CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern junior women's soccer player Grace Clark plans to go into education and teach in the future. Right now, however, she wanted to help her fellow student-athletes understand the opportunities available to them and the power their voices carry in decisions that affect them.
Clark returned from the NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum, which took place in Washington, D.C., from November 16-19, with a renewed passion for collegiate athletics and ideas on how to help the CSU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and her team in the future.
Clark, the lone Big South Conference representative out of more than 300 student-athletes in attendance, says the experience was very cool and eye-opening to be there and see everything that happens behind the scenes with the NCAA. The four-day conference included daily keynote speakers and activities that kept those in attendance busy from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., sometimes later.
"I learned a lot about myself as a leader and my leadership styles," Clark said. "Learning how to make myself the most effective leader I can be, which is useful in any setting both on and off the field, as well as in life. I also learned a lot about the NCAA and how athletes can get involved in working with sports after their playing careers are over, which was really cool for me as an education major. For me, I really want to be a teacher, but sports have definitely always been an interest. The number of programs and things they do for athletes for their future was really cool to see."
Broken up into teams of about 25-30 student-athletes, with a handful of administrators from various schools sprinkled in, Clark said each group participated in various leadership-building activities. Each one of them pushed her to learn how she could improve her leadership abilities both on and off the field.
"I would definitely say that this has helped push me to be a leader of the teammates in my class, but also to the younger players," she said. "We have great potential on our team; we have for all three years that I've been here. This year I really want to focus on making sure we do the work that we need to do to maximize our efforts and not have any regrets. I also want to make sure we continue to have the close bond that we've always had, as well as keep the relationship and values we've had in the program."
Each of the sessions started with an icebreaker activity that helped with communication skills and made everyone comfortable working with each other. Learning how to make connections with new friends easily was a big draw for Clark.
"All of the sessions started with something that got us moving, excited, and engaged," Clark laughed. "We had to think strategically to solve puzzles and communicate with everyone on our teams. It was hard but it was fun, and it really helped me learn a lot about other people and how to make connections easily. All of the people at the forum were involved in athletics somehow, so having that connection immediately made it easier to talk with them and get personal with them. That was a really fun experience for me."
She continued, "On the first day I was there, I ran into some people that I knew of their schools, but not necessarily anyone that went there. There were people from Montana and a girl who ran track at Hawaii, which was really cool to talk with and get to know them. It was also really funny too; there was a guy from Cal State who knows a player on our team here because they went to the same high school. It really showed that it's a small world in this huge scope of things."
Among the specifics the group discussed was each individual's leadership strengths based on a quiz taken prior to the forum, emotional intelligence, and how to be an effective communicator. Clark enjoyed these sessions with a clip from the movie Remember the Titans standing out in her mind.
"One of the sessions we talked about emotional intelligence with one of the scenes from Remember the Titans being the point of emphasis," Clark said. "The scene where Gary and Julius are talking about being selfish and playing for themselves, with Julius commenting back that attitude reflects leadership, really stuck with me. My family loves that movie and my mom talks about this a lot. This quote it huge; a team's attitude definitely reflects the leadership of the team and it's more important than people realize.
Clark also shared her top five categories of leadership from the leadership quiz, as well as her take on what it was like to break down each category with her group.
"My top five categories were: achiever, competition, woo, communication, and strategic," Clark commented. "Those five combined makes me fall into the influencer category. I like to talk to people, but also like to get things done and motivate them. I definitely want to use that to get to know people, to bond, and to get them in the right direction toward success."
She continued, "Learning about this, I was also able to meet with people who I was similar to, as well as discuss with people that I was not like. It was interesting to see where it placed me. One of the administrators on my team was an influencer as well. She told me her job was to get the most out of people so her team and school are the best they can be. I definitely want to do that in the future."
Among the other activities, Clark was able to participate in included the ability to learn the ins and outs of the NCAA's legislative process, and what a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee's role can be in it. She wants to encourage other athletes to become more familiar with it as well.
"Part of the trip, we were actually able to sit in with two members of the Division I National SAAC," she said. "They took time to inform us on how the national SAAC makes decisions and how our voices are heard through them. It was a really cool experience to learn about because we actually have more influence on things that we think we do."
She added, "We also were able to meet two students on the national committee and the leader of the National SAAC. They talked with us about the governance of the NCAA and how rules and legislation are passed. It was cool to see the future and what was behind the scenes in a lot of processes. A lot of athletes don't know about how powerful their voices can be, but if they get involved, they will be heard."
Clark found out about the opportunity at one of the Charleston Southern SAAC meetings through Assistant A.D. for Compliance/Senior Women's Administrator Ashton Turner. She was definitely grateful for the opportunity to attend.
"At one of our first SAAC meetings here at CSU, Ashton gave us a pamphlet for the forum," Clark said. "It looked like an excellent opportunity, really exciting and fun, and it caught my interested. Being able to be around other athletes and learning was a great experience.
She added one final thought to any future CSU athletes interested in attending the conference and hopes that more will take advantage of the opportunities provided by the NCAA and the athletic department.
"The NCAA provides you so much while you're there," Clark said. "It was a full weekend, but it was really fun. If you want to make yourself a better leader, a better person or connect with people all over the country, you should definitely go. They make it easy for you to get there, a fun experience, and you learn so much about yourself and college athletics. Definitely a great experience for anyone."