Most student-athletes possess a Type A personality, and certainly Virginia Tech softball player Maddi Banks falls into that category.
Put her on first base in the bottom of the seventh inning of a tie game, and she’s stealing second – and then coming home on any single to the outfield.
But on a recent trip to Colorado with a group of Tech student-athletes, Banks found herself at the bottom of an Air Force Academy ropes course that presented an array of vertical challenges. Looking upward at the time, her competitive nature, extroverted attitude, and confident disposition all waned a little bit.
“I have a little fear of heights,” she admitted. “That was pretty scary.”
That was one of several activities arranged by the Virginia Tech Athletics Leadership Institute staff during a six-day leadership retreat that took place in Colorado Springs, Colorado in mid-August. Ten student-athletes from seven different teams took part in the retreat, which was planned and overseen by Leadership Institute staff members Danny White (senior associate AD), Dr. Gary Bennett (associate AD for sport psychology), and Shelby Miller (senior director of student-athlete development).
The initiative marked a new one for the Leadership Institute. For the past seven years, the staff led small groups to places such as the Dominican Republic, Switzerland and Rwanda as part of a “Sport, Policy and Society” study abroad course that explored different sectors of international development and how sports can support such development. White served as the primary instructor of that course, with Dr. Bennett and Miller in supporting roles.
This year, the staff decided on a domestic initiative, seeing value in taking student-athletes to the United States Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center for discussions with some of the best leadership that this nation offers.
“The goal of the program was to provide a unique leadership experience for student-athletes to travel and learn from the ‘best of the best’ in the U.S.,” Miller agreed. “While we’ve coordinated an abroad experience for several years, we saw this as an opportunity to expose student-athletes to leadership concepts in an experiential way away from campus. Our hope is that the 10 student-athletes have returned to campus with the leadership training and a new motivation to positively impact their teams at Virginia Tech.”
The 10 student-athletes in the group included Banks, Jaelyn Demory (men’s track and field), Nika Kozar (women’s tennis), Ryan Metz (baseball), Slade Pickering (men’s golf), Rachel Pocratsky (women’s track and field), Kayla Purcell (women’s swimming and diving), Isaiah Rogers (men’s track and field), Molly Sheffield (women’s swimming and diving) and Joelle Vereb (women’s swimming and diving).
They left Thursday, Aug. 15, and the next day, found themselves on the Air Force Academy’s ropes course. Staff members of the Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development coordinated several activities, creating an environment where student-athletes “own, engage and practice the habits of honors, thoughts and actions in line with the identity of a leader of character.”
Most people view education through the prism of books, slides and dry erase boards. But these 10 student-athletes were tested in ways that not only brought them out of their comfort zone, but also forced them to trust each other and to find solutions together.
“You had to trust the people holding the rope,” Banks said. “And maybe some people weren’t scared of heights. Rachel [Pocratsky], she came on the trip and she did it five times, but for people who didn’t, you had to trust the people who were guiding you and encouraging you. Something that you think is small can mean so much to someone else.”
The ropes course also taught them how to overcome failure. Not every student-athlete made it to the top on the first attempt, but they learned from their past errors and summited again – which, of course, good leaders often do.
“The things we did at the Air Force Academy forced me to get out of my comfort zone, and I think it really helped me because I saw what I’m capable of,” Kozar said. “We were doing team building, and I had to learn that it’s not all about myself. It’s about the team. I usually like to be in control, but I had to cooperate with other people who were there, so that pushed me to think outside of myself.”
Two different activities reinforced the importance of communication. During one ropes course activity, staff members split the 10 student-athletes into groups of three. Each group lost one of its abilities – sight or speech.
The 10 of them thus needed to come up with a way to communicate to accomplish the tasks in spite of those obstacles.
“We take communication for granted sometimes,” Rogers said. “Forcing certain aspects of that activity, for lack of better words and no pun intended, opened your eyes to how important good communication is. Not just talking, but listening. They say listening is the majority of communication, and I really think that’s the case … and the coolest part of that drill is applicable to individual sports and team sports, athlete to athlete, coach to coach, anybody could do it. That, I thought, was really cool.”
The other activity took away the 10 student-athletes’ physical abilities and forced them to use their minds and communication skills. The instructor provided several different pieces of PVC piping, and then he told the group to come together and build a structure with their pieces of piping.
The group started the process, and the structure was coming along nicely, thanks largely to Metz and Pocratsky – two pursuing degrees in engineering and thus with the perfect aptitudes for a task like this. But the instructor later threw in some curveballs. He instructed that only certain group members could speak. That took Metz and Pocratsky out of the equation at times, forcing the group to rely on others.
“They could point and navigate, but they couldn’t lead the vocal charge,” Rogers said. “At one point, there was silence. Slade was the only one left, and he could talk. Then he starts leading. It allows you to be a leader in your own way, but you wouldn’t have found that out if everyone were still talking. That was kind of a cool experiment.
“That allowed people that don’t have a strong personality or don’t really push themselves out there too much to step into the spotlight and take control of the group … So when you force them to be the leader, you see that they can do it.”
White, Dr. Bennett and Miller also held leadership training sessions, which focused on developing habits of excellence as leaders for their respective teams. The training emphasized many aspects of leadership, including the importance of dealing with different personalities.
The personalities within this group differed drastically, reinforcing the lessons of the staff.
“You need to adapt,” Kozar said. “It’s not wrong that someone has different personality traits. We learned how to work with other people, and how to create habits, which helped me a lot. It was a lot of fun, too.”
Their trip also included a stop at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center there in Colorado Springs. They visited with several staff members, including Sean McCann, a senior sports psychologist who talked specifically about preparing for the Olympic games, including the mental effects after the Games end. Also, the group heard from Lindsay Shaw, a senior sports psychophysiologist who discussed the impact of sleep, recovery and mental focus, along with Ron Brant, a high performance director. Grant talked about the importance of an all-encompassing training plan that includes sports performance, sports medicine and psychology. In addition, they met with renowned sport psychologist Karen Cogan, who has counseled numerous Olympic medalists.
Of course, the trip wasn’t all physical and mental challenges. They toured the Air Force Academy campus, including the famous Cadet Chapel and worked out at the school’s athletics facilities. They also toured the Olympic Training Center, went on two different hikes, and they drove into Denver on a Sunday afternoon to take in a Colorado Rockies game.
Of the student-athletes interviewed, all said that the time spent bonding with the student-athletes from other sports was their favorite part of the trip. Rogers and Pickering convene on campus a few times a week now. Banks, a native of Iowa, has been hanging out frequently with the others as well.
“We clicked, and we got to know each other – and now I hang out with these guys since I came back,” Banks said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you went to a leadership event. You didn’t interact with anyone.’ … Afterward, you wanted to interact with them, and you want to support them in their sport and you want to check up on them. I’d definitely say that was my favorite part.”
The goal of this leadership initiative wasn’t just to make the student-athletes better leaders. The Leadership Institute staff wanted them to take what they learned, bring it back to Blacksburg and make their teammates better individuals and their teams better collectively.
Judging from their comments, this group of Tech student-athletes plans to do just that.
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics