Colonials head to the Mall for leadership development

Second-year athletic director Patrick Nero’s top measure of success is how well-prepared his student-athletes are for life after Foggy Bottom.

A newfound focus on crafting leaders in the classroom and community has been a crucial piece of the athletic department’s year-old strategic plan. It is a push to increase the well roundedness of student-athletes – a push Nero said was missing prior to his arrival, and a movement he hopes will motivate players to live and compete with a greater sense of purpose as Colonials and as members of their communities.

It was exemplified by Sunday’s Student-Athlete Leadership Day, in which the department headed to the National Mall to continue building programs that seek strength of character as their cornerstones.

“People perform better when they are competing for a purpose. And I think days like [Sunday] really hit home for them in that they are representing something. They are representing a university, and they are representing a university that wants them to be successful,” Nero said. “They are getting closer to their teammates, getting closer to other athletes.”

Coaches, nearly 450 student-athletes and other members of the athletic department joined together for the second annual leadership day, one that preached a message of respect, determination and commitment. Men’s soccer head coach Craig Jones called the three terms, which were emblazoned on the back of shirts worn by all participants, the “pillars of life as a Colonial” during the day’s final speech.

Throughout the day, various groups of athletes traveled to memorials on the National Mall, reflecting on how their pillars were also demonstrated by respective figures in American history.

The newly coined ideals of the department strike a chord with various athletes, including women’s cross country senior Juliana Stern. Sidelined for two seasons after tearing a tendon in her knee, Stern said determination is the perfect way to describe her return to competition.

“I think it’s good that we get these messages reinforced as athletes,” Stern said. “Determination was something I had to realize I had for me to become the student-athlete that I am now.”

In tandem with preaching the new core values to the Colonials, Nero and his staff continue to seek to increase the communication between various facets of the athletic community. Sunday’s activities randomly split up the student-athletes, as opposed to grouping players by teams.

Coaches, too, participated in the day’s events, including problem-solving and team building activities on the Mall. It was a tangible reminder of Nero’s message of a unified athletics identity.

For coaches who lead teams that might not otherwise be at the forefront of the department, building support and recognition among fellow coaches and athletes is a key step in raising the confidence and accountability of their own athletes.

Dawn Buth, the women’s tennis head coach, said building a strong support base within the athletic department is one of the best motivational tools for her team.

“Support in numbers and support in resources is critical,” Buth said. “Knowing that when we’re going out to play a tennis match on the Vern and we’ve got players from squash or from basketball coming out to support us in the same way that we support them is just a critical part of how we feel valued.”

Nero said he is confident GW athletics can someday serve as a model for collegiate sports programs throughout the nation, and those working for him share that view. Men’s basketball head coach Mike Lonergan said the progress under Nero’s plan is already tangible when examining recruitment across the department.

“From a recruiting standpoint, telling kids about some of the things that have been initiated under Patrick Nero’s leadership, I think that really helps,” Lonergan said. “Sometimes a 17- or 18-year-old may not appreciate it, but I think the parents of these kids really do. They want their kids to be prepared for the real world.”

Nero, who meets with nearly every prospective student-athlete before they enroll at GW, said character is the first quality he looks for when making his assessments, not talent.

His most important role as athletic director is to help build that character, he said, and days like Sunday’s leadership-focused sessions underline that intent.

“We would rather lose every game with a bunch of student-athletes who have great character than win and constantly have character issues. For us it’s not worth it,” Nero said. “If ultimately we want to be judged by the type of students we develop, then we have to make sure that there’s that balance in their lives. They have to want that as well.”

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