I remember distinctly my first year at the IWLCA Annual Meetings—freezing in a cavernous Marriott in downtown Philadelphia, lost with only a few familiar faces, no clue where to go, what to attend, let alone how to vote on major issues with an extremely fragile paper paddle that my boss had entrusted to me. Feeling conspicuously like the new kid on the first day of school, everyone else seemed to know everyone and the older statesmen walked around with an aura of confidence I couldn’t even fake. Trying to figure out where as a very green 23-year old I fit into the coaching world was daunting. Trying to navigate the long days of convention and make the vital personal connections in my first year coaching that I knew were necessary to develop in my chosen profession seemed near impossible.
I’m not sure I tried very hard in those first years, but I remember watching the people who did—crisscrossing the room, welcoming old friends, introducing themselves to new faces and generally heckling anyone within earshot. For an introvert with very few peers already in the coaching world, this was both terrifying and intriguing. I am lucky that I was brought into the fold of this coaching world with a great boss and some terrific mentors. Not only did they encourage me to attend the Annual Meetings my first year in coaching, they also encouraged me to speak, to participate, and to branch out and expand my comfort zone.
I would love to tell you that I took their advice to heart and immediately jumped in, but it would be more accurate to say that I was dragged into the fray by some slightly older veterans who took upon themselves to welcome all new coaches with something that we (and I can say “we” now that I am an old coach) like to call the Diane toast. We won’t spill too many secrets to those of you uninitiated, but put simply, the toast reflects the mentality of the late Loyola legend Diane Geppi-Aikens – that in order to fully appreciate the community that you enter in coaching, you must not only know where you came from and the history of the coaches who have laid the ground work for your experience, but you must also be willing to take an active role in welcoming, mentoring and supporting the next generation. That work for both new and old coaches, in my mind, begins in earnest at the Annual Meetings.
So to that end–and with respect and deference to the old guard who are way more versed in convention etiquette and habits than I can ever claim:
Thoughts for maximizing your meeting experience whether it is your first or your twenty-first:
- Don’t be afraid to talk to new people — You have your friends, your co-workers or your posse from your playing days but nothing can quite prepare you for walking into a large convention room and staring blankly for a friendly face or a comfortable buddy and seeing all strangers. Don’t run away in abject fear pretending you have a sudden urge to use the bathroom or find Goofy – use these opportunities to sit with new people. It might feel like a dining hall on the first day of camp, but remember the shared bond we all have, strike up a conversation; as your mom would say: if you can’t find a friend, make a friend.
- Attend any and all sponsored socials, award dinners, sharing roundtables and social networking events — The social environment of the meetings can be a perilous path to navigate, especially for new coaches, but they can also be one of the most rewarding. Whether it’s asking questions at the sharing roundtable, attending the IWLCA Honors Banquet to celebrate your peers, or watching a spirited contest between DI and DIII coaches for the rights to the better meeting room (I’m still bitter…), attending outside events can be some of the most valuable time spent at any convention. Be mindful of your environment, act with respect and professionalism…but attend! After-hours events are where most connections are formed. It’s a chance to break down the walls between generations, divisions or power rankings of coaches and simply to know them as a peer. You may feel the need to sneak in a power nap or escape to a park for a quick and quiet dinner but consider the value in participating in these events as equally as important as any time spent in the meeting rooms. And remember the best part – if you wait around long enough, someone is likely to offer you a late night pizza or some drive through food—enjoy it, bond, be thankful for the shared nourishment and return the favor at future conventions.
- Oh… and pay attention to the guest speakers — This should go without saying, but the Annual Meetings are a time for you to learn something new and to develop professionally. While that can mean attending just the mandatory sessions and learning about rules, recruiting and referendums, our Board of Directors and Annual Meeting Planning Committee also puts together a fantastic list of presenters every year. Some of the most useful professional advice I have ever received has been from listening to the myriad of speakers that have graced our convention. Listening to military professionals, motivational speakers, or coaches from other sports talk about the same trials and tribulations that we face daily in our coaching lives not only makes you feel a little less crazy, but it also offers perspective and solutions to the issues that plague all professions. Take notes, listen, absorb all that you can, and enjoy the speakers.
- If you’re an old pro, pay it forward– For those of us who are old enough to remember when the Mickey Mouse Club didn’t include kids with frosted tips—reach out. Put yourself back in those nervous shoes you walked into your first meeting wearing, whether you were fresh out of college or a seasoned veteran attending your first meeting. If you see someone sitting alone in the back of the room, plop down next to them. If there’s a new face on the table next to you at the social, take the time to learn their story, heckle them a little and make a new friend. You never know when the networking can bring you a new lifelong collaborator.
- Build on your base – In the meantime, while the Annual Meetings are the time to meet new people, it’s also a time to build on the relationships you already have. If you know of people you want to reconnect with or get to know better who will be attending—opponents, allies, minds you want to pick—reach out when you see them, hop on the shuttles to the fields or even to the theme parks. One of the most amazing attributes about the coaching field that I have learned in 16 years is the inherent willingness to share everything from drills to similar experiences. Use your friends; let them help you through tricky situations, scheduling problems or personnel decisions. In turn, help them; be an ear when they need to vent, share your stories, help to grow each other.
So as we look forward to our impending trip to Disney with various levels of dread and excitement, take a moment to think of the value of our IWLCA Annual Meetings and what each of us can do to give back to the community we serve. To be sure, most of us, myself included, remain back row people—you know the ones, we talk a lot amongst ourselves, yell out various thoughts and opinions on legislation and bring enough snacks to feed the room. But just because we were never the kids to sit in the front row in class doesn’t mean we take for granted our role in growing our game and more importantly our role in mentoring new coaches as well as mentoring each other simply as peers; no matter our age or experience. That is the convention experience. Sure, it’s fun to get to be in the sun or simply away from the hustle and bustle of your normal workday, but its more than that. What you should see when you look around is the working and evolving community that you belong to. It is each individual’s obligation to be a good citizen to that community.