We are two years into our 9-year-old’s participation in organized soccer. He has now moved from the recreational to the club level, and so far, witnessing the love he has for soccer has been worth all of the financial and time sacrifices we have made. As I reflect on some of the ways I have had to balance being a soccer parent with being a wife and a full-time employee with a demanding campus role, soccer has also opened up a framework for me to think about my own career.
I serve as the associate vice chancellor of wellness, health and counseling at a large public research institution. Seven years into this role, I have grown as a supervisor, coach, adviser and peer. This career isn’t easy, but as I have had the ability to reflect on it, there are at least five lessons I have learned recently about my own career -- and of the field of student affairs -- by watching my son play soccer. I’d like to share these, as I think they can provide a useful framework to understand some of the challenges and opportunities facing professionals in our field.
Lesson 1: You have to pass the ball
Most 9-year-olds want to score, and ours is no exception. He gets great pleasure from scoring goals, and he has been praised and encouraged in these efforts. However, there have been some missed opportunities to pass to other teammates. As he learns to trust his teammates, he will be more inclined to pass the ball to them and to not feel solely responsible for the success or failure of the team. As I think more about the field of student affairs, I am struck by how this is a life lesson for me. It is crucially important to pass the ball to my directors, who are perfectly capable of handling very complex student and staff issues with minimal supervision. It’s important to pass information and even resources to peers so that they can prepare for shifts or change. Passing doesn’t mean getting rid of, discarding or losing interest in a project, activity or opportunity, however. Rather, passing allows employees to take ownership and responsibility over their own domains, to rely less on our oversight, to trust their own capabilities and to trust one another more. However, this is where lesson two comes in.
Lesson 2: Nobody will pass the ball to you if they don’t know your name
You have to both pass and be open to receiving the ball, and sometimes this means yelling, “I’m open!” This summer in soccer camp, my son came home disappointed that his fellow campers did not take opportunities to pass the ball to him. It was his first day, and as a newcomer, he didn’t know any of the kids in the group into which he had been placed. Consequently, he spent several frustrated hours observing friends passing to friends. He was being shut out, and he needed to learn how to quickly signal his competence. Although Sandberg’s “Lean In” talk for women, in hindsight, may have been a bit oversold, there are many aspects that really resonate. We have to step up to opportunities and signal to others what we can do. For those of us who lean toward introversion, this is challenging. However, being in a position to get a ball passed to you is crucial to your development. Recently, I observed a colleague at another institution go through the experience of being passed over for an internal promotion. Some of the feedback the colleague received was that people weren’t really aware of the scope of this person’s responsibilities and therefore may have been unaware of his capabilities. Unfortunately, I have seen this happen repeatedly to very talented people and wonder how we can create more space and opportunities, particularly for underrepresented groups of student affairs professionals. I have been much more curious, lately, about the importance of boosting other people, encouraging them to shout their own name, shouting mine and encouraging all of us to indicate that we are open and available.
Lesson 3: You need a concussion protocol
Anyone who has signed a child up for a sport like soccer or football understands the inherent risks in contact sports. They are frankly terrifying, but I have taken great comfort in knowing that children are pulled immediately if there is any suspicion of a concussion. What do you do when your employees are hurt or injured emotionally at the workplace? How do you create psychological safety and why does it matter?
Psychological safety refers to the idea that we do not promote careless or reckless harm to the emotional well-being of our employees. Additionally, it refers to fostering a space where employees feel free to take risks and be vulnerable at work. Having a space to admit small mistakes makes it easier to correct and remedy problems before they turn into larger issues for the institution. Similarly, when we create an environment where employees know exactly how to engage in their employee assistance programs, we send a message that we are prioritizing their well-being and their holistic health, not just their productivity. Psychological safety allows us to give employees feedback in a way that feels growth enhancing, rather than simply punitive. For more information on this concept, this resource from the American Psychological Association is a good start, and this article from the Harvard Business Review provides excellent tips about how to provide this safety.
Lesson 4: You need the right equipment
Uniforms can be costly. Cleats get worn through or outgrown. I’ve seen an awkward tween pick nervously at a too-tight uniform from time to time, and it’s distracting. Similar to those kids on the field, I have learned that our employees benefit greatly from simple fixes to equipment and processes. Have your employees had ergonomic evaluations recently? Do they need a second monitor? Have they been having difficulty streamlining a process, which is making their jobs more frustrating? Occasionally, we remind ourselves that front-line staff can sometimes feel disempowered, frightened to make a process suggestion because of their own aversion to conflict or to authority. We need to be looking for opportunities to solicit employee feedback about those simple wins that can help them do their jobs better. That could be a new desk, a new software or data package, or panic buttons for those on the front lines with disruptive or distressed students. What might seem costly now can save time and frustration, and it’s worth investing in simple technological tools that make performing at work a little easier.
Lesson 5: Good coaching makes a huge difference
At the end of the day, good coaching matters. Being in a management position offers opportunities to coach our employees, rather than just being a supervisor. I think the best supervisors, particularly those who work in large, matrixed teams, are likely also the best coaches, focused more on inspiring excellence rather than engaging in transactional leadership. Good coaching helps employees find inspiration and passion, teaches employees to hone and trust their own instincts, and is not overly directive or limiting. Good coaching asks employees to consider, “What are the factors that are creating a barrier for you?” “What do you need in order to make well-informed decisions?” or “What did you notice about your performance?” Most people can figure out the technical aspects of their jobs, and most soccer players can figure out how to take a stab at a goal; it’s the motivation and space for self-reflection that makes a good coach useful.
Wish me luck as I shepherd a precocious fourth grader through the world of youth soccer, and I’ll wish you luck as you navigate your own games on your own student affairs field.
Marcelle Hayashida is associate vice chancellor of wellness, health and counseling at the University of California, Irvine, and holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. Hayashida has published a variety of articles and book chapters and has presented nationally and internationally on Black women’s leadership, Black women’s sexuality, threat assessment and college mental health.