Leadership can come from anywhere, and South Carolina Athletics is doing its part to bring out the best in its student-athletes on and off the field/court with the recent creation of the Gamecock Leadership Academy.
“Leadership has been a topic for which several of our teams have requested more programming,” said Maria Hickman, senior associate athletics director for academics and student development. “The goal is to help build leaders on teams and help resolve challenges that arise within a team so it’s not all on the coaching staff. It helps teams find their strengths and weaknesses, how to lead, and how to be a vocal leader and what it means to be a vocal leader. Some people think they know what that all means, but this gives them the tools and skills to utilize it effectively.”
“It’s an interesting opportunity to build upon skills and improve on leadership qualities for future endeavors, and not just for sports,” said Mason Zandi, a senior on the football team.
South Carolina has partnered with the Janssen Sports Leadership Center to create the Gamecock Leadership Academy. Janssen has successfully implemented similar programs at dozens of other universities across the United States, including the University of North Carolina where Gamecock head softball head coach Beverly Smith previously served as an assistant coach.
“What I saw there was how the students are given the tools to handle their own business and ‘get their house in order,’ ” Smith said. “Once that happens, it’s about how you can affect change with others. Players had better tools to address situations themselves. They didn’t always have to go through the coach. You can’t just say to a student, ‘you’re a leader, go do it.’ They need the tools. They need the training and the skill set to help them.”
“It will really teach the teams to have a lot more unity,” said Shelby Freedman, a junior on the women’s track and field team who recently attender her first session. “With a big team like ours that has so many diverse groups, it will help bring us all together. It’s an exciting mission. He (Janssen) had some great and inspiring stories.”
The group meets three times per semester, with Jeff Janssen, Leadership Center founder and president, on campus twice per semester to assist with the programming, and attendance is mandatory to stay in the program unless there is a competition or class conflict. For this first year, each team has three representatives in the academy. Each session is very interactive and not simply a classroom experience.
“It’s more hands on,” Hickman said. “There will be a 360 degree survey which has peers give feedback on different categories. You’re getting peer reflections of who you are and how you are.”
Leadership is what can take your team to the next level. It can come from unlikely places.Jeff Janssen
Janssen hosted the first session at Williams-Brice Stadium on Monday and put the student-athletes through several interactive exercises and hands-on activities. So far, so good.
“I feel like I already learned a little about being a leader,” said Bryson Allen-Williams, a junior on the football team. “Just seeing different techniques you can use and the different traits you need to possess to help others become successful was pretty cool. I wanted to be a part of it because I want to be able to help my team by being leading through example and some things that I can do vocally.”
“I thought it was fun,” said Anna Conklin, a junior on the women’s soccer team. “I was kind of nervous coming into it. Now, I’m excited about it. I think it will be really helpful and make us a better team.”
“It was cool to get individuals from each team together,” said Paige Cline, a sophomore on the women’s tennis team. “I think this will really be beneficial, and I’m looking forward to trying to develop these skills.”
The participants are divided into two separate groups with younger student-athletes enrolled in the Emerging Leaders Program and the more seasoned student-athletes enrolled in the Veteran Leaders Program. Going forward, it will be open for any student-athlete to apply. The goal is for the student-athletes to take what they learn, and bring those skills back to their teammates.
“Talent can take a team so far,” Janssen told the members of the Gamecock Leadership Academy at its first meeting in Williams-Brice Stadium. “Leadership is what can take your team to the next level. It can come from unlikely places. You don’t have to be a senior to be a leader. You don’t have to be a starter to be a leader. You don’t have to be on scholarship to be a leader.”
“It’s great when your superstar player is your best leader, but a lot of times, that’s not the case,” Smith said. “This gives other players a chance to step up and utilize their strengths to add value to the team.”
“I thought it was really good,” said Harrison O’Keefe, a junior on the men’s tennis team. “I’m looking forward to becoming a better leader and improving my leadership skills.”
Janssen is also available to the coaches.
“This sort of training is crucial,” Smith added. “In front of us, they’re always doing and saying the right things. It’s what happening in the locker room or in their free time when they are all together that’s important. That’s when your leadership shows up.
“It’s a life skill and how you can get others on board. You can apply it in the workforce when you’re trying to get a group of coworkers to move in the same direction. It’s a valuable tool, and I think it’s a great recruiting tool for us, too. I think students and parents will be excited about it.”