Smart Things by Smart People

17 12 2009

There are many excellent nuggets by many smart people in Seth Godin’s new FREE ebook, titled What Matters. While it isn’t sport related in a direct way, the concepts within are applicable to all contexts of human performance and interactions.

For example, on p.24 you’ll find a page written by Daniel Pink (author of A Whole New Mind) in which he talks about autonomy…one of my favorite motivational constructs. He writes,“If we want engagement, and the mediocrity busting results it produces, we have to make sure people have autonomy over the four most important aspects of their work:

Task – What they do
Time – When they do it
Technique – How they do it
Team – Whom they do it with

This book is worth the download.

A Tribute to a One-of-a Kind Servant-Coach

13 12 2009

Me with Steve "Wilk" Wilkinson

Last night I attended a tribute to my mentor, friend and tennis coach, Steve Wilkinson. I’ve written about Wilk in previous blogs recounting his accomplishments and 3 Crown Philosophy. I was honored to be able to say a few words about Wilk on behalf of the Gustavus women’s tennis program. I’m sharing those words with you in this blog. There are not many opportunities in life to be in a room with so many people who are such an important part of your life. I was surrounded by many of my tennis mentors and closest friends–friends I made through sport.  As I sat there and listened to the words and song of others, I felt truly blessed and even more committed to pursuing my life’s work–making a difference in the lives of others, especially girls and women, through sport.

A Tribute to Steve “Wilk” Wilkinson

December 12, 2009, Nicole M. LaVoi

Good evening. I was invited to say a few words on behalf of the women’s tennis team, an opportunity for which I am grateful, humbled and honored. In preparation for tonight I solicited stories and thoughts from my teammates about how Wilk influenced their lives, so I’ll be speaking from their perspectives, as well as my own.

In reminiscing and in reading their comments, perhaps it is not astonishing the similarities between the lessons we have learned from Wilk, both on and off the court, and how we have integrated those teachings into our adult lives. I would guess much of what I say tonight will resonate with many of you.

Although Wilk was not by title my official coach or the coach of the women’s team—many of us saw him as our coach. He was responsible for my recruiting class in the interim between Dave Pettengill and Scott Novak.  Some might argue that Wilk played a large part in crafting the only national championship team of the women’s program—as the senior leadership of that team were all recruited by Wilk. I clearly remember the day during my senior year, I was intent on attending St. Ben’s, when Wilk called and invited me down to visit Gustavus just to “check it out.” Truth be told, I agreed because I could get out of a day of school!  Little did I know that call would shape the trajectory of the rest of my life.

It has been a very rewarding experience to think about Wilk’s influence on my own life and to discuss it with teammates. We are not given many moments, nor do we make the time, to reflect in meaningful ways on the people and events we hold so dear. I know that I would not be the person I am today, nor be striving to make a difference in the lives of children, their families and communities through sport, if it weren’t for Wilk.

Wilk has the ability to see the best and the full potential in all people. I would like to think that someday I might become the woman that Wilk saw within the immature, win at all cost, feisty competitive 18 year old whom he was patiently trying to teach how to volley on a cold April day in St. Cloud over 20 years ago. One of my most vivid memories of  Wilk was a 10 second exchange my freshman year. We were loading into the tennis van for an away match, and I was carrying a pillow with a pillow case that said “Love means nothing to a tennis player.”

For me it represented annihilating an opponent 6-0, 6-0, something at that time I took great pleasure in. Wilk saw it had that disappointed look on his face…you all know that look…and said, “I wish you wouldn’t ever use that again or bring it on tennis trips”. Of course at the time, it made me want to bring it all the more. That exchange always bothered me but it wasn’t until years later that I finally got it…love means everything to not only a tennis player, but human beings. I’m sure many of us, much later have finally “got” the lessons Wilk was so patiently trying to teach us in our youth.

Wilk is grace personified. Mary Sutherland Ryerse shared that a former pastor defined grace as “undeserved kindness”… which Wilk has consistently shown and modeled for us all. My teammates all offered examples of Wilk consistently going out of his way to help, teach, offer support or listen…win or lose, whether you were sportsmanly or not, were in the starting line up or not, got an “A” or failed a class, or if you got the job or not.

Linnea Carlson shared a story I think is an exemplar: She writes, “Our senior year we had finally beat Kenyon in the Midwest Regional final, 5-4, which was expected.  When Kendall Larson and I ran into Wilk at the bubble the next day and told him the news, he got a huge grin on his face and hugged us both…twice.  When I retold this story to a member of the men’s team, the player said, “If you had lost, he would have hugged you three times.”

Certainly our days with Gustavus Tennis were filled with goodness, great memories, gratitude, giving of self, giving full effort, goals with a focus on what can be controlled, and gifts of friendship and community….and of course, much grace.  I know in my own life a day does not go by without the Serenity Prayer—which I learned from Wilk. Whatever situation I’m in, the Serenity Prayer always applies. I joke with my students that all you need to know about the entire field of sport psychology can be summarized by the Serenity Prayer.

Wilk, you taught me that having a positive attitude and seeing the glass as always half full is not only a choice, but a skill that can be learned. Your unwavering commitment to doing the right thing for the right reason and keeping a positive outlook, even in the most difficult of circumstances, has shaped our character in a world that rewards achievement at the expense of others, short cuts, and instant gratification. I suppose this is why when Wilk asks you to do something, and we all end of saying “yes”…it is because we know it’s the right thing to do!

John Gardner, an American activist, reformer, educator and leader…a man much like Wilk, said “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are” and Wilk you are certainly one of those people. You have taught us that is it us alone who can put the unique ingredients of our lives together in a way that leads to dignity, integrity and meaning…and more importantly if we accomplish this feat, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

Wilk, your impact surely echoes, and spreads exponentially in immeasurable ways. To give a visual (like this rock engraved with the word Serenity which I keep in my office next to my computer) I would describe you as a rock, our rock… cast into a calm lake and your impact as the concentric circles that emanate from your core and reverberate infinitely outward to places unknown.  It is my wish, and the wish of many of us from the women’s team, that for you this celebration gives you at least a glimpse of what you have meant, and will continue to mean to so many, myself included. Thank you.

Some Thoughts on Personal Renewal

8 12 2009

I just read “Personal Renewal” by John Gardner. To learn more about John Gardner, click here.

I found so many parts of his speech enlightening. I hope you will take the time to read it. To give you a sense of what it encompasses, I’ve included a few of my favorite quotes below:

  • It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
  • You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves.
  • There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.
  • At the end of every road you meet yourself.
  • We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
  • The nature of one’s personal commitments is a powerful element in renewal.
  • You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments.
  • People of every age need commitments beyond the self, need the meaning that commitments provide. Self-preoccupation is a prison, as every self-absorbed person finally knows. Commitments to larger purposes can get you out of prison.
  • Failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.
  • Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life.

I find this piece applicable to every context, whether it be personal renewal, striving for optimal sport performance, or career transitions. What is your favorite quote and what does it mean to you?

Picture from here.

Differences Between Coaching Girls and Boys

25 10 2009

Ok, I need your help. I’d really like to hear your opinion.I know many of you coach or have coached. Are there differences in coaching boys and girls?If so, what are they? Please respond by voting in the poll and making a comment to this blog. If you’d rather not make a public comment, email me at    I’ll be sure to share your responses in a future blog.

The 3G’s (as in Great) of Effective Coaching

18 10 2009

My last blog post outlined the “3C’s” (as in Champion) of coaching, this blog is about the 3G’s (as in Great).

GAC HOF 016_Wilk cropThe 3G’s are not mine, but a creation of Steve Wilkinson, former men’s tennis coach of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. Wilk has a unique philosophy which has allowed him to become the most winningest coach of collegiate tennis, whom I’ve written about in a previous blog. The ironic thing is that nothing in his philosophy has to do directly with winning. Wilk was inducted into the Gustavus Athletic Hall of Fame this weekend, along with my teammate Amy (McCrea) Morrell. In his speech Wilk talked about the 3G’s–gifts, grace, and gratitude.

The 3G’s are a great compliment to the 3C’s, as coaching is a gift for which we should be grateful, and one we are allowed to do by grace.  This is by far a simple explanation for the eloquent words Wilk uses to describe his coaching career. I’m certain there will be more blogs on this topic in the future.

What do Online College Coach Biographies Tell Us About Inclusivity?

15 10 2009

See a guest column I wrote with graduate student Austin Stair Calhoun for the Women’s Sports Foundation, It Takes a Team newsletter titled: What Can Online Intercollegiate Coach Biographies Tell Us About Inclusivity and Tolerance of Diverse Sexual Orientations?

In a previous blog I posted our pilot study poster and results about this project. We’re currently finishing the data collection and analysis (with undergraduate Alicia Johnson, Minnesota State) for a full-scale national study which replicates the pilot. Stay tuned!

Relational Expertise for Coaches

1 10 2009

Relational expertise for coaches is the capacity to create meaningful, close connections with others that leads to mutual growth and development. My work in this area has been greatly influenced by the Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) developed by Jean Baker Miller and colleagues at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College. I was introduced to WCW and RCT when I has the head tennis coach at Wellesley from 1994-1998.

growthRelational-Cultural Theory (RCT) suggests that growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and disconnections are the source of psychological problems. According to RCT a close relationship is defined by four qualities: (a) authenticity (the process of acquiring knowledge of self and the other, feeling free to be genuine in the context of the relationship in an ongoing effort to represent one’s true self while assessing one’s own risk and gauging the impact of certain truths on the other and respecting the needs of the relationship), (b) engagement (perceived involvement, commitment, responsiveness and emotional availability), (c) empowerment/zest (the experience of feeling personally strengthened, encouraged and inspired to take action through connection in a relationship), and, (d) the ability to deal with difference and conflict (the process of expressing, working through and accepting differences in background, perspective and feeling leading to enlargement of the relationship, rather than disconnection)

We rarely and explicitly train coaches to become relational experts.

I wrote a guest column this month for the Minnesota Women’s Press LeaderVoice on my experiences and thoughts on the Relational Coach. I also have a published article in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching titled Expanding the Interpersonal Dimension: Closeness in the Coach-Athlete Relationship

picture from

The Case of the Pink Hockey Gloves

22 09 2009

pink glovesA couple years ago a student in my Psychology of Coaching class told me a story of a local youth hockey coach. This coach wanted to make his team of U12 boys “tougher.” To accomplish this goal, he decided to give the least tough skater on his team (in his opinion) a pair of pink gloves to wear for the next practice. He named this honor “the pussy gloves.” A majority of the time, the pink gloves were awarded to the same boy. I wish I were making this up.

There are so many reasons why this motivational tactic is the farthest thing from motivational, aside from the fact it is sexist and homophobic. Unfortunately this type of coaching behavior is not uncommon and often goes unchallenged as the status quo.

One Sport Voice Concluding Summer Thoughts About Sport

7 09 2009

Where did summer go? As a new school year begins tomorrow, I’d like to share a few things I’ve been thinking about over the summer.

1. After giving parent and coach workshops this summer, I’m more convinced that ALL coaches and ALL parents should attend research-based educational workshops that help them create a positive climate for youth athletes. Schools, athletic associations and club teams have to mandate attendance, otherwise the folks who show up are predominately the choir. Anything less than a mandatory attendance policy is not effective in creating the kind of change needed to ensure that sport is done right.

rural-road2. More research is needed on the issues that arise in sport for rural communities. Nearly all of our youth sport research includes suburban or urban communities. Very few researchers have focused on issues particular to rural communities and sport participation. I can only think of the Women’s Sport Foundation report Go Out And Play: Youth Sports in America by Sabo & Veliz (October, 2008) that includes data about rural kids and sports. After giving workshops in a small Minnesota community—with NO stoplights—I learned small rural communities have many of the same issues as their city counterparts, but I think unique issues exist. I talked with parents and coaches, many of whom approached me with stories of sport gone wrong and told me their stories with misty eyes, pain, frustration, and helplessness.

3. While in an antique store this summer I found James Michener’s book Sports in America written in 1976. He details the state of female, youth, collegiate and pro sport in the US (among other topics) just a few years after the passage of Title IX. It was a very interesting read and my take away was–The more things change, the more they stay the same, and some of the issues we think are “new”—such as the professionalization of youth sport—have been problematic for over 30 years.

So as I start the new school year, the focus of my work is ever sharper. Stay tuned for many new blogs that incorporate additional summer musings!

Women Leaders in the WNBA: Gaining Ground or Walking Onto the Glass Cliff?

31 07 2009

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) just released the 2009 Race and Gender Report Card for the WNBA. The WNBA is the only professional league to get an “A+” for both race and gender two years in a row, a feat that remains elusive to any other professional league.

In terms of gender here are some highlights:
+ In 2008, women made gains in terms of percentage as head and coaches, team vice presidents, senior administrators and professional administrators, but lost ground slightly in the League Office. In the 2009 season update, at the beginning of the season, women gained further ground with a 10% increase as head
coaches (46%), a 4% point increase as general managers (to 58%) and a 10% increase as CEO/President (to 43%).
+ Donna Orender remains the only woman president of a professional sports league.
+ The number of women in the CEO/Presidents role for WNBA teams increased from four to five at the start of the 2008 season, and from five to six in 2009.

The TIDES report ushers in good news for women leaders and the WNBA, during a summer in which the floundering economy has taken its toll on the league. The numbers are heartening, but after just reading a book chapter about the “glass cliff” for women in organizations, it left me wondering if the increase of women in all positions of power in the WNBA might not be all positive.

glasscliff_no titleMost everyone is familiar with the glass ceiling metaphor commonly used to describe the often subtle and unseen social-structural gendered barriers that prevent women from reaching the highest echelons of corporate leadership.

The glass cliff is a similar metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of women’s appointments to precarious leadership positions. The glass cliff illuminates the stress experienced by women who have made it through the glass ceiling (i.e., Head Coaches, CEOs, Presidents of WNBA teams) and find themselves in a more vulnerable and precarious position than their male counterparts. Women on the glass cliff often fight an uphill battle for success, without the support, information and resources needed to effectively execute the job.

Researchers have recently uncovered that when organizations are in crisis and have a high risk for failure, women are more often appointed to positions of leadership. Two explanations are offered: 1) women are perceived as particularly well-suited to manage the crisis, or 2) women are appointed to glass cliff positions because those who appoint them want to protect men (or expose women).

Are women being appointed to more positions of power in the WNBA, so failure of the league (if it happens…and I hope it doesn’t!) can in turn be attributed to women?

[photo credit to liikennevalo and]