Leadership at Every Level

February 17, 2017

The following article was published on hokiesports.com and written by Jimmy Robertson.

A quick Google search of “leadership training” reveals any number of workshops, events, symposiums, seminars and classes available for one to attend and theoretically learn how to be an effective and dynamic leader.

Those in the Virginia Tech Athletics Department want the Hokies’ student-athletes to succeed on the field or court, but they also want that same group to be leaders in society. That has led to the creation of the Leadership Institute, a unique, broad-based initiative of the Virginia Tech Athletics Department designed to prepare student-athletes to become better leaders and be able to serve efficiently and productively in society once they graduate from the university.

Most athletics departments focus on leadership in various ways, but Tech’s Institute is one of the few of its kind nationwide.

“It’s really a story of progress,” said Danny White, associate AD for student-athlete development and one of the main founders and the director of the Leadership Institute.

Institute’s background

The genesis of the Institute came about in 2011 when a small group of department administrators, including White and Dr. Gary Bennett, Tech’s clinical and sport psychologist, started talking about ways to help Virginia Tech’s student-athletes become better leaders. They found a curriculum called Habitudes designed by Tim Elmore that focused on teaching practical life and leadership skills. Both White and Bennett started teaching the course to the volleyball, women’s soccer and men’s soccer teams.

Roughly a year later, White designed a summer study abroad course centered on the application of global leadership skills. Gradually, he and Bennett implemented strategies and plans and tweaked others.

They also added a staff person to help with their mission. Shelby Miller, coordinator of student-athlete development, came aboard the staff last year, bringing her background in student-athlete development – she worked in a similar capacity at Northern Illinois – with her.

“I immediately recognized that this was a special place with student-athletes who are eager to learn more about leadership and how it impacts their lives now, athletically and personally, and its importance beyond their playing days,” Miller said. “Danny and Dr. Bennett set a solid foundation for leadership development with Habitudes, and the Leadership Institute will build off of that momentum to better reach and support our student-athletes in a variety of ways.”

The end result of their work and commitment has been the formation of the Leadership Institute, which came about last year and encompasses all that has been established to date.

“You see all the NCAA advertisements and commercials about how sports breed leadership,” White said. “Even the Olympic charter states that sports breed moral values, excellence, or certain other character traits. We decided that we wanted to be intentional about that. Let’s talk about what these principles are and how they impact you as an athlete – and just as importantly, how they resonate for the rest of your life.”

The department’s Leadership Institute consists of four components – leadership culture, the leadership advisory team, the opportunity to participate in a study abroad course, and a leadership program for coaches.

Leadership culture

The leadership culture component represents the department’s belief that team leaders can influence a team’s culture. White and his staff bring in speakers each semester – three times in the fall for freshmen and three times in the spring for upperclassmen. Each speaker focuses on an aspect of leadership in which he/she excels.

Tech’s approach, though, differs from most schools, which pony up tens of thousands of dollars to bring in a speaker to speak about leadership. Instead, White, Dr. Bennett and Miller focus internally and have brought in AD Whit Babcock, Deputy AD Desiree Reed-Francois, wrestling coach Kevin Dresser and former football player Jarrett Ferguson, a senior director in strength and conditioning, to speak to student-athletes.

“What can those people [from the outside] add that Kevin Dresser or Jarrett Ferguson or Angela O’Brien [former softball player Angela Tincher, who is now a Tech assistant coach] couldn’t add?” White said. “We do things in-house. We have incredible people internally, and it helps our athletes connect all the dots with all the sports. It connects a broader vision for what it means to be a Hokie and to be here. I think, long term, we’re going to keep it that way.”

Leadership Advisory Team

The second component – the Leadership Advisory Team (LAT) – consists of 15 student-athletes from different sports who volunteer and serve multiple purposes within the Leadership Institute. These are upperclassmen with an interest in leadership, and they promote the speaker series, encouraging their teammates on their squads to come to the events.

More importantly, they take on supervisory roles, overseeing the small group discussions that take place following a speaker’s presentation. This gives them hands-on experience in a leadership role.

“It’s my way of helping others,” said MJ Ulrich, a women’s swimmer and a member of LAT. “I like changing who I’m talking to and changing the environment I’m in.

“Leadership culture allows me to just touch many sports and many individuals, and that helps me grow as a leader, just to see different people and understand their positions and their struggles and how I can help. I also try to help with my insight and give them different perspectives on other people’s difficulties and how they’ve overcome.”

Study abroad course

Ulrich, a McLean, Virginia, native, is one of several Tech student-athletes who have taken advantage of the opportunity to enroll in a study abroad course – another component of the Institute. The course is entitled Sport, Policy & Society and focuses on how sport and policy impacts society and international development.

During the first four years, the group went to the Dominican Republic, working with non-profit organizations to run sports camps, while also being exposed to the hardships of an under-developed community. Last May, the group went to Switzerland – the total opposite of the Dominican Republic – visiting the United Nations and International Olympic Committee offices to gain exposure to the entities that develop policies to help under-developed countries.

“My goal is to challenge our student-athletes and expose them to challenges that people in other parts of the world face to deepen their understanding and hopefully light a fire in them to be a part of that,” White said. “Maybe they don’t do much beyond sponsoring a child for the rest of their life, but that’s a great thing. It could be that they get graduate degrees in this area and work for non-profit organizations. Some of our students have done this and gone on to do some pretty cool things.”

An added benefit of the study abroad course, and the Leadership Institute as a whole, has been the allowing of interaction among the student-athletes from different sports. Most consume themselves with their sports and the teammates within those sports.

Leadership culture small group sessions also include athletes from all sports and allow for more interaction. They all share their daily experiences with each other, and that type of information could be beneficial to each going forward.

“We really weren’t sure how the new leadership culture program would be received, but the response has exceeded my expectations,” Dr. Bennett said. “One thing that has stood out to me is how our student-athletes from different teams interacted with each other, shared common struggles and challenges, and explored how the experiences of other teams can help them address issues within their own teams. It’s a great example of how we encourage our student-athletes to expand their exposure with others outside the context of their specific teams to improve their experiences within their teams.”

Leadership program for coaches

The administrative staff within the athletics department not only wants to promote leadership among its student-athletes, but also its assistant and associate coaches. Thus, a component of the Leadership Institute centers on the professional growth and preparation for future advancement in the profession.

Chris Helms, Tech’s senior associate AD for administration and sports programs, oversees this piece. He and Jeff Kinney, a men’s soccer assistant coach, came up with the idea after a conversation led to both concluding that there was void of leadership training for assistant and associate coaches.

They came up with a curriculum, which is based on identifying and enhancing professional competencies, with goals to promote professional growth, improve self-awareness, develop coaching competencies, and guide career development. The sessions cover a range of topics, including leadership style, communications (media and social media), organization development (hiring), recruiting, fiscal responsibility and culture of excellence.

Starting last September (and running through this May), Helms held a monthly session for any assistant or associate coach that wanted to take part. Interested coaches first needed to complete a short application and also receive the endorsement of his/her head coach. He invites a speaker – either internally or from across campus – to speak on a specific competency, and then the group discusses the presentation before being assigned a short homework assignment.

Approximately 15 assistant or associate coaches attend the monthly sessions.

“We hope the outcome is to grow personally and professionally,” Helms said. “Ultimately, we want to equip them with the concepts and competencies, so that, should they aspire to be a head coach, they’ll be better prepared to sit in front of someone who may be interviewing them for a job and be able to articulate what their coaching philosophy is.

“This is the pilot year. It’s not a done deal, but we’ve got a framework, and we’re learning as much as they are as to how to effectively have an impact for those coaches. If they stay here, they’re better in their roles, and should they want to keep growing professionally, we’ve given them the skillset to do that, too.”

Planning for the future

Much of what the department’s Leadership Institute encompasses is exclusive to Virginia Tech. White and Dr. Bennett have spoken at Habitudes conferences, and White fields numerous calls from colleagues nationwide about the study abroad opportunities. Miller has been chosen to go to an NCAA Leadership Academy Workshop. Helms gets the feeling that there are few programs nationwide that focus on leadership for assistant and associate coaches.

They want to do even more – but more requires funds. Additional financial resources would allow for advance site visits for study abroad courses, cover costs for any staff seminars/symposiums that they themselves want to attend, and allow for additional curriculum purchases.

Also, extra financial resources would provide much-needed help for parts of their bigger vision. Study abroad sites could be expanded to places like Rwanda and South Africa – locations that provide rich cultural and historical stories. In addition, they would like to organize a summer leadership camp locally for elementary and high school students. This would be planned, implemented and run by LAT, giving Tech’s student-athletes another opportunity to put their leadership skills to use.

White, with help from the Hokie Club, hopes to meet with prospective donors this spring and discuss the value of the Leadership Institute.

“We have a great model, and if we did this for the next 10 years, with good speakers and added value to LAT, then it would be great,” White said. “But I do think there are things we could add. We have a vision, but we’ll need some help to attain that vision. If we were able to secure some more resources, the impact on our student-athletes would be immeasurable.”

In many ways, the impact already is. Ulrich originally wanted to use her future degree in human nutrition, foods and exercise and get into the medical field. Now, she’s contemplating a career in global development or perhaps working for a non-profit organization.

She’s not alone. This Leadership Institute is exposing Tech’s student-athletes to Ut Prosim – “That I May Serve” – and they like the idea of a future helping others.

“It’s not about athletics,” Ulrich said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be better at your sport.’ That’s not the purpose.

“It’s about being a better teammate and being a better person. It’s about you going out into the world and realizing it’s not about yourself. In a sense, it betters you, and if you’re a better person, you’ll make other people better.”

Learning about leadership doesn’t necessarily require attending expensive events or shelling out for speakers with expertise on the topics. On the contrary, a creative staff, a commitment to student-athlete betterment, an innovative educational model, and a vision for the future can accomplish all of that and so much more.

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