The Sport that Made Me a Better Leader

squash rackets and balls

Late last month, I dined with the NLM/Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) Leadership Fellows on the final day of their program and got more than just lunch. I ended up with an interesting realization about how a sport I enjoy has helped shape how I lead.

The curriculum for the year-long NLM/AAHSL fellowship program includes such topics as power and influence, managing a workforce, and diversity and inclusion. The program inevitably sparks self-reflection for both fellows and their mentors, and though I spent only a short time with the group, it got me thinking, too, about issues related to leadership, personal awareness, and growth. Since then, I’ve been musing over what has helped me be an effective leader at NLM.

Certainly, having a terrific staff and the support of NIH leadership makes the whole process easier. I’m fortunate to have both.

I’ve also received words of wisdom from experienced colleagues, gleaned key insights from books, and recalled valuable lessons from management courses I’ve attended over the years.

But, believe it or not, nothing has prepared me more for senior leadership than squash—the sport, not the food.

For those of you who don’t know the game, Wikipedia explains it this way:

A ball sport played by two or four players in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball. The players must alternate in striking the ball with their racket and hit the ball onto the playable surfaces of the four walls of the court.

The game’s high speed calls for quick movements and even faster thinking. You have to predict the ball’s angle of return based on the point of contact with the racket and the velocity of the hit. You have to plan your shot based on your opponent’s position and your own. And you have to do all this while avoiding the other player as you both navigate your way around a very small space. (The entire court is about 7 feet by 10 feet.)

The situational awareness and mental agility needed to pull all this off build important skills for management and those high-pressure, think-on-your-feet moments, but I think no skill is more important than timing.

Precision timing—striking the ball at just the right moment—is key to success in squash. Precision timing is also important for leadership.

One must determine how long to let a conversation proceed before weighing in, or how many emails in a chain should pass before making a statement. One must decide if one has entered an argument on its first round or if it is an old engagement rehashed many times. And importantly, one must be prompt with feedback, good and bad, both to reveal one’s values to the organization and to expose one’s preferences and pleasures.

But squash has taught me more than getting the timing right.

Power shots in squash send a 2” ball rocketing through the air. And when that ball hits you unexpectedly, on the arm, leg, or even face, you quickly realize that, even though it is very, very small and you are very, very big, it can really hurt. A lot.

Translating this to management, I’ve seen how a small, seemingly inconsequential statement can serve as the prelude to a major problem, or, on the flip side, how well-timed praise, delivered when the recipient is ready to hear it, can have profound positive impact.

Squash has also taught me to play nice with my partners and observe the rules of engagement on the court. Management situations bring their own rules of engagement, sometimes defined, sometimes not. The unwritten rules can be the trickiest, with rules sometimes changing based on where the engagement occurs. Understanding and respecting protocol, positions at the table, and the tenor of discourse as it varies from office to hall way to conference room are skills worth developing.

I’ve learned through squash that I can tussle with an opponent over controlling the T-zone (the prime spot from which it is easiest to reach most shots) and still enjoy a cool drink and camaraderie afterward. Managerially, this means that conflict is part of the game, and going toe-to-toe over important issues doesn’t—and shouldn’t—stand in the way of collegiality. (Another key take-away: It always helps to share a cool drink afterward!)

And ultimately, in squash as in management, there are always opportunities to improve.

What has influenced your leadership? What makes you a good manager? What makes your manager a good manager?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

4 thoughts on “The Sport that Made Me a Better Leader”

  1. Masterfully “spoken” Patti. I found the following section very timely and especially insightful. “I’ve seen how a small, seemingly inconsequential statement can serve as the prelude to a major problem, or, on the flip side, how well-timed praise, delivered when the recipient is ready to hear it, can have profound positive impact.”

    I even looked up squash courts in my area.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Nothing like timing! If you’re returning to squash, great. If you’re new, you are in for a real treat!

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  2. I’m not sure it made me a better leader but it made me a better worker: figure skating. I learned quickly if you let your mind wander while skating you ended up on the ice, and not in a very graceful manner. A wandering mind at work can also lead you astray. I also learned to look out for my fellow skaters while skating so we didn’t run into each other. And adult skaters are quick to help someone who has fallen, just as I helped my fellow employees when they had problems.

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