Character, not athleticism, makes biggest impact

Almost everyone was forced to participate in a sport when they were a kid. I was one of those unlucky — or lucky — kids. Whether it was ballet and tap lessons, club basketball, track, water polo, or swim team, my parents always supported my participation in athletics. While I complained about going to practice instead of being able to hang out with friends, participating in sports has had its benefits — namely, developing leadership skills.

As a child, I thought a leader was the loudest one on the field or the one with the best jump shot. But as an older and more mature athlete, I’ve realized that leaders might not be designated as captain; they might not even see playing time. There are different types of leadership, and most of the time, the unassuming go unnoticed.

Carnegie Mellon athletics has taken note of this, and every year athletes attend the Leadership Symposium, led by Greg Shelley, associate professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College. Shelley has published articles and given presentations that show how to apply sports psychology to athletic performance, team building, and leadership.

At Carnegie Mellon’s Leadership Symposium, Shelley stresses the idea that leaders aren’t always the ones who are being interviewed after the game. Behind-the-scenes leaders are just as effective, usually leading by example.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past two decades has heard of Michael Jordan. He’s known for his ridiculous jumping ability, his shoes, for helping the Looney Toons defeat the aliens in Space Jam, and for leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships. But have you ever heard of Josh Pastner? Probably not, because he wasn’t the one on the Wheaties box. Despite the fact that his skills were less than his teammates’ — players who went professional, including Mike Bibby and Miles Simon — it wasn’t for his basketball skills that his teammates called him a leader.

Pastner was a prime example of leading by example: He showed an unrivaled dedication to his team. He was the first one to practice and the last one to leave. He was unselfish and cared less about his own skills, but more about improving the team as a whole.

Pastner didn’t care if his teammates didn’t accept him as a walk-on at first, but he gained their respect with his work ethic, willingness to be a team player, and most importantly, his leadership.

Pastner, like most athletes, didn’t go professional. However, the leadership skills and passion he showed for athletics landed him an assistant coaching job. Similarly, I know that I, like most athletes at Carnegie Mellon, won’t go professional and, when it comes down to it, won’t be remembered for my athletic performance. But what Carnegie Mellon athletes will be remembered for is their leadership on and off of the field. The leadership skills I acquired while participating in athletics translate over to the classroom and probably into my professional life after school as well.

As a kid, I was naive in thinking that the best leaders were the most popular, most talented, and maybe even the most self-righteous athletes. But after 14 years of competitive sports, I have realized that I appreciate the athletes who are selfless, earn their respect, and lead by example. I know that I admire these types of athletes and, in turn, have tried to emulate their good example.