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A Tale Of Two Rings

2010 was a banner year for Foster's work in developing high-performing teams... literally.
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Ring = slang synonym for symbol of a significant sports championship (as in, "Michael Jordan's got six rings, retired Laker Coach Phil Jackson has 11 rings, etc.")

The Two Rings (apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien)

How's this headline? "Business consultant in leadership and team performance brings experience and insights into elite athletics, helping two collegiate teams win coveted NCAA Division 1 National Championships in 2010!"

Implausible. And true.

Implausible for many reasons. NCAA Championships are extremely rare and difficult to obtain. Second, they just don't give these rings away, nor can you buy them in the Student Store. And, I didn't coach these teams, nor did I set one foot into the competitive arena. So how would it be, at age 55, I'm the extremely proud owner of two rings for D-1 athletics, for two different sports?

I'll tell this story in a way that doesn't take anything away from these brilliant athletes and coaches who worked so hard, sacrificed so much and performed so well to attain their glory. That's very important to me. These are their titles, not mine.

At the same time, while the 2010 UCLA Women's Gymnastics Team and the UCLA Women's Softball Teams were standing on their podium and infield dirt respectively, with NCAA Championship trophies held proudly overhead, there were literally hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes from each sport who weren't. Most were home watching on TV, and the rest, the finalists were watching from the stands. Not these athletes. They attained the prize that the rest dreamed of. So let me also be clear that I believe our work together over the months of 2010 mattered, made a difference in on-the-field performance. Two of the three NCAA Division 1 coaching staffs I've worked with over the past few years have subsequently won "national coach/staff of the year" awards. Two of the three teams I've worked with have won national titles. Coincidence? Nope. It's the power of fully expressed leadership and playing fully in whatever your pursuit. It's my job, and has been my calling for over three decades.

Here are the thumbnail stories. Full details of the stories are found in my upcoming book, Leadersh*t: Rethinking the True Path to Great Leading (in bookstores on October 15, 2011).

Ring #1 - UCLA Women's Gymnastics 2010

The date was February 15, 2010. It was the day after Stanford University had upset the 6th-ranked Bruin gymnasts in Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins' home floor. The team was really mad; they knew they had better talent and lost due to mistakes. They believed that it wasn't Stanford winning, as much as them losing due to things getting in their way. It wasn't the first time that year that had occurred. It would be the last.

Their head coach, Valorie Kondos-Field asked me to "work with the team." In my line of work, "working with..." usually means doing whatever is necessary to diagnose performance issues and help the group figure out a better way. Sounds easy and it's a practitioner's job is to make it seem easy. It's not. It's typically complex and involves lots of different issues, small and large, personal/internal and systemic. Think of a giant hairball. That's pretty close.

I often use the metaphor of a stream when working with leaders and teams; you know, a clear flowing unobstructed stream to represent full talents, passions and energy. Most of the time, the simplest way to improve individual or team performance involves helping remove obstacles (i.e., rocks, sticks, or boulders representing fears, beliefs, habits, etc.).

Here's what I figured out over the next 8 weeks through observation, exercises and conversations. This was an immensely talented team of athletes unable to play fully, or in their words, "let their gymnastics out." This wasn't about lack of preparation, desire or talent. Their streams were clogged.

Teaching and working with the team using this concept helped free up their talents for the remainder of the season. Simply put, we worked to help the athletes "clear their streams"-remove the mental boulders that blocked their innate greatness from coming through. These boulders had different names and pathologies - fear, beliefs, habits, noise - all potentially limiting the full expression of their gymnastics.

Once clear, they created "the bubble," a psychological and spiritual place where nothing outside themselves mattered. They developed an extraordinary focus on each other and blocked out everything else. The results were incredible. They did not lose another meet the rest of the season, and in the final competition, they weren't even aware that they had won the NCAA title until someone told them. That's how completely and intensely present they were for themselves as a unit.

Coach Kondos-Field (or Miss Val as she is widely known) was interviewed repeatedly throughout the national championship meet by various media sources. Her mantra was always true, and always the same. "The team is focused on what they need to do. There's not a lot of drama. For me, as a coach, I'm a little bored. They're going about their business."

A bored coach in the midst of championship performance? Indeed!

Dr. Foster Mobley with the UCLA Gymnastics Coaching Staff holding the 2010 Natty! 

UCLA Gymnastics Coaching Staff with the 2010 Natty!

Ring #2 - UCLA Women's Softball 2010

Same university, same year. Different issues, dynamics, coaches and athletes. Same result. Effortless performance, minimal drama, national title.

My second championship experience in 2010 involved Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez and the UCLA softball team. This is the most storied program in the history of the sport with 12 National Championships in its 30-year history. Expectations on this program by players, recruits, fans and families are other-worldly high. And this team plays on the biggest stages; in those 30 years, it has competed at the Women's College World Series every year but 3. It's easy to imagine coaches and athletes chafing under the yoke of past success, yet it's precisely this type of pressure all things elite athletes must address to reach the highest podium. To me, it's noise.

The noise on the 2010 team got intense, when they, in the middle of the season lost 5 consecutive games in conference play. Losses mount, noise escalates. Pressure gets oppressive, inhibiting full performance and creating a self-reinforcing loop. More losses, more noise, more pressure, harder to play your game...more losses. You get the idea.

My work with Coach Inouye-Perez and the team began with helping them learn to improve their presence in the midst of noise and consciously refocus on each pitch, play, at bat. Apart from clearing the stream, helping leaders and athletes become mindfully present may be my most potent tool. Using it, I was first able to help Kelly be aware of her own thought processes and the outside elements that tended to pull her out of the present moment. She was able to "slow down the game" and become a center of calm and conscious action for her players.

The results showed in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. I had also been working with catcher Kaila Shull to slow down her own mental processes, and both she and Kelly performed like champions. Kelly didn't allow herself to get distracted by the many media demands, crowds or pressure and showed up powerfully for her players, giving them confidence that she had their backs and was prepared to make sound strategic decisions. Kaila, who had recovered from a horrible batting slump earlier in the season, got several key hits in the championship final series with the University of Arizona, helping the Bruins to the title.

This didn't happen by accident, but rather, was the result of challenging, intentional work by the Bruin coaching staff and team. They found a way to understand and handle the noise of expectations and pressure and were undefeated in the 2010 post-season.

Dr. Foster Mobley with the UCLA Softball Coaching Staff - National Champs in 2010 

UCLA Softball Coaching Staff - National Champs in 2010

Conclusion

As you might have figured out, this is an extremely abridged version of the full story of my work with these two UCLA champs. There's more detail in my book, Leadersh*t, but I could write an entire book on these experiences alone. I found it deeply gratifying that these gifted coaches and their young athletes responded so beautifully to this old guy's ideas, and that what I suggested delivered instant, amazing results. Thanks to these exceptional women-exceptional leaders all-I'm now the lucky bearer of two NCAA championship rings that I'll wear proudly for life.

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Dr. Foster Mobley

Trusted advisor and coach to admired executives globally for 3 decades, Thought leader on wisdom-based approaches to breakthrough leading, "Lead Coach" for Deloitte's experienced and high potential leader development, Team performance advisor to two NCAA championship teams