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Seven Lessons from Sports Legends

Antics, sportsmanship, the dreaded wink—and the makings of Super Bowl and World Cup greatness.

A recent lecture lunch at Santa Clara University, 10 days before Super Bowl 50, promised leadership lessons from the upper echelons of sport. The day featured an armchair discussion between Mike Pereira, 1972 Santa Clara graduate and NFL rules analyst for Fox Sports, and George Seifert, the longtime 49ers coach who took the team to two Super Bowl victories, in 1989 and 1994.

A panel discussion followed, featuring an august group of sports all-stars, including Jack Clark, 25-time national champion Cal rugby coach; Tina Syer, former Division I field hockey player for Stanford, and chief impact officer at Positive Coaching Alliance; Brandi Chastain, World Cup and Olympics soccer champion and 1991 SCU alum; and Ronnie Lott, four-time Super Bowl champion defensive back.
The lively discussions did not disappoint when it came to lessons in leadership and life. Some nuggets:

1.     Times have changed when it comes to antics like those for which Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is famous. And that’s not a bad thing.

George Seifert says showboating wasn’t done in his day:
“From the standpoint of how I grew up, there was a tremendous respect for the game, and you respected your opponents, and that’s what you were demonstrating, but that was a long time ago. There’s a process of change that’s taken place. I haven’t seen Cam Newton play that many times, but certainly I've watched him on television. Honestly, I think the guy is having a good time. He’s demonstrating his personality. I think the way football has evolved and the way that the players express their joy is different than the way I grew up. It’s not a bad thing.”

Mike Pereira, just back from two weeks in Carolina:  “You do things that seem to be normal, and then you have to showboat after you do it?  But the one thing I learned about being in Carolina for two weeks in a row is that Cam Newton plays the game to have fun, and it reflects on the field. I mean, if you look at the faces of Tom Brady and even Peyton Manning, they’re all so stern. Nobody smiles. Cam Newton has fun. I think it’s hilarious now. I think Cam started handing the balls to the kids, right? Now, somebody scores a touchdown, the players are fighting each other to get the ball to hand to the kids. It’s such a great thing.”

Tina Syer, who was a founding member of the Positive Coaching Alliance, hopes families and coaches will use antics like Newton’s as a “teachable moment…. Do we feel like he’s honoring the game? Do we want to behave like Cam does after we score? What is our team’s ritual after we score, after we make a nice save—and are we actually being intentional about that?”

2.     Positive coaching and sportsmanship are more vital than ever.

Jack Clark has taught rugby for decades. His athletes have gone on to lead in Wall Street, engineering, and medicine. He used to lead by berating the team over mistakes, but “it never got better once.” After teaming up with Positive Coaching Alliance, he said that all changed. “Being positive is pretty alien to me, but now that's evolved to being about strengths to me. I spend so much more time talking to student athletes about what they do well. What are those things that they can do anytime, anywhere? Let’s model your game. Let’s build an approach to competing around those things you do well, not ignoring whatever liabilities might be there. We have to move things from one column to another over time, but just spending a lot more time, 70–30 really, in talking about strengths and modeling our own approach as a team unit on strengths, as opposed to anything else.”

Pereira told the story of an NFL official Ed Hochuli, who worked for Pereira when he headed officiating for the NFL. Hochuli made a rare but serious error in a Charger–Bronco game, calling a fumble a forward pass. “So when he walked off that field and got into the locker room, they said to him, ‘Pereira’s on the phone.’ He knew what he did. When I got on the phone, I said, ‘Let me just say this. You’re probably the best referee that I’ve had in my time. There’s a reason why I put rookies with you and struggling officials with you—because I know the effort that you go through to make your crew and your officials better. This little mark right here, what you did: a judgment thing that I’m certainly never going to hold against you. You’re far too good to ever let this affect you.’ Because I knew what he was going to do was quit. I knew how seriously he takes it.”

Pereira added that he’s concerned that bad sportsmanship by coaches at all levels is causing referees to quit: “You have guys in the NFL that are trying to do the best they can, that are graded on everything they do ... yet it seems to be okay for a coach like Jon Gruden just to rave on them, just scream on national TV in their eye to this guy.” 

3.     Beware of the wink.

Brandi Chastain recounted  the first time she faced China’s goalkeeper in a penalty shoot. Chastain placed the ball on the turf and looked up, and there was the goalkeeper, right in her face. “She smiled, and she winked at me. And I just thought, ‘You’re crazy.’ Then all I could think about was her doing that. The referee asked her to go back to the line. She took me out of my game. I ended up hitting the ball pretty well, but it hit the cross-bar, went out. We ended up losing the game. That was the championship game.

“Fast forward to ’99. Now here we are. I have to say that I didn’t feel the pressure of the penalty kick mostly because my teammates had already scored theirs, and this was a kind of a no-lose situation. They gave me superior confidence, and the only thing going through my mind was, ‘Don’t look at the goalkeeper. Don’t look at the goalkeeper.’ She has since said in the documentary that HBO did, Dare to Dream, that she couldn't get a read on anybody because no one would look her in the eye. So I feel kind of responsible that everybody else made theirs, because they wouldn't give her a chance to psych them out. It was ‘Don’t look at the goalkeeper. Just do the thing that you practiced doing a million times over.’ As I tell all of my student athletes now: You’ve already done it. That’s why you go to practice. You do it, you do it, you do it. Sometimes you make it; sometimes you don’t. But you can’t think of this moment being any different than any of the others. It’s the same distance. The referee will blow the whistle. You do what you do, and, most of the time, it will work out.”

4.     Leadership requires adjusting to the needs of your players.

George Seifert learned this lesson early on coaching: “I was a young defensive back coach, and Ronnie Lott was a first-year starter for us. Prior to a ball game, he was preparing for the game with his face in his hands and meditating or whatever he was doing. I was a nervous coach, and I wanted to make sure that he understood what was going in my mind and what he had to be prepared for. I went over to him to tell him, ‘Hey, Ronnie, I want you to remember this or that.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘Don’t ever interrupt me before a game again.’ 

“You've got to adjust to your players. So I learned not to interrupt Ronnie. And then another would go to Deion Sanders. He had a certain way of reacting after he made a great play. It was different than the way I grew up. But Deion Sanders was very attentive in meetings. He practiced. He really worked hard. He was an excellent player on the team. Game day, that was his day. So there was some give and take.”

5.     To succeed, be grateful.

Jack Clark says  his team’s mindset is to be “grateful for everything and entitled to nothing.” Noting that “there's just not enough gratitude in the world,” Clark said that if instead players approach the game like they are grateful for what they are doing, and not entitled to anything—be it clean laundry to a big payday—it “actually makes you more resilient, tougher.”  

6.     Everyone can be a leader. 

Tina Syer likes to quote Clark on this.  “About six years ago, Jack came to one of our big scholarship breakfasts, and he talked to the audience, high school student athletes, about what leadership means. He looked out at the room, and he said, ‘How many of you guys feel like you’re currently leaders on your team?’ Maybe 15 percent of them. He said, ‘Every single one of you can be a leader. At Cal, when I talk to my rugby team—sixty guys—I tell them, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, if you’re a captain, if you’re a starter. Every single one of you can be a leader on this team.’ Because he defines leadership as someone who makes those around him better.”

7.     The lessons of sports transcend sports.

What’s the greatest gift you’ve  received from sports?

Clark: Confidence
Syer: The ability to thrive in competition and be resilient
Lott: How to give and earn respect
Chastain: Friendship

Jack Clark said sports teaches other vital skills the world needs.  “We’re not like one smart person away from solving the big problems—whether it’s poverty or disease or education or the planet. It’s' really going to be groups of people standing shoulder to shoulder, getting stuff done, getting hard complicated stuff accomplished. Then what we’re doing in sport becomes important. The University of California might be the best public school in the world. It’s certainly a renowned research institution, and team isn’t taught anywhere on campus, nowhere. I’d like to think that our guys are getting a real experience that's proprietary to that, that they can bring into their communities and their families and their businesses, and really make a great contribution to the greater good. So I'm not after shiny goblets and showcases. I really don’t like losing much. I’m driven by this notion of the cut of the man and being able to create these young capable people that are going out and really changing the world in a very positive way.”