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Put me in, Coach! Leadership Lessons from the Pee Wee Basketball Leagues

This winter, I volunteered to coach my daughter’s basketball team. My qualifications for this role are as follows: I was cut from my 7 th grade basketball team, and I warmed the bench for my 8 th grade basketball team. And while I love my own child dearly, I would not describe myself as a “kid person.” But, after multiple text message pleas telling me that a parent needed to step up for there to be a team, I succumbed.

Within a few minutes of the first practice, it felt like a mistake of gargantuan proportions. I had no idea what I was doing, and my daughter cried almost the entire time. But, as any good President with a quarterly column responsibility would do, I figured – if nothing else – this could be good fodder for a blog post.

Here goes.

Women need to be asked. When I was President-Elect figuring out my Board slate, multiple past Presidents advised me, “women need to be asked.” Meaning, I shouldn’t just assume that everyone who was interested would apply without a nudge. Indeed, Secretary of State Jena Griswold shared at our annual Legislator Appreciation Breakfast that women need to be asked an average of seven times before they will consider running for office, and the research shows that encouragement matters much more for women considering leadership roles than it does for men. I’m living proof of this. I needed to be asked to apply for President-Elect of the CWBA, just like I had to be asked to coach basketball.

Anything new will be uncomfortable at first. That first day on the basketball court, I noticed that my feelings were not that dissimilar from when I first joined the CWBA Board as Convention Co-Chair or when I started my current job. I realized this was an important opportunity to sit in the discomfort of being new at something. This has expanded my empathy for the new Board members this year and has influenced my thinking about how to ensure that the next group of Board members have the tools and support they need to succeed. If you were to ask me which is the most baffling – the many intricate details of planning a convention, the layers and nuances of the Colorado tax code, or how to get five-year-olds to pay attention and dribble – I’m not sure I’d have an answer. But I do know that you learn to do the thing by doing the thing, and it gets easier with time.

Let people help you. Fortunately for me, another parent on the team had coached for this league

before. While his preference had been to sit this season out, after the first day he offered to be my co-coach and I gratefully accepted. Each CWBA committee is led by two or three co-chairs. Ideally, at least one co-chair is returning and can show the new co-chair the ropes. In recent years, we’ve also assigned an Executive Committee liaison to each committee to provide an extra layer of support. Our amazing staff, Executive Director Kim Sporrer and Deputy Director Kristen Staneiwicz, are also there to help with the administrative tasks and to provide institutional knowledge. At a recent Board meeting, when asked “What do you wish you knew when you first joined the Board?” someone responded, “I wish I knew I could ask for help!” You can. And you should.

Validation makes people feel valued. Early in the season, a few other parents came up to me and said something along the lines of “What you’re doing is not easy. Thank you so much for taking this on.” I can’t tell you how much better this made me feel. It reminded me of a time I was trying to coordinate schedules of expert witnesses for depositions, incredibly frustrated by how much time and mental energy it was taking for what seemed like a straightforward task. When I mentioned it to the partner on the case, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s complicated. You could spend your whole morning on something like that!” Nothing frustrates me more than when someone doesn’t recognize how much goes into a task or role and makes assumptions about how it could be done faster or better without having spent any time in the weeds. Saying, “wow, that took a lot of work – thank you!” goes a long way.

Lean into your strengths. I may not have experience leading basketball drills, but I’m a black belt in sending team emails with lots of exclamation points. I know how to delegate who is in charge of bringing snacks to the next game. I am great at getting team cheers going. And, with a background in endurance sports, I feel very capable of leading warmups and stretches. Doubling down on what makes you you is important as you develop your unique style as a leader.

Eyes on your own paper. Others will lead differently and that’s ok. The only other team in the pee wee league was coached by the same person who was the referee come game time. His shirt said “Staff” on the back, meaning he was getting paid. My shirt said “Coach,” which means, “has a pulse and passed a background check.” When I saw him lead practice, he wasn’t following the practice plan outline I had

been given. I assumed whatever he was doing was infinitely better. But at the same time, it didn’t

matter. I had a perfectly fine practice plan in front of me, I would stick with that. And by the end of the season, I stopped looking at the suggested practice plans because I had a sense of what worked well for the group. Figure out what works for you and your team.

There’s crying in basketball . . . and everything else. While adults don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves the same way kids do, that doesn’t mean there’s not an emotional component to everything we do. As neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor put it, “Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.” During our Rockstar Mentor event last August, panelist Sherin Sakr’s comments emphasized that a nonnegotiable aspect of being a good leader and mentor is sharing your own humanity so you can create a safe space for others to do the same. When you are working as a team – whether the goal is scoring baskets or planning a convention – there are going to be occasional frustrations, disappointments, miscommunications, and hurt feelings. Leading by example to create an environment where those feelings can be shared openly makes for a stronger team.

Watching others succeed is so rewarding. Even in the controlled chaos of a pee wee basketball games where we don’t keep score and dribbling is only encouraged, sometimes teammates pass the ball to each other and manage to get the ball through the (much lower than regulation) hoop. And those moments feel remarkable. Any time I see a committee volunteer introduce a session at Convention, or a Board member lead a meeting or make opening remarks at an event, I think to myself, “I’m so proud!” And then I have to laugh because this is a professional women who regularly does trials or any number of other amazing things and saying welcome at a membership social isn’t exactly rocket science. But still, seeing CWBA members shine is what this whole President gig is all about.

In case you’re wondering, I did not sign up coach the spring season. That said, it was a good experience to simultaneously feel confident in one leadership role and completely inept in another. Being a beginner again can be a master class in practicing failure. And comfort with failure fosters experimentation, creativity, and resilience. The next time someone asks you to take on an opportunity that you don’t quite feel ready for, may you have the courage to say, “Put me in, coach!”



102 views3 comments


Beautifully done, Coach! xo


Emma, your post is absolutely fabulous! It's so relatable and honest, and your dedication to diving into the unknown is truly inspiring. It's what makes you such an amazing leader. Keep shining!


Mar 06

Emma, what an engaging and insightful essay. Thanks for your leadership example.

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