This past July, for the first time since 2010, the NFHS hosted student leaders from around the nation. Reborn this year as the National Student Leadership Summit (NSLS), more than 100 student ambassadors from 22 states chosen by their respective state high school associations gathered at the Hyatt Regency Indianapolis July 20-22 to participate in this year’s meeting. The students, most of whom are athletes in their local high schools, came to the summit to expand their understanding of leadership and bring the lessons they would learn back home to better the community.
“Thanks to the dedication and hard work of the membership, our planning committee and the NFHS Board of Directors, we were able to make this a reality again,” said Elliot Hopkins during the opening ceremony on Monday night. Hopkins is the director of the NSLS and NFHS director of sports and student services.
The opening ceremony was capped off by an energetic and entertaining speech from Fran Kick, an author, professional speaker and former teacher. Kick touched on a variety of leadership topics including the need to pay close attention to perspective.
As part of his speech, Kick asked students to move their index fingers clockwise above their heads and then move them down to their waist while maintaining the same motion. While the exercise seemed odd to some at first, the lesson was quickly revealed. Even though everyone’s hand was still moving in the same direction, they now appeared to be moving counter-clockwise. Kick reminded the students that it was all due to a change in perspective, which would become one of the themes of the summit over the next few days.
After a quick dinner, the students were off to the first of four hour-long workshop sessions led by experts from around the country. Each of the four experts presented on a different theme that is key to becoming an effective leader: communication, relationships, perspective and inclusion, and social media identity.
The session on communication and team-building was led by Dr. Greg Dale, director of sports psychology and leadership programs at Duke University. A large part of Dale’s session was dedicated to posing provocative questions to the students, having them choose a side to the argument and debating among themselves to reach a conclusion.
“We’re not going to give you all the answers; we just want you to think,” Dale said, and think they did. Dale’s questions quickly engaged the students and encouraged them to share their own experiences and opinions on each topic.
Does your core personality change as you get older? Do you have to be liked by your teammates to be a great leader? Do rites of passage build team unity? Is conflict on a team healthy? Those questions and more were eagerly debated by the students, many of whom switched sides mid-discussion thanks to the persuasive words of a colleague.
The latter question, however, was the one that nearly every student could agree on. Already budding leaders, the students were sharp enough to realize that conflict could be healthy for a team because it indicated passion and a lack of complacency. While Dale acknowledged they were correct, he reminded them that handling that conflict as a leader is a different issue entirely.
“Being a great leader takes courage,” said Dale, who told the students that they must strive to be vocal leaders who have the courage to both challenge and encourage their teammates.
The session based around forming and maintaining meaningful relationships was led by Deb Hult, founder of Core Trainings and a renowned presenter on relational leadership.
“Leadership is influence,” Hult stressed to each group. “As leaders, you have the ability to make people act, think and feel a certain way.”
Hult emphasized that student success and enjoyment is founded upon having positive relationships with others, and that true leaders emerge when they help their peers grow and succeed. However, in order to do so, Hult gave them one key piece of advice: “Buy into you so others can too.”
One of the other workshops was led by Dr. Kevin Ringhofer, a consultant and speaker, whose theme for students was perspective, inclusion and diversity. Much like Dale, Ringhofer’s questions made for some interesting discussion among the attendees, who were equally divided on many profound topics.
Chief among them was the debate about whether or not all people are created equal and have equal opportunities to make a good life for themselves. After each side had the chance to make its case, Ringhofer left the students with a simple, yet strong message.
“If you really listen to people’s stories and try to understand them you can be more inclusive, even if you don’t agree with all parts of their story,” Ringhofer said. “When we are more inclusive we become richer because we are surrounded with people from different backgrounds who have different values and ideas. Our perspective matters.”
The remaining workshop was led by Omari Pearson, a mentor to high school and college students and founder of Passion to Purpose. Students were engaged by his presentation and activities concerning social media awareness and identity.
“The session on social media brought up some new concepts that I never gave much thought to before,” said Matt Lebranche, a senior soccer player at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.
Pearson’s message was centered on getting the students to use social media in a way that can benefit their future careers. For today’s up-and-coming leaders, social media can be a distraction or a blessing, Pearson said.
“Social media is a vehicle that can make your world smaller,” Pearson said. “Instead of using it as something to pass the time, make it a tool that pushes you forward toward your goals.”
While some may advise students to shun social media entirely in order to avoid potential problems, Pearson says that option is simply not realistic.
“As long as you keep your emotions in check, deleting social media should not be an option for students in today’s world. If you delete it that just tells me you fear social media instead of using it to your advantage.”
After the workshop sessions, the rest of the day was spent at Arsenal Technical High School on the near eastside of Indianapolis. There, the student leaders met up with athletes from Special Olympics Indiana to play basketball, corn hole and bocce ball.
After bonding with the Special Olympic athletes, the leaders got the chance to learn about Champions Together, the initiative started in 2012 between Special Olympics Indiana and the Indiana High School Athletic Association to promote Unified Sports programs.
The presentation ended with a moving speech from Andrew Peterson, a distance runner who won three gold medals at the Special Olympics USA Games last year despite suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Although his condition slows his speech considerably, Peterson is as powerful and inspirational as they come, bringing listeners to tears all around the state through his emotional story.
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” Peterson said, quoting the athlete’s oath for the Special Olympics. His message to those in attendance was simple: work with students with disabilities, not just for them. He implored the student leaders to go back to their respective states and advocate for Unified Sports programs and for the inclusion of athletes with disabilities.
“We don’t ever want your pity,” Peterson said. “Rather, we need your respect – the respect that all people with disabilities deserve.”
The summit concluded the next morning with a speech from Rashan Ali, motivational speaker, multimedia personality and host of Under Armour Highlights of the Week on the NFHS Network. Once a swimmer at Florida A&M University, Ali was quick to credit her participation in high school athletics for her success and perseverance later in life, and she reminded the student leaders just how crucial it could be for them as well.
“As an athlete, you have the advantage,” Ali said, time and time again.
After giving those words of encouragement, Ali also emphasized the responsibilities associated with being a leader.
“You all are a breath of fresh air,” she said. “However, you must remember you are all role models by default. Being an athlete comes with a responsibility to help others and catapult them forward.”
After Hopkins thanked all the attendees for helping the NSLS make its return, the state delegations began their return home with minds full of exciting new ideas to bring back to their schools and communities.
“I got a lot out of this NSLS experience,” said Elliot Hungerford, a senior hockey player at Sarasota Springs (New York) High School. “Hearing different perspectives from students all around the country will help me apply these lessons in my last year of high school athletics.”
The character of the students like Hungerford was not lost on anyone who attended and observed this year’s summit.
“These students continue to meet and exceed my expectations every year,” said Brian Brown, who was a host for the fifth time this year.
“I was extremely pleased and impressed with the young people that our state associations identified as leaders for the NSLS,” Hopkins said. “I am confident that our future programs will be even more helpful for students to become successful leaders on their athletic teams and performing arts programs.”
Brandon Jones was a summer intern in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department and is a junior at Indiana University in Bloomington.