When it finally came, the announcement was quiet and simple. After 38 years, Pat Summitt was retiring as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteeers. Along with probably most other fans of women’s college basketball, I’d been expecting this announcement. Watching her uncharacteristically quiet demeanor along the sideline this past season was difficult, but seeing her determination to continue doing what she loved in the face of her diagnosis was brave and inspiring. (Pat was diagnosed with early onset dementia about a year ago.)
For those who aren’t fans of basketball in general, and women’s college basketball specifically, you may not be familiar with Pat Summitt. In addition to her longevity at Tennessee, she has many singular accomplishments. She has won more games than any other coach in NCAA history, in either the women’s or the men’s game. She never had a losing season as a coach. She is the only person ever to win Olympic medals in basketball as both a coach and a player. The accomplishment I respect the most is that every young woman who played for her completed her college education. Every one of them.
You can’t have a career like Pat has had without thousands of words being written to describe its impact. You can read a bit about her many accomplishments here, or just google her name and you’ll be presented with pages of links to articles heralding Pat’s impact. Her influence on women’s sports and specifically women’s basketball is unequalled, but my respect for her is based on more than basketball. She shows us how to be a woman of strength and character, a strong female leader who leads her own way, and she challenges us to do the same. Pat is a ferocious, uncompromising leader…..pioneers usually are. By definition pioneers slice through the status quo, exploring new perspectives and new ways of doing things. Pioneers are tough and resilient.
I never played for Pat. I’ve never even met her. Yet watching her leadership and influence blaze a path for other women has been inspiring to me as I’ve developed my own leadership abilities. I don’t lead in basketball, but my understanding of leadership and of what it means to be a strong woman owe a debt to her. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from Pat:
Lesson #1 – Don’t wait for the boys to invite you to play.
Pat was the only girl in a family full of boys. She didn’t wait to be asked to play. She just joined in and played with the boys. She was blessed with a father who believed she was capable of doing the same chores and the same hard farm work that her brothers did. This had a huge impact on her belief in herself and her abilities. This highlights a secondary lesson. We need to spend more time telling our daughters that they are capable and that they can do the hard jobs.
Lesson #2 – Don’t believe you must sacrifice other aspects of your life to be a successful leader.
Pat wanted to be a wife and mother in addition to her coaching career. She didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. This lesson doesn’t say that women can “have it all.” That’s a lie we beat ourselves over the head with. No one can have it all. Pat’s example shows, however, that we can have more than many of us think we can. She did things like take her baby boy to work, games and practices. Which leads to the last lesson from Pat….
Lesson #3 – Don’t just play the game by the rules that worked for the boys.
Pat changed the rules so she could accomplish her goals. For example male coaches hadn’t generally taken their children to work. She did. Her son was frequently at practices and didn’t miss a game. That helped her continue to coach and it gave her son invaluable opportunities to see his mom accomplish her goals. Now his education in basketball has blossomed into a career. He’s starting as an assistant coach at Marquette next fall, for their women’s team.
While not exclusively lessons from Pat, practice and working hard are lessons she embraced passionately. Practice and hard work won’t keep you from losing. Pat’s life has several examples of truly painful losses. However, without practice and hard work, success is unlikely and weathering life’s inevitable losses is made much more challenging.
Pat has been very clear about what she wanted to do with her life. Twice in her career she was asked to coach the men’s team at Tennessee. She turned them down both times. She already had what she wanted.