Movement Building- What Can We Learn from Sports?

Few can deny the success of the women’s sports movement. Since the passage of Title IX in1972, the growth of girls’ and women’s participation in sports has been simply phenomenal. Within this movement are valuable lessons for those of us still working on issues such as reproductive justice, pay equity, legislative leadership, etc. For my wise colleagues working in these areas and others, I encourage you to consider the following metaphors and practices for success.

1. Utilize the entire playbook. Every movement needs a balance of planning and action, passion and reflection, creativity and hard work. Early in the game, women’s sports leaders created the Coalition for Girls and Women in Education with representatives from five or six national organizations to be the think tank and pulse reading organ responsible for developing and implementing strategies and responses. These organizations represented different skill sets. The National Women’s Law Center delivered “legal eagles”; the American Association for University Women delivered academic research; the Women’s Sports Foundation delivered celebrity athletes and Hollywood spokespersons, etc. There is no rule that states you utilize these skills in a linear fashion. Rather, to be game ready and successful, we have to practice and access all of these skills simultaneously with intense persistence and the division of labor makes this easier to do. If we are ready at every position, we are poised to seize every opportunity and able to adjust in the heat of the game to whatever ‘play’ or strategy is needed for victory.

2. Treat funders like teammates. A team is more than players in the field. A successful team is the sum total of the starting line “up, substitutes on the bench, coaches, owners and investors, all working together. The women’s sports movement kept investors informed every step of the way – celebrating victories and asking for more help to confront defeats and win the next round. When you are truly partnered for victory and you collectively have a goal of winning, people are working side by side and sharing their information, power and strengths selflessly. A great team communicates effortlessly and the leadership (coaches, managers, investors, owners) pat each other on the back to acknowledge great plays, creating places for each other to ‘shine’; honoring the individuality that each member brings to the team’s success and engaging with them to bring out their best selves. Being able to do this with all of the partners in the movement will build success faster. Rather than a ‘race’ to be the fastest and most successful organization, it is better to get optimal performance from multiple groups that result in the delivery of a team victory that is more fulfilling and happens sooner because of coordinated group effort.

3. Set goals and celebrate victories. Motivating people by instilling pride in the work and celebrating the small wins along the path is critical for momentum building and staying power. It is statistically impossible to win every game or make every basket. The women’s sports movement can best be described as persistent and consistent effort over time. The season is long (41 years long in the case of Title IX and women’s sports) and keeping everyone focused on the team goals as well as the individual goals will insure a place in the post season. Success is most often the product of individual best efforts coupled with critical team wins over the long term. Keeping every player motivated to consistently put forth their best efforts over the long term is the heart of successful teams.                                                                                                           

4. Headlines are important. Media coverage and spokespeople are key parts of building the brand and energy behind and inside a team. But equally important is the use of compelling, research supported facts. Women’s sports leaders were magnificent in their collection and dissemination of the facts that girls who played sports had better grades, were more likely to graduate from high school and matriculate in college, were at lower risk for breast cancer and other diseases affecting women, were more confident and resilient, etc. The message is that the headlines must be more than ‘the good work’ of organizations; they must be about the impact of such work and what happens to those who benefit from the team’s efforts rather than just the social justice problem being addressed. It’s fine to take advantage of a crisis or story of someone adversely affected, but it must be accompanied by the hope and help offered by the nonprofit organization – how victims or lives of the previously disadvantaged have been changed for the better. The team should not be sidetracked or lose focus on its goals amidst the media hype and attention. Good work must continue in the shadows as well as the spotlight.

5. Trust your teammates. No one player can ever carry a team. Everyone has something to contribute. The more talented players you can involve, the greater the possibility that these players will make a positive impact. Take the time to find out what likely and unlikely teammates can bring to the movement. Play to their strengths and share with transparency the goals of the movement and the playbook of strategies.