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Winning the Right Way (2011 Spring Commencement Address, Friday evening)

  • Date: 05/06/2011
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza, President, The University of Akron (with Head Men's Soccer Coach Caleb Porter)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, Akron
  • The 2010-2011 academic year marked the first time in our university’s history that we earned an NCAA Division One team championship.  We did so in December in men’s soccer.

    I will mention only a few statistics about that amazing team:

    • A five-year record of 90 wins, 13 losses, and 10 ties (an 84.1 winning percentage)
    • A U.S. record-tying 39-match home unbeaten streak, that carries into 2011
    • A record five players chosen in the first round of the Major League Soccer draft this year
    • Ranked first in the nation in scoring and seventh in goals-against
    • And, an in-season team grade-point average in excess of 3.5.

    Our lesson today focuses on how such impressive success was achieved.  Head Coach Caleb Porter has elevated Akron’s program and is in the process of changing the face of college soccer through a philosophy and style of play that can serve as a blueprint for success in the 21st century.

    We must recognize that the human condition and the challenges of our times require a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach focused on the common good.  We need to value and empower the essence of what we do by broadening our perspective and recognizing the benefits of a fluid and agile organization acting with and through numerous far-reaching efforts.

    The team that Caleb has led offers a wonderful example of that type of success: a talented collection of individuals who hail from everywhere, each bringing a unique skill set, all united by a common goal with individual success being both critical to and subordinate to the group’s objective, and all having the assurance that collectively they are a match for any competitor.  Team members conduct analyses and make decisions in real time and under pressure.  They move quickly and precisely, create their own opportunities, and make imaginative connections to move toward the goal.  Every member expects to succeed, always.  They commit completely to do whatever is necessary to perform at the highest levels with pride and passion.  They live like champions.

    Coach Porter says, "A champion is an achiever in all aspects of life."  Every time his student-athletes enter or exit their locker room, they see a sign that reads, "Have the heart of a champion, and find a way to win today."

    The coach often describes a large part of his job as being the building of champions – encouraging the personal growth of each player every day, every moment . . . sharing the knowledge that a champion succeeds by fighting with complete dedication for a shared goal.  And everything a champion does is a purposeful step in that direction.

    Coach Porter says that success is found at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, and champions are able to see and seize those winning moments.

    Now, I have shared the same thought by saying that opportunity favors the prepared mind.  We have to attract "luck" by constantly growing and taking strategic risks.

    Yet most of us seem increasingly afraid and anxious about taking risks. But, please remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    And a simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 440-thousand Americans each year,[i] and automobiles on our highways kill more than 30-thousand people per year. [ii]

    But, nobody seems to be afraid of cigarettes or of automobiles. You may not like cigarettes, but you certainly aren’t afraid of them.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks. There are about 70 shark attacks worldwide each year.[iii] The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not by shark bites.)[iv] The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States. But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" - everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    Now, that's the difference between anxiety and risk.  

    Still, we often fall prey to irrational fear while ignoring the real dangers of inaction and inertia.  If you don’t act, if you don’t ask, the answer is always "no." The risk of failure is essential to growth, and growth is essential to life.  Failure and adversity are inevitable, and can be used to our advantage. In short, risk is inherent to opportunity.

    Those of us in higher education often ask for feedback on the kind of the skills that employers want us to instill in our students and, recently, they are saying, "Give us people with emotional resiliency."  Executives are increasingly telling us that their employees need to welcome change...to be prepared to take risks and sometimes fail...to be ready to adapt to the fast pace of technical innovation and the changing requirements of the world we live in.

    Coach Porter stresses emotional intelligence, learning to cope with your emotions and the emotions of those around you to achieve the best possible outcome.  The example he uses is players just before the start of a match.  If they are over confident, their performance is likely to be complacent.  If they are over anxious, their performance will be restricted by fear.  However, when players have both confidence in themselves and a sense of tension—they have the focus that enables them to win

    Since winning the national championship game, Coach Porter regularly notes that the team’s success was a success for all of Akron and was based on a broader effort that included the trainers, coaches, student-athletes, their families, friends, fans and the entire University community.  In particular, he always shares credit with our student spirit group, the most-avid and active college soccer fans in the nation, the AK-Rowdies.  And I am pleased to see that many of them will be crossing the stage today.

    Each of you now will have your own "fan base" to appreciate and nurture as you build professional and social networks that will serve you well throughout your lives.

    And, I hope that you will choose to carry the Akron way with you—living like champions, being agile and imaginative, and building a lifetime of wonderful memories to join those of this day and of December 12th, 2010, when your school brought a national championship home to Northeast Ohio.


    [i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease. A Report of the Surgeon General.  http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/tobaccosmoke/report/full_report.pdf

    [ii] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx 

    [iii] Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. International Shark Attack File 2007 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/statistics/2007attacksummary.htm

    [iv] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics/NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topics: Insects and Scorpions http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/insects/

  • Topic Category: leadership
  • Tags: soccer leadership winning risk anxiety shark economic development
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