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Leadership Lessons from the “Coaching Legend” of Softball: Podcast #26

sue-enquistRecently I had the privilege to discuss leadership lessons with Sue Enquist, who holds more National Championships (11) than anyone in the history of softball. She is UCLA Softball’s first athletic scholarship,  All-American, National Champion, and Hall of Famer. Off the softball field, Sue is a dynamic communicator and has gained the reputation as a highly sought after international speaker. She equips leaders to connect with students at the heart level and bring out the very best in them.

Here are a few notes from our discussion…

Would you just take a minute to share your story? How you were gripped even as a UCLA softball player, and how it led you to pour back into others?

My parents did a great job of creating the conditions for me to be myself, but also had very clear boundaries about the standards of being an Enquist. People struggle with rules versus boundaries versus being relevant, but I think what is timeless is a clear voice in who you are, what you do and how you do it. We first must look within our own family unit and get clarity before we look outward and worry about being relevant.

I remember you telling this story: in the beginning, you were a part of the women’s softball team, and in the early days, you didn’t even have uniforms. Could you talk about that?

In the transition after Title XIV, we still hadn’t received our own uniforms yet. Luckily, we had a great leader who really taught us it’s not the uniform that defines you, but the person in the uniform.

But what was fun was that our track team was a perennial nation champion (they had multiple Olympians), and our little field was next to the track. And I remember them handing out the used practice track t-shirts that were going to become our uniforms. My jersey had a W.B. on the inside that stood for Willie Banks; those that know track and field know that he was a great champion. I remember getting that jersey, thinking ‘Oh yeah, I’m all it now.’ It was really about the messaging our head coach taught us about how you define success, and how you gain success is through this consistency of your effort and your attitude.

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Share some of the elements that made the difference for you as a student athlete. What enabled you to succeed at such a high level when there was no tradition for UCLA softball?

When you don’t have models to copy, you revert to familial standards. You can only control your effort and your attitude; simplicity can be one of the most difficult elements to remain disciplined in. Be your best when your best is needed, and your best is needed all the time.

You were there at UCLA when Coach Wooden was there, weren’t you? What are some of the greatest leadership lessons that you picked up from him (or from other places) while you were there?

Coach Wooden retired the same quarter that I arrived. I forged a relationship with him as an assistant coach, and then a deeper bond when I became the sole head coach at UCLA. The most important lessons he taught me were to not look left or right, as well as to not base your expectations on other people’s perception of you — you know what you’re capable of. 

One of the things I often say to coaches is that their athletes need you to be responsive and demanding. What are your thoughts on that?

We don’t need more Captain Obvious coaches. State the drills, but also give them the bridge between where they are and where they need to be.

From your angle, how are today’s students and student athletes different?

This generation needs to be guided a little more than others past. However, I think the next phase of great leadership is going to be uncoaching, in which they have their own true confidence because they built their path.

What’s one of the hardest parts about being a coach?

I want to share with the listeners something that I learned from Coach Wooden. There are days that you have to protect the kids from yourself. As a coach, as a leader, you are expected to be on all the time. So there are gonna be days that you have to protect the kids from yourself, when you’re not all fired up or don’t have your happy face on. Once you learn those boundaries, you’ll be more efficient and have a greater influence on others.

That’s one reason I love your style so much. Sports isn’t an end in itself — it’s a means to an end. It’s teaching about life, relationships, that you win, lose and get back up and try again. I think one of the reasons you’ve won at softball is because you’ve taught your athletes that it’s more than just about softball.

I’d love to speak from the perspective of the parent on this. We enter into this experience to help our children develop, but we often get sucked into this idea that he or she is somehow going to end up with a college scholarship. If we could put sports in a proper perspective, and use them as a launching pad to develop young children (and, ultimately, not worry about the scholarship), I believe athletes would be better prepared for life after their sports.

I remember reading last year about a high school league that required the parents not to say a word from the grand stands. What are your thoughts on that?

I had a coach that used to tell parents ‘Please don’t stop me in the parking lot; please don’t stop me on the way to the parking lot. If you want to question my tactics, please come volunteer at one of my three practices.’ In twenty years, he never had a parent complain.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one reality about schools and athletics today, what would you change?

The wand would be a document or an online experience that says the things all sport parents and educators need to understand. It would include conditions for a quality experience that asks parents to be quiet supporters on that journey. It would be a road map of timely, objective information for a parent, player and coach to abide by, with accountability throughout this 12-15 year experience. If we could do that, I think we’d be in good shape.

We are so honored to not only have you on this podcast, but to have you joining us at our National Leadership Forum in June. Can you wet our listeners’ appetites for the things you’re going to be covering as you step up on the stage?

I’m going to cover the core principles of what makes a champion on and off the field. I’ll talk about how we’re going to Stain the Brain to influence our younger generation.


I hope to see you at the 2015 National Leadership Forum. Here are the highlights of our forum last June.

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Join Sue Enquist and your colleagues as we wrestle with mastering clear, compelling communication with the next generation—in writing, social media, teaching, coaching, inspiring talks and vital conversations!

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Leadership Lessons from the "Coaching Legend" of Softball: Podcast #26