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Group Aims to Help Student-Athletes Hone Leadership Skills

Not even three full games into her UNC-Charlotte women’s basketball career, Nikki Graves stepped to the free-throw line on Nov. 28, 1995, against Clemson, looking to keep the 49ers’ upset bid alive.

Never in Charlotte’s previous seven meetings with the Tigers had it hung so close for so long. But that didn’t matter to Graves — now varsity girls basketball coach, an assistant director of athletics, and a pre-kindergarten teacher at Durham Academy — who rose to the occasion and made two key shots.

As fresh as that memory still is from the 49ers’ 77–74 overtime loss, Graves recalls what happened next just as vividly. 

“We were all sitting in the huddle and everyone is laughing and giggling,” she said, “and I’m like, ‘This is no time to be playing! This is a serious moment!’ My coach [Ed Baldwin] thanked me for what I said. But the next day he was like, ‘You need to work on your leadership skills.’”

Over the next four years, Graves did just that. And now, nearly 26 years later, she’s imparting the lessons she learned then and throughout her coaching career to DA student-athletes.

Established during the 2019–2020 school year, Graves said the Student-Athlete Leadership Team (SALT) was initially designed to help student-athletes get to know Director of Athletics Andy Pogach and learn about his vision for the department. Back then, the group consisted of about 10 senior student-athletes. But now? About 86 Upper Schoolers are involved with the program, which seeks to develop their leadership skills through various activities and meetings.
 


“This is just teaching them various techniques and tactics on how to be effective leaders,” Graves said. “And there are various leaders — some kids are vocal, some kids are not very vocal. So, it’s just kind of teaching them how to mesh all that together and how to bring all that together to make our teams better. Our goal is to make sure our kids are leaders on and off the playing field or courts, and I think that’s going to bode well for not only athletics, but also the DA community as a whole.”

Coming off a year in which the team’s activities were limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Graves asked each varsity head coach to nominate student-athletes for the program this summer. Each coach nominated four or five student-athletes whom they identified as potential leaders of their teams. That included a handful of ninth-graders who earned varsity letters last year; the SALT was previously just for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“I was honored to be invited to it,” said Amare Burrus, a ninth-grader who lettered with the varsity baseball team last season. “I felt like it would be a cool opportunity to work with my schoolmates and see what we can do to make our teams better.”

The SALT held the first of its monthly meetings on Sept. 10. Eight days later, on Sept. 18, Graves welcomed Charlotte Country Day School assistant varsity boys soccer coach Kevin Sims — a licensed sports leadership facilitator through the Janssen Sports Leadership Center — to DA to lead a leadership summit.

As part of the summit, Sims — who’s also the immediate past president of United Soccer Coaches — talked about his leadership journey and what it means to be a leader with the 35-plus DA student-athletes and coaches in attendance. He also led them in a game in which one person tried to complete a number search while their partner tried to distract them. As entertaining as that was, the highlight of the day came when each individual completed a leadership self-assessment.
 

SALT


Answering a series of questions such as how well do you communicate with your teammates, each person ranked their leadership skills on a scale of 1–5. One section, Burrus said, focused on vocal leadership, while the other targeted exemplary leadership. Once finished, they tallied up their scores on both sections to determine if they’re more of a vocal leader or a leader by example.

A senior captain on the varsity boys soccer, basketball and lacrosse teams, Charlie Rand said he hadn’t previously thought about many of the questions on the assessment form.

“Being a leader, I’ve always attributed it to guiding the younger players, but it’s a lot more than that,” he said. “Even if you’re not vocal, just leading by actions is a huge thing. I think that was big for our soccer team this year. I feel like our seniors really stepped up and kind of created an environment where we gave 110% in practice every day. I think that was huge to our success this season. Even though a lot of us weren’t vocal leaders, we led with our actions, which was huge.”

Mirella Kades, a senior captain on the varsity field hockey and girls lacrosse teams, said she filled out a similar assessment form before this field hockey season, but she found great use in comparing the results of both.

“I think it’s interesting how you can have strengths in certain areas across the board,” she said. “I know for field hockey I’m one of four captains and for lacrosse I’m one of three, and having us each bring different things to the table but work collaboratively and being able to see that in our responses was really cool.”

Although they might see each other almost every day at school, Graves said she’s learned over the course of the SALT’s three meetings this year that some student-athletes don’t interact that often with student-athletes on other teams. The SALT program has helped change that by giving student-athletes a forum to discuss the similar challenges that they face.

“For our [field hockey] team, we had various leadership styles this year,” Kades said. “There were struggles at times, and I think getting to hear from people on the volleyball team and people from golf and my partner for one of the activities who was one of the coaches who I’d never talked to before was helpful. And also, being able to talk to my peers and see what has worked with their teams and ways that they’ve been able to effectively communicate with their team and help with team dynamics.”
 


At the SALT’s most recent meeting on Oct. 13, each student-athlete in attendance received a copy of Janssen’s “Team Captain’s Leadership Manual.” Graves said the manual will serve as the foundation for much of her programming. The rest will be based on her own experiences — which is why she recently found herself telling the group about that Clemson game.

“What the kids don’t want is they don’t want me reading from the book,” Graves said. “They want me to be able to tell them real-life stories. So, a lot of times I’ll spend time reading ahead of time to be able to talk with them through stories. I’ll apply some things that happened to me in college, things that have happened to some close friends of mine in college. And we just talk about different ways you can handle those situations — ways that we handled it, what may have been right, what may have been wrong and ways that they might approach it.”

Graves said she’s already seeing the benefits of the revamped SALT program with the varsity girls basketball team, as two of her seniors have started visiting her regularly to discuss the messages that they can relay from her to the team. That’s critical, Graves said, considering that the best teams are “guided by the coaches, but led by the players.”

Graves isn’t the only one to notice the SALT’s early returns.

“Leadership has been a big part of my journey throughout sports at Durham Academy,” Rand said. “When I was a freshman and a sophomore, I feel like I was more on the quiet side and I was really shy and didn’t really know how to lead. I feel like throughout my experience and even early on this year with my time on the SALT team, it’s really just helped me be more outspoken, being able to speak up within the team and lead by example.”

In time, Graves wants to partner with Duke, N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill to bring their student-athletes to SALT meetings as guest speakers. She said she also hopes to expand the program to the junior varsity and Middle School levels “so that way, when they get to the Upper School, they’ve already started that process and we can just continue to water that flower that we planted the seed for” — a seed that wasn’t planted with Graves until she got to college.

“I tell them all of the time,” Graves said, “‘You all are miles ahead of where I was.’”