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KLI and the Athletic Leadership Module

Posted November 6, 2014 in News

By Xiangyu Ma ‘17

Short leadership courses tend to be challenging to plan precisely because of their brevity. The line between doing more and doing too much can be blurry. The Kravis Leadership Institute (KLI) does routine leadership training sessions for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) sports teams as a matter of course. It’s become a tradition almost. This fall, the program was expanded. The fall sports teams — whole rosters of them — were included in the two-hour-long Athletic Training Module on August 28th and 29th.

“In the past, we ran leadership programs for only the captains.  Now, KLI is expanding the module to serve all CMS athletes.  Our intent is to help each team improve its communication and better understand team leadership in this context,” said Sara Thompson, Director of Leadership Programs, who led the module along with Professor Jay Conger and Neela Rajendra.  KLI decided to expand the module to all CMS athletes to help teams improve communication and better understand team leadership.

The module comprised two parts. The first was a rope-and-string game that encouraged teams to engage in discussions and creative problem solving. The intention was to facilitate team communication in an arena outside of sport. “When team dialogues happen, say, on the soccer field, everybody’s egos are attached. You can become defensive, you take things more critically,” Thompson explained. “That’s why we chose the avenue of experiential learning, through a mini-game, to demonstrate the dynamics of good communication. It’s not as serious, but the same kind of team dynamics are involved.”

A focused debrief followed the conclusion of the rope-and-string game. This was the meat of this segment. The groups were asked to ponder about their group dynamics and then come up with analogies that they could draw to their sport. Jacob Bishop CMC ’15, captain of the CMS Men’s soccer, said that his team came up with some insights to the upcoming season that had surprised him.

“We just started hitting on topics that were pretty valuable. We talked about how to get the most value out of our season. And the kind of round-table discussions we did, seeing how mutually excited everybody was, what our expectations, in a judgement-free environment,” Bishop said. “It was pretty cool having the younger kids, the sophomores and freshmen, feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and whatnot. They weren’t sitting back and waiting for the older kids to decide what we wanted to do.”

People were encouraged to be candid in a way they normally weren’t, Bishop said. He recounted how a transfer student, new to the team, stood up to address the team. “[This new player] stepped up and shared his thoughts on the team. He could tell, even by playing with us for a short time, that we’re a very talented team. But he said we needed to own that, and have confidence in ourselves because we can go far like we’ve never done before. We’ve always made it to the first round and the second round, and we lose.”

The new player then made an earnest plea to the team that hit everyone right in the gut. “He said that if things keep going the way they had been going in pre-season, things might repeat themselves. We needed to be able to have that extra kind of confidence [to go further], because we clearly are a good team, we clearly love each other.” It was a vivid moment that Bishop said would carry the team through the season.

The second segment focused on the psychology of winning and the feature of failure. This portion drew heavily from the book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. “We tried to explore the fear of failure, what happens on a team when you’re operating from a place of being afraid versus a place of strength. And understanding the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose,” said Thompson.

She explained that the difference between the two mindsets were manifest and important. “When you’re playing to win, then you’re not expected to be perfect. If you’re the underdog, you’re not expected to win. So you take risks, you go for it, you activate this gain oriented system,” Thompson said. “Whereas when you’re playing not to lose, you’re just afraid of messing up, and that affects team dynamics.”

This segment finished with a video of the US Men’s 400 freestyle relay swim from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Going into the swim, the US team had been underdogs to the French. This evinced during the swim itself: the US had been behind until the very last pair of anchor swimmers took to the water. The American anchor, Jason Lezak, began behind. The French swimmer, Alain Bernard, had only to hold on to the lead. Lezak was playing to win; Bernard playing not to lose. This showed in the finish. Bernard played it safe and took an extra stroke to finish. Lezak had taken the gamble, made a stretch-and-glide to finish. It paid off — it was a .08 second difference, but it was the difference between gold and silver. Mentality mattered, and with that the module concluded.