WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- Every year since 1997, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) holds a Student-Athlete Leadership Forum involving Division I, II, and II athletes aiming at engaging a variety of student-athletes, coaches, faculty and administrators. In a series of individual and group activities, the forum focuses on leadership skills, personal values and behaviors, and promotes an understanding of the NCAA as a whole.
The 2016-17 forum took place in Baltimore Nov. 10-16. After narrowing down a field of eight potential athletes to send, Eastern chose two representatives: junior Maggie Bodington of Stratford and senior Lawrence McGill of New Haven, who were accompanied by Director of Athletics Lori Runksmeier. Bodington plays soccer and lacrosse at Eastern and McGill runs track & field.
Runksmeier explained that the NCAA mandates that an administrative person attend the conference with the two students. “I was a participant in the activities, just in the same way they were. I was there to be able to give insights and guidance to the athletes.”
Following an interviewing process, McGill and Bodington were chosen to represent Eastern based upon their positive attitudes and outgoing demeanors. These qualities were necessary and valuable during the weekend of interaction with a diverse group of individuals from many institutions across America.
At left: Maggie Bodington
Both Bodington and McGill had strong desires to attend the conference. McGill felt there was “no better way to improve my leadership abilities than go to the conference”, and also desired new information to implement on his team. Similarly, Bodington knew that she would really benefit from the experience: “When my lacrosse coach (Christine Hutchison) emailed me, I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up. I wanted to start stepping up into the leadership role. I want to be a teacher, so I felt it would have improved those real world skills, as well”.
McGill and Bodington both expressed a certain degree of nerves upon being informed they were chosen. Prior to attending, both athletes had high expectations for the event. McGill and Bodington both described the Leadership Conference as exceeding those initial predictions.
“I knew it was going to be a great experience, but I thought it was just going to be a lot of talking, lecture after lecture,” said McGill. It exceeded all expectations, I got to meet great friends, great athletes, and even administrators like coaches and athletic directors”.
At left: Lawrence McGill
McGill also explained what some of the organizational aspects of the program, “We had a lot of group activities, we talked about governance and how the NCAA board works. We worked with the Student Activity Advisory Committee (SAAC). We had different color teams, mixed groups that spent a majority of the weekend together. We participated in events that involved becoming a better leader, and emotional intelligence.”
Bodington furthered by saying, “We usually ate every meal together as a huge group, and then split into smaller groups. All the divisions and the adults were mixed. It was a really comfortable, healthy environment where we were able to be ourselves and not feel judged”.
Along with interacting within small groups, those in attendance participated in numerous discussion activities, listened to notable speakers, and completed a community service activity.
Among this year’s keynote speakers were Samantha Peszek, a former NCAA gymnastics champion from UCLA, and an Olympic team silver medalist; and Ryan Gilliam, a former football and track & field competitor at the University of South Florida who went on to become a successful entrepreneur and ordained minister.
McGill noted a speaker, a former football player who had the chance of going into the NFL, who decided to start a business. McGill explained that this speaker impacted him the most due to his message of being a leader on the field and of the field: “He said to be a ’24-hour’ leader, a leader even when no one is watching. If there was something I needed to work on, this was it. That has stuck with me every day since, to always be that leader”.
Bodington specifically felt the most pride in the community service activity. The event took place with everyone toward the end of the conference, and consisted of making teddy bears for children ill at Johns Hopkins Hospital, located in Baltimore. She thought the interactivity and tangibility of the project made it noteworthy, as well as the fact that the entire group participated together.
In terms of leadership, Bodington explained that she, similar to McGill, took away the importance of taking everything learned on the athletic field and applying it to real life: “I work so hard in my sport, and I can bring that into school, campus, or a job. For a leader to be successful, it is important to know when to lead from the front and when to lead from the back. That has really stuck with me, and it part of my leadership philosophy”.
Runksmeier agreed, saying “I think that they both met people they’ll stay in contact with, and really opened their eyes to how they could be leaders once they got back here. There will be benefits to them for much of their life thinking back to this event”.
On the final day, the attendees exchanged “affirmation bags”. They all received lunch bags at the beginning of the forum, and were told to write positive words for as many people as they could by the end of the weekend. Both McGill and Bodington were surprised at how many strangers wrote extremely nice affirmations for them, and how they did so for many strangers.
“The end was sad and we were crying,” remembers Bodington. “We got so connected after four days. It was truly a life-changing experience”.