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Speeches & Media

Beyond the Playing Field: Scholar-Athletes Learn Dedication, Resiliency and Problem Solving

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2014

At halftime of a home field hockey game on a sunny Saturday in September, I walked onto the field in the company of 10 remarkable women: the 2014 inductees into the Smith Pioneers Hall of Fame. Among that group was Smith’s seventh president, Jill Ker Conway, a friend and wise counselor to me whose commitment to women’s athletics is abundantly evident on our campus and whose belief in the connection between physical activity and achievement is something I strongly share.

Being active is fundamental to physical and mental health. But training in a purposeful way confers additional capacities and benefits that extend beyond the playing field. Key among these capacities is leadership. Education researchers at Indiana State University in 2012 demonstrated that participating in athletics correlates with gains in skills ranging from “critical thinking, self-awareness, communication, diversity, citizenship, relationships and leadership.” A 2014 global survey of 400 women business leaders found that “...from work ethic to adaptability to superior problem-solving ability, [women athletes] enter the workforce ready to win and demonstrate that ability as they rise throughout their career.”

Whether individually or as part of a team, athletes set goals. Paige Christie ’15 set—and met—a remarkable goal when, this summer, she became the sixth Smith woman to swim the English Channel. In the early months of my Smith presidency, I set a more modest goal: participate in the Family Weekend Fun Run the weekend after my inauguration. I trained at the track, where I met many faculty and students who shared a smile and an encouraging word. Thanks to their support, and the miles I logged in training, I crossed the finish line in respectable time. I continue to work out daily, even on Mountain Day, when I join students for yoga—featuring Mountain Pose, of course—on Chapin Lawn.

The collective enterprise of a team sport is especially rich training for leadership (and its attendant and equally necessary skill, followership). Win, lose or tie, the athletes and coaches always impress me with their dedication to a common goal. Smith’s new provost, Katherine Rowe, is an accomplished player and coach of Ultimate Frisbee. She likes to say she was drawn to Ultimate because it is the only sport in which an individual cannot score without a teammate’s assist. That’s a powerful metaphor for leadership and life. 

Losing a game or falling short of a training goal lead to powerful lessons in resiliency, a quality essential to success. Knowing how to lose with grace, to recover productively, is key to what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes as a growth mindset—the ability to learn from setbacks and challenges. As a Division III program, athletics at Smith is populated by scholar-athletes who compete for the love of the game. Many take up their sport for the first time in college. Recognizing that success or failure is not a verdict on one’s natural abilities is a sustaining lesson across all aspects of life.

As Smith’s president, I am committed to being the Pioneers’ number one fan. Bill and I try to attend as many games, matches and meets as we can. Often, we are part of a loyal cadre of faculty members and their families who follow their students’ teams through a season and across a player’s Smith career. We are united in the thrill of watching strong, smart Smith women in action. Jill Ker Conway captured this feeling perfectly in her Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “What a force it can be when people are really given the opportunity to strive,” she said, “to achieve the maximum that they’re really capable of.”

When you read this, the Pioneers basketball team, one of our most successful teams in recent years, will be a third of the way into its 2014–15 season. Many of its games are live-streamed so that alumnae and parents can follow and support their home team. If the camera pans to the bleachers, you’re likely to see me and Bill cheering ourselves hoarse. The players whose names we shout today will be the alumnae standouts and leaders of tomorrow.