How Coaching Grade 9 Girls Makes Me a Better Leader

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I still have a clear memory of how it felt on the basketball court when I played in the Canada Games: It felt like soaring.

Although that was decades ago, the adrenaline rush, the high of winning, the fight to do better after a heartbreaking loss — none of that leaves you. Instead, those experiences define and chisel professional abilities over the years, particularly for women who go on to excel as leaders. Not only does competitive sport help them thrive under pressure, but it also hones the skills to build great teams with a strong work ethic.

Related: 7 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From the Game of Basketball

I’m hardly the only one to have discovered this connection. According to EY findings, 94% of C-suite women have played sports at some point in their lives. What’s more, many of them attribute their ingrained competitive spirit to their years on the court, field or track.

That’s what I hope the grade 9 girls I now coach at our local youth girls’ basketball club team will take with them when they launch their careers someday — but there are plenty of other lessons to help anyone step up their leadership game right now.

1. Surround yourself with confidence boosters

When you’re attacking the rim, playing pressure defense or fighting for loose balls, you’re not considered “too aggressive,” “bossy,” or worse. In sports, competitiveness is rewarded. I now know how important that was to me as a young athlete and how much of my current confidence can be attributed to that attitude.

As a 11-year-old, I was the timid person at the end of the bench, playing only two minutes a game. But by university, I was another person. I wanted to be the player in the pressure situation who would set the team up for success. As a team of young women, we were brazen. We weren’t cocky or arrogant, but we had unabashed confidence. And we fed off each other’s energy. That determination, resiliency and the ability to win with grace, lose with dignity and come back the next day for more? I see that in fellow female leaders today.

Related: 5 Lessons on Leadership from a High School Volleyball Coach

2. Make plans and own the outcome

No matter what your professional goal is, you’ve got to make a plan and follow through. No coach would ever send her team out on the court without deciding in advance what must happen and in what order. Or a bid for the championships? You’ve got to practice every day.

To become a top thought leader or company executive, it’s vital to have a clear career strategy broken down into small, doable steps. And if you don’t get the result you wanted, trust your instincts and course correct in the moment. Successful teams never wait until the end of the game to fix something, it is ongoing, in-the-moment pivots, that lead to huge wins.

3. It’s not about the scoreboard

It really isn’t. Yes, winning is preferred, but I’m the first to admit our team has sometimes won a game the wrong way. We had too many technical fouls, or a player hogged the ball. Sometimes that works, but at what cost? As a coach, I walk away from those games feeling like we didn’t do what we set out to accomplish, and I make sure to talk to the girls at the next practice about what we need to do better and what I expect to see.

This lesson applies to business, too. Maybe you get a project done, but did you work in a way that reflects your values? Business teams and sports teams are a sum of their parts. If you don’t respect and nurture your players, and allow them to perform and stretch themselves, some may decide there are better opportunities elsewhere. Collaboration, integrity, respect — these are key qualities in any endeavor.

Related: 5 Leadership Lessons on the Court, for Business off the Court

4. Make it fun

Maybe this sounds cheesy, but I’m just going to say it: whether you’re playing a game or putting the finishing touches on a report, it’s supposed to be fun. That doesn’t mean our tasks aren’t sometimes challenging and stressful, but as a leader, I need to enable an element of engagement for everyone.

That means you need to truly understand who you’re leading. What are your team members’ personalities and unique learning styles? What motivates them to push through barriers? There’s one girl on my team who wants blunt answers. Another requires softer language and a gentler approach. If I coached all 12 girls the same way, I would get only half the outcome. The same applies for my team at work.

5. Be your own champion

It’s important to know who you are and celebrate your authentic self. You can’t be someone else; if you’re five-foot-two, becoming the starting center for your high school basketball team is not a realistic ambition. You need to nurture and grow the value you bring to the team through hard work, be committed to being a better “you” today compared to the best “you” of yesterday, and make your voice heard. This means learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially if you’re often in the minority on your leadership path.

Maybe you’re dealing with bias, or you’re the only woman in the room at a high-level meeting. It’s okay to say what you want and to be your own advocate. Figure out how to put your game face on, and just go for it.

Should you take up a sport now to learn and live these lessons? Not necessarily. While I truly have a passion for opening doors to girls through sport, professional women can find other avenues to create confidence and drive. Find a community that resonates with you, build a network there, and connect with like-minded people. And as I often tell the incredible girls on my team, you can do it. You’re more capable than you know.

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