At the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), we are dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring girls access to sports. Why sports? Overwhelmingly, research shows that through sports girls have increased confidence and higher self-esteem, a more positive body image, better overall physical health and lower rates of obesity, better grades in school, a higher graduation rate and a greater likelihood to attend college. But what about after they are done playing? Well, sports help there too.
Today we hosted the second annual Athlete Leadership Connection development conference with 80 champion and college athletes at Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in New York City. This all-day summit was created by athletes, for athletes to provide them with skills and exposure to help advance in their sports, or transition to successful careers after competition.
The day was full of inspirational breakout sessions and power talks featuring industry influencers and motivational speakers, workshops and competitions aimed at giving athletes practical experiences and skills to advance in their athletic careers and when transitioning to other fields.
As the athletes poured into the meeting rooms, we began our day with opening remarks from WSF President and two-time Olympic medalist Angela Hucles who led us into our first panel “Stick the Landing: Mental Health After the Final Whistle.” And, what better way to begin than with four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross (track & field) discussing her transition from professional competition with sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby. Richards-Ross captivated the room as she spoke battling injury and not feeling ready for retirement. A story that resonated with many athletes in the room.
Next up, WSF Board of Trustees member and fierce business woman Sarah Robb O’Hagan ptook the baton and dove right into quick, powerful tips and laughable life moments that every woman in the room has experienced at least once in their life. Her message was focused on “The Power of the Athlete Brand,” through marketing but embraced every level of activity, all passions and each life lesson that sports helps teach along the way.
“Because they are athletes, these women already amazing and they’re going to be incredible at whatever they do because they have a winner’s mind. So I want everyone to know that it transition’s into so many different places. It’s just they have to figure out what is it that they care about and love and will fight as hard for as they do in terms of their sport,” said Robb O’Hagan after her Power Talk.
The athletes dispersed afterwards and went to their respective breakout sessions where they were met by an array of industry experts. Within these sessions college and champion athletes alike were reminded of the importance of making personal connections, whether it be in an interview, at school, through social media or in their professional lives.
Hofstra University student-athlete Alexis Greene shared, “Today has been awesome. I’ve gotten a lot of great advice and it’s nice that we have a community outside of our programs at our universities that we are also a part of.”
Everyone convened back in the main room for our next Power Talk hosted by Ndidi Massay on “The Power of the Athlete Advocate.” Massay is the Chairperson for the New York State Athletic Commission and brings with her more than 20 years of strategic leadership, management and legal experience in the sports, entertainment and media industries, including work in the private and non-profit sectors. More breakout sessions followed with one focused on another branch under the Athlete Leadership Connection our Candid Conversations with Olympic gold medalist Esther Lofgren.
It is important that college student athletes understand all of the life lessons and skills they are learning through their sport and how playing a sport in a college can become a part of their resumes.
WSF Board of Trustees member and Athletic Director of the University of Michigan Warde Manuel reflected on this idea and noted, “There are many characteristics of sport that [college student-athletes] bring to the table but these ladies are impressive because of the high level of achievement that they’ve had in their careers as athletes. So I think an employer looking at a resume and trying to compare someone who has not had those levels of experience and characteristics would miss out on the opportunity to hire someone who could really impact their companies.”
Our final Power Talk before athletes moved on to various workshops, mentor sessions and career connections, was “The Power of the Athlete Voice” with WSF CEO Deborah Slaner Larkin and President of The Players’ Tribune Jaymee Messler. “When you’re an athlete and work so many years at your trade you’re so focused and you’re identified as an athlete and what the Athlete Leadership Connection is doing, whether you’re a college athlete or a champion athlete, is really enlarging your horizons and letting you know that your special skills make you very desirable in the workplace, or if you decide to continue with school or whatever profession you want to go into,” said Slaner Larkin following her talk.
The day was wrapped up by three ‘Project Pitch’ Presentations from champion athletes Lauryn Williams, Jen Hudak and Annie Pokorny. These three women were selected to develop one aspect of their emerging businesses with a group of Ohio University Masters of Sports Business students. Through an on-going working relationship since the summer of 2016, our athlete entrepreneurs perfected their presentations and arrived at the Athlete Leadership Connection ready to tackle our challenge: a five-minute pitch to a panel of sports industry leaders.
‘Project Pitch’ was also an opportunity for other champion athletes to put into action all of the lessons they learned throughout the day, shared pre-pitch feedback as a member of a peer focus group and gave last-minute advice before the big “game.”
“I think it’s so important to connect the athletes so they have a community around them that can help them go through the transitions that they’re going to be going through, show them role models who have successfully done this in the past and help them create their own pathway to their future,” said WSF Board of Trustees member and Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, Lisa Cregan.
At the end of the day, one message rang clear and it is the importance of connection. The Athlete Leadership Connection brought people together from multiple sports backgrounds and areas of life but showed them that they all have a powerful bond – a connection through sport.
The ALC was supported by WSF National Partner’s espnW, Gatorade, NBC Sports Group and FOX Sports; signature partners Morgan Stanley and U.S. Realty Advisors, LLC and Project Pitch partner Ohio University Master of Sports Administration Program.