At leadership conference, athletes learn to lead on the field and off

South River rising senior Chris Carr has an outgoing personality that works well for many high school team captains, but the lacrosse player hadn't thought too much about leadership style.

On Tuesday at the second annual Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Student-Athlete Leadership Conference, Carr picked up a few pointers about how to be a better leader for his teammates.

"The biggest thing I learned had to be that I didn't know all the ways to communicate, and this taught me different ways to communicate," Carr said. "And I also learned that there are different styles of leadership and not every style will work in every situation. Sometimes it just needs a reassuring nod; it doesn't need you to yell. Sometimes it needs someone to just help them and support them instead of someone breaking them down."

Carr and nearly 400 other student-athletes from 134 public schools around the state attending the conference at New Town High School in Owings Mills discovered better and smarter ways to lead their teams through a series of workshops designed to develop decision-making, team-building and leadership skills. At the end of the day, the student-athletes came together by county or district to design action plans to implement for their teams and their schools.

"Being a captain is not only leading on the field, it's leading off the field, always saying, 'Hi,' to your teammates, staying after practice to help clean up. You really have to go beyond that one specific point of being a captain to succeed in being a leader," said MacKenzie Lange, a volleyball and lacrosse player at Hereford.

In the action planning session for Baltimore County athletes, Franklin athletic director Richard Reed said he heard many good ideas.

"The best idea I heard [came] from Woodlawn High School," Reed said. "They want to incorporate the whole student body, say hello in the hallways, smile more often and be open to discussion with other students who aren't athletes. I think that's just brilliant. I love the fact that they can go down the hallway and see that someone's having a bad day and say, 'Hey, is everything OK?' That was really nice to see."

Reed said the common theme from the students came from hearing one of the motivational speakers, Stephen Bargatze, who wowed them with his magic tricks and then hit home with his own personal story. He told them he grew up unwanted by his parents, had a lonely school life as a special ed student and got into plenty of trouble. Bargatze said no athlete ever spoke to him, but that athletes have the power to change the life of a troubled student just by communicating with him or her.

Other students wanted to implement some of what they learned in the captains' course, designed by Howard athletic director Michael Duffy five years ago for team captains at his school.

"One of the issues is that kids, adults, anyone needs to know what's expected of them and without proper training, how do we expect them to be successful? It can't be, 'Congratulations. Here's the title. Good luck with the job we haven't described.' This is giving them a more clear role and defined expectations," Duffy said.

Darcey Rayner, a basketball player at Howard, said she learned a lot from Duffy's course, which she has taken before.

"Leading a sports team is different than leading students in an academic event or even like when I'm just around peers," Rayner said. "Basketball teams tend to be very well knit together, so there doesn't tend to be as much drama, but it's easier knowing I have extra knowledge to help me lead my team. I don't want to just assume that I'm a good captain. I want to know, 'Is there anything I can do to help?'"

Team-building exercises took place in the gym and included an expanded version of a three-legged race where six or seven students stood side by side and had to move forward one step at a time with each person's foot remaining in contact with the foot of the person next to him or her.

Allstate also ran a session on safety issues for young drivers, focused on distracted driving. Students had a chance to try texting while riding a large tricycle through a traffic-cone obstacle course. That proved a challenge for Mervo senior wide receiver Jamale Myrick, who struggled just to get his long legs on the pedals.

In his second try, Myrick did pretty well a slow speed, but he said that wouldn't tempt him to try texting while driving.

"I never really thought about it like that," Myrick said, "but texting and driving is really, really bad. My parents don't let me text and drive at the same time. The feeling even from this is that it's very, very dangerous."

Many students said they learned a lot from the conference, which began and ended with a session with Gregory Dale, Duke professor of sports psychology and sports ethics who works with the Blue Devils teams as well as some professional teams.

"I've heard some of the stuff before, but hearing it from someone who has a Ph.D. who works with people that are professional athletes really sent it home," said Prosper Odilatu, lacrosse team captain at New Town.

"My team really goes through a lot of problems and adversity, and as a captain, it's really hard for me. Sometimes I just want to give up and just be on my lonesome, but I'm really going to try and bring my team together this year. Whether we have a winning season or not, I just want to play as a team."

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