The Art of Excellence (Interview)

The following interview appeared in the May 2011 edition of Sport Management Academy Newsletter.

An award-winning athlete, author, journalist, speech writer and speaker, Mariah Burton Nelson has played a leading role in redefining what it means to be a success in the sports industry. She currently serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

Q. What do you feel is your greatest achievement?

A. Populating the world with more female athletes. When I ride my bike (in the Washington DC area), and see trails full of female cyclists, runners, walkers, and in-line skaters of all ages, I feel gratified that I have played a small role in creating those opportunities. I reflect on how far we’ve come from my childhood.

My mother was a swimmer (and still is, at 87,) but she and her friends never ran or rode bikes or played team sports. When I was growing up, people expected “tomboys” to “grow up and be ladies.” Now girls and women take for granted their right to move, and they understand the relationship between exercise, health, and happiness.

Many women have told me, “You inspired me to be an athlete.” That was not my initial intent — I just wanted to write books and give speeches about women’s sports experiences — but what a satisfying result!

Q. What qualities do you think are key to professional success?

A. Discipline. We do so many things because we’re in the habit of doing them. And those habits — the good ones — are what lead to success. I swim or lift weights or ride my bike or do yoga every day because I made a decision many years ago to be an athlete, and that’s what athletes do. I don’t need to re-decide every day. That’s the good news: Discipline itself becomes a habit. You become the kind of person who does the right things, over and over again.

The same is true for discipline at work. After a while, you dispense with the inner dialogue about whether or not to work, or work harder. You write the proposal, then polish it until it shines, because you made a deal with yourself a long time ago. You might not even remember why or when you made that deal, any more than you recall your original tooth-brushing agreement.

Another word for discipline is practice. This is more good news: When you do something repeatedly, you get better at it. You feel increasingly competent, and confident, which leads you to try even harder.

I just submitted a proposal, and the recipient told me that in the 25 years he’s been writing and reviewing proposals, he’s never seen a better one. I was happy, but I wasn’t really surprised. I’m sure that much of my own professional success is largely due to the fact that I work harder, and have higher standards, than most people.

I think this is rooted in self-discipline. I learned it in sports, and continue to benefit from the daily discipline of sports, but discipline begins with commitment. Anyone, even someone without athletic training, can start there.

Q. What role do you feel mentors play in achieving career goals?

A. I’m reading a new biography of Babe Didrikson called Wonder Girl (coming out in June 2011). She died the year I was born, but I read her autobiography as a young girl, and she inspired me by being so incredibly disciplined, hard-working, passionate, competitive, and successful. I also looked up to my mother, an exuberant swimmer and physician who was openly, playfully competitive. They were my two role models: Babe and Mom.

But I did not have any mentors per se because so few women were playing sports when I was growing up (I was born in 1956), and so few people were writing about women and sports when I started doing that, in 1980. Basically, I invented my career (as a sportswriter focused on women and gender issues.) I admired Frank Deford and George Leonard and other male sportswriters, but I didn’t know them personally, and often wished that I had a mentor I could turn to for advice. Perhaps I would have made fewer mistakes. Given a chance, someone certainly would have taught me something about respectful silence and tact. Sometimes I’ve been too outspoken for my own good.

So I can’t really comment on mentors from personal experience, but I’ve heard good things about them, and try to be what I think of as “the kind of person who’s worth looking up to, in case anyone’s looking.”

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to today’s sport managers what would it be?

A. Actively seek diversity. Birds of a feather flock together, so we must consciously transcend our natural tendency to hire and promote people who look and sound and think as we do. My current staff of nine includes people of Indian, Korean, African, European, and Iranian descent, someone who is legally blind, and someone who is gay. (That’s me.) Do we talk about those differences? Rarely. We’re too busy talking about how to promote physical activity, and how to best serve our members. But does our diversity make us stronger as a team? Surely. To achieve this sort of diversity, one must recruit widely, and make a commitment to putting aside personal prejudices in order to get to know people as people. The rewards – personal and professional – can be great.

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