June 18, 2001
By Kay Hawes
The NCAA News
ORLANDO, Fla. -- What does it sound like when 350 people grab a variety of percussion instruments and rock a convention center until the chandeliers shake?
It's the sound of leadership, community, unity and diversity -- all of which were emanating from the Fiesta Ballroom of Walt Disney World's Coronado Springs Resort earlier this month as nearly 300 student-athletes from across the country and from all three divisions came together for the 5th annual NCAA Foundation Leadership Conference. Santa Clara men's rower Sean Eirich represented Bronco athletics at the conference.
This year's conference featured a curriculum designed to impart tools to the student-athletes -- all of whom had been identified by their athletics departments as potential leaders -- so they could become confident, competent agents of change on their college campuses and in their communities.
It also featured 1964 Olympian Billy Mills, hands-on leadership lessons and a chance to talk to current administrators about career paths in intercollegiate athletics.
There were sessions that focused on issues by NCAA division, providing student-athletes with an opportunity to learn how the NCAA governance structure works and how to make their campus student-athlete advisory committees (SAACs) successful.
Student-athletes also discussed a variety of topics -- from sportsmanship to voluntary workouts, dangerous drinking, homophobia, amateurism, American Indian mascots, transfer regulations and the "trust gap" between athletes and administrators.
The conference was topped off with a bit of Disney magic, a professionally led drum circle to build community, 12 "color teams," each led by two trained facilitators, and an intensity and level of focus that would bring home a national championship in any sport and any division. It was the NCAA Foundation Leadership Conference, celebrating its 5th anniversary with a bang.
This year's conference actually featured several bangs, a lot of bongo thumping, some bell ringing and a bit of wood blocks and shakers -- and that was just the first night.
That evening's all-group activity, while fun and definitely very loud, was more about learning to lead than just about fun. Cameron Tummel, a facilitator from Village Music Circles, led the student-athletes and administrators in an interactive community drum circle (see related story, page A-2).
After a few minutes of chaos as the student-athletes and facilitators tested their newly chosen instruments, Tummel began to give instructions. He led the non-musicians with hand signals, indicating stop, go, soft, loud, etc. A variety of rhythmic beats emerged, creating sort of a free-form concert, the musical equivalent to abstract art.
Every once in a while, Tummel would lead the group to a stop, remarking on what they were learning.
"Just as you've noticed with the instruments, it's important to remember that in life, no one's role is more important than any other. Whether you are the smallest shaker or the biggest, loudest drum, you make a contribution that's important to the group," Tummel said.
"I work with children a lot and I ask them, 'What would it sound like if we all had the exact same drum?' And they always say, 'Oh, that would be boring.' And that's how life is, too. If we were all the same size, shape and color, it would be boring."
At four different intervals in the nearly two-hour drum circle, Tummel had the participants seek out someone they didn't know and swap instruments while introducing themselves.
By the end of the evening, Disney employees were peeking in the back doors, looking for the source of the professional-sounding music that shook the enormous hallway chandeliers.
And by then, the participants, who had drummed, shook and rung until their arms were sore, understood specifically what happens when you listen, when you recognize the contributions of the smallest bell and all the different sounds made by the different drums, all working together.
"What we did here tonight was about music," Tummel said, "but it was also about a lot of other things. It was about learning to use new and unfamiliar tools, learning to adapt, learning to communicate and learning to value the contributions of each other."
Billy Mills, 1964 U.S. gold medalist in the 10,000-meter run, gave the conference's keynote address, speaking to the student-athletes about the challenge of being leaders in today's society.
Mills, a Lakota Sioux American Indian who was born and raised on a South Dakota reservation, told attendees about his childhood dream of Olympic glory and how his father gave him a book about the Olympics and told him about the importance of sport. "Dad said, 'Sport to teach life values is sacred. Sport for sport's sake can be meaningless. Keep sports sacred.' "
Mills said his father also asked him to look inside himself to find the motivation to go on after his mother died.
"He said, 'I know you have broken wings. Be man enough to look inside yourself. You're going to find fear, anger, resentment. But look a little deeper and you will find an answer, you will find a passion, a positive desire,' " Mills said.
"When you find that passion, you are self-motivated and willing to do the work needed to succeed. Running was my passion, and the Olympics my dream. My dream became a reality because I pursued my passion."
Mills told the group to assume the mantel of leadership like warriors.
"Living your life as a warrior -- and I'm talking about a warrior, not a mascot -- means this: A warrior assumes self-responsibility, reaches into the community and helps others become responsible," he said.
"A warrior learns the power of humility. It's amazing how we lose ourselves in our own achievement. A warrior also understands the power of giving -- and we must first begin to love and respect ourselves -- and then the warrior centers it around a core of spirituality.
"I challenge you, as student-athletes, to be warriors of sport, academics and society. We need young leaders like you. In your hands are not only your dreams but the dreams of society."
Student-athletes had the chance to explore some controversial and complex issues during the conference in four topical group discussions called "Big Circle Conversations." The concurrent sessions were offered twice so that student-athletes could attend two of the four topics: Civility and Sportsmanship, Tolerance and Celebration of Difference, Dangerous Drinking, and the Trust Gaps within Intercollegiate Athletics.
The student-athletes also learned a problem-solving process drawn from the work of scholar Edward Deming. The seven steps were: highlighting problem areas, identifying and defining a specific problem, collecting and analyzing data, generating solutions, selecting action steps, implementing, and measuring and communicating results.
Student-athletes discussed the Big Circle topics with the problem-solving model in mind, debating how they could analyze data to examine various problems in intercollegiate athletics.
"You can really work with anybody to solve anything using the seven-step process," said Shawn Parker, a psychology major and football and track and field student-athlete at Harvard University. "It's a tool that you can apply to any situation."
"Expand Your Circle of Influence" provided student-athletes with the opportunity to meet with representatives of the NCAA's Management Councils, presidential governing groups and various coaches associations.
NCAA SAAC members from all three divisions also attended the conference, providing student-athletes with several opportunities to discuss national SAAC activities.
Student-athletes spent much of the conference in color-team breakout sessions. Color teams were used to create an environment where individuals could exchange ideas, learn new concepts, discuss, debate and grow.
Each color team was composed of about 25 student-athletes who were placed on teams specifically to create diversity of sport, ethnicity and NCAA division. The NCAA News followed the red team, which was led by facilitators Nancy Bals, assistant athletics director at Westfield State College, and Robert Miles, assistant athletics director for CHAMPS/Life Skills at the University of Georgia.
Among the material learned this year in the color team sessions was the five practices of leadership as defined by scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner: challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way and encouraging the heart.
"The small-team sessions really gave me a chance to discuss problems and gain insight into solutions implemented at other schools," said Karima Wesselhoft, a volleyball player at Hampton University.
Because each student-athlete was expected to emerge from the conference with an action plan to address a campus issue, student-athletes were focused early on.
"This group is so focused," Miles said. "I know they're taking things back and not just enjoying Orlando."
Working in color teams also gave student-athletes a chance to build relationships with each other.
"It creates such a safe, comfortable environment for people to get to know one another," Bals said. "They find out they have more in common with the other student-athletes than they thought."
"The students who attend the Leadership Conference are learning huge life skills, and they also are learning things that would help them run an athletics department," Bals said.
"The Leadership Conference is turning student-athletes on to leadership and management skills that will help them forever. These student-athletes are people who are going to be working in corporations and on campus, where we need leaders."