crowded with a bunch of thoughts that have nothing to do with your visual objective.

The closing lesson is this: golf and golfing also allow you to enter into a world of access and opportunity.  People who normally do not have things in common can talk about golf and connect in ways that would never present themselves in the hustle and bustle of our days. You do not have to cut through the nonsense.  Doors have been opened, friendships have been established, deals have been made, and trust has been built. Life is full of many enjoyments, and much to my surprise, I have found golf to be one of mine. It’s been a diversion of delight in the most literal sense – as evidenced by that fact that I never did bring those requested items home from the store because I went to the golf course!

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Allyce Najimy
July 23, 2009
The Power of the Huddle

My hero, Jackie Robinson, once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

072209_art-webPerhaps the greatest example of that impact can be seen in the image of the team huddle. For those of us who have experienced it – being linked arm to shoulder in a circular mass; heads bent down and beads of sweat dripping into a collective circumference of grass-stained cleats below – we know that the huddle is about more than strategic plays, chants or high-fives.

In the huddle, we learn that our differences do not matter and that we are all interdependent.

In the huddle, we are part of something larger than ourselves.

We are a team.

Like most of us, I’ve been a member of many teams throughout my life and career. It was my dad who first taught me that being a good teammate – both inside and outside the huddle – was one of the most important things in life.

When I wanted to play baseball as a kid my parents took me to sign up for Little League. I was the only girl there. I learned, even at a young age, that when you are truly part of a team, the social boundaries that may exist off the field seem to disappear on it.

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Mike Ross
July 16, 2009
Community, From Soccer Fields to City Hall

Many Bostonians assume that their elected officials chose a career in politics because of lineage in the Hub’s political lore or a long history in one of our neighborhoods. But as a Newton native (I confess!) who attended Clark University in Worcester, I took a different path to City Hall.

I got my start on the soccer fields of Beacon Hill.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I moved to the historic neighborhood. I decided I wanted a deeper connection with the community and although I didn’t have much experience playing soccer outside of elementary school gym class, I decided to volunteer as a soccer coach for a team at the Hill House, a community sports program for downtown youth. I bought a book about the fundamentals of the game and took to the field.

What I lacked in knowledge of the game, I made up for in determination to motivate the kids. I was bartending at J.C. Hillary’s (now Abe and Louie’s), where I worked with a guy named Chafik Larobi, a Moroccan cook who had been a semi-professional soccer player in his home country. He agreed to attend our practices to teach the kids how to play the game. These kids were 10 years old and they were getting rigorous training from a semi-pro soccer player. An added thrill for the kids? Chafik’s unbelievable bicycle kicks.

I also convinced a group of friends with some time on their hands to help me teach the kids the fundamentals of soccer. Soon our practices looked more like training camp than a community soccer program. My own game eventually improved, since the other coaches and I would kick the ball around once the kids had gone home. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that if you have a goal in mind, you can achieve anything. I went from knowing nothing about soccer and became the coach of a first-place team. (Yes, they were 10 year olds, but first place nonetheless!) I formed relationships with parents and community leaders that are still important to me on a personal and political level more than a decade later. The experience taught me that the best way to learn about a community is to be a part of it, even if it is in a small way like coaching the neighborhood soccer team.

071609_ross-w-team-web1But my involvement in community sports extends beyond Beacon Hill. While I’ve left my soccer coaching behind since becoming a City Councilor, I still use sports as a way to build bridges among youth in the city. Every summer, I join with my friend State Representative Jeff Sanchez and organize Mission Hill youth to play weekly softball games throughout the season. I’ve leveraged connections to area businesses and colleges to make these gatherings more than just a game. Players have free use of equipment, get T-shirts, and all who play or serve as spectators enjoy an old-fashioned neighborhood barbeque.

As much as my staff and I enjoy a summer evening spent on a ball field, it’s more than just a game (although we sometimes forget this in the heat of a close contest in the late innings). The events provide opportunities to engage neighborhood kids where they feel comfortable – in their own backyard. These games give me a chance to connect with them about their future plans in a forum in which we are all comfortable. On so many occasions, I’ve had a chance to help direct a young person to a good place – getting someone into college, offering someone a job, keeping him or her away from trouble.

As a result of these interactions with area youth, when I walk around the neighborhoods of Boston, I continually run into “alumni” of summer softball games in Mission Hill. Many are on the right path, like one former player who wound up serving his country in the Army. When he returned from overseas, I ran into him in the neighborhood where he told me he was looking for a job. I helped get him a position as a security guard at a local company, and now he’s moving his way up the ranks of that business. Not all of the kids I meet thrive to this degree. But what is important to me is that youth and their families, who might otherwise not have access to the resources of local government, do so as a result of these games. Sports provide an opportunity to connect directly and meaningfully outside of the context of City Hall. They help to create a sense of neighborhood and community in ways that can positively impact lives.

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Steve Connelly
July 9, 2009
Lessons Learned by a Coach

“The older I get, the better I was.”

I remember that the first time I heard that phrase, I smiled. Of course, that was before those words started to drift into truth. Fact is that when one is asked to reflect on the personal impact of sports, we all look back to when we played. And imaginations being what they are, those memories are in black and white and slightly more, shall we say, positive. Games lost eventually become games won if I live long enough. I have no doubt that my 80 something mile-an-hour fastball will eventually get up into the 90s by the time I meet my grandkids. And I was able to dunk.

Which is exactly my point.

In a world and at a time when people are Negative Nellies, sport is the perfect elixir. The bad memories and the losses fade, while the good memories and wins blossom forever and even get a wee bit embellished along the way. We think back. We smile. We remember how we felt when we won. That’s the power of sports. Positivity. Enduring positivity. And when you get right down to it, that’s the lesson for all who lead. Be positive. Be fearless instead of being feared. Think good things and make them happen.

And there is a cost to being a win at all costs person.

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Kristine Lilly
June 24, 2009
Becoming A Role Model

As a kid all I did was play sports. I loved baseball, soccer, backyard football and basketball. I even gave gymnastics a try. My world was in a constant orbit around sports, changing only with the seasons.

I don’t recall the actual games in detail, but there are some things that have stuck in my mind. I remember that after baseball games we got our hats filled with popcorn, and at halftime of soccer games we ate orange slices. It would be an understatement to say that I have vivid memories of those orange slices. My mouth is watering just thinking about them! Truth be told: if my youth soccer orange slice consumption equaled goals scored I would have joined the U.S. National Team as a five-year-old. But I digress. As you can tell, sports played a significant role in my childhood, and they continue to play a major role in my adult life.

062409_lilly-webI’m 37 years old and I still love the game of soccer and, of course, orange slices. For 20 years I’ve played at the game’s highest level. I’ve earned Gold Medals, world championships, and the honor of being a pioneer in professional women’s soccer. I cherish these accomplishments and I’ll always be comfortable with my legacy, just as I’ll always feel at home on the soccer field. It’s the one place I can cut loose and let it all out. I’m happiest when I’m playing my heart out, even though I know I’ll be exhausted at the end of a game.

Soccer gives me the opportunity to compete and strive to be the best I can be. The soccer field never fails to challenge my skills or test my resolve. It’s where I can lead with confidence and guide with heart. It’s a place where I have always felt I could make a difference. The funny thing is, not long ago I realized that while I work so hard to make a difference on the field, I make a bigger difference off the field. And in the story of my life, having a positive influence on the lives of others is and always will be my greatest accomplishment.

I get many emails and letters from young people, asking me for guidance on how to become a better player. I remember having the same questions when I was younger, just as I remember having no one to whom I could pose those questions because there wasn’t a female athlete / role model from whom I could seek advice. But today things are different. I can give guidance. I can answer questions and be a role model, and that makes me happy. When I’m talking to young people and sharing with them it makes me realize how far I’ve come.

As a young girl I was really quiet and shy, unless I was on the soccer field, baseball field or basketball court. Playing sports and growing up with teammates helped me to shed some of my insecurities and fears. I gained confidence as a teammate, friend and individual; and when soccer brought me overseas and around the world, I thrived in situations I never dreamed of being in.

Soccer – and sports in general – helped me become the person I am today. That quiet, insecure, shy girl is now a confident, outspoken, and powerful woman. I couldn’t imagine my life without sports. I thank my loving parents for their support and for giving me the opportunity to create memories and gain experiences that I’ll cherish forever. Playing sports isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems, but I firmly believe that the people who play sports are better equipped to face them. And if there are orange slices at halftime… bonus.

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