Strengthening Through Sport

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This article is part of the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series. Follow the series and join the conversation via #PropelHerAus.

A circle is a shape, and also how I’d describe my youthful body. If you told eight-year-old Darby she was going to grow up to be a U.S. Marine, she would have laughed in your face – guaranteed. Like any typical round pubescent woman, my self-esteem was almost non-existent. I had tried multiple sports, but had not found anything I enjoyed or was driven to continue. 

As I changed schools in Year 9, a family friend encouraged me to try out for the rowing team. Hesitantly, thirteen-year-old Darby strapped her feet into the footplates, sat on the sliding seat of the ergometer, and it turned out I was pretty good! The sport of rowing an ‘eight’ requires eight women to be perfectly synchronized in their movements while following the command of their coxswain, who is steering the boat and executing the race plan. Every woman is focused on the boat’s momentum, the movement of the rower in front of them, the movement of the oar blade in the periphery, and their contributing power through their stroke. Hundreds of identically timed strokes propel the boat to its maximum speed gliding across the 2,000-meter race course – each stroke being fundamental to the success of the team. 

Eight years of rowing, and two years as captain of my high school and university teams, provided me with self-confidence and intangible skills that have shaped my personal development and military leadership. Between heartbreaking losses and championship wins, the lessons I learned about myself, my leadership style, and building a team culture formed me into the leader I am today.  I was challenged daily, both physically and through learning how to work with diverse personalities. Drawing out what motivates each individual, what it takes to be a good teammate, and learning techniques to get the entire team focused on the sole goal of winning are key leadership skills. Through the three pieces of advice below, I hope to share the lessons I gained through sport to help build self-confidence and leadership skills that can be used in your sport and in the workplace.

  1. Join a club or gym

Working out at the gym on a military base isn’t for everyone – it is certainly not for me. Joining a club sport or a gym off base is a great way to meet members of the surrounding community, especially at the start of a new posting. Use sport to meet new communities of like-minded individuals. While sending an introduction email or walking into a new gym might initially feel scary, you will most likely be welcomed with open arms. If you are not happy with it off the bat, there’s likely another gym or club in the surrounding area! Shop around locations and settle for the one that vibes with you and your goals. 

  1. Learn a new skill

Learning a new skill or sport in adulthood can be an uncomfortable endeavour. We typically resort to using our bodies in a routine manner, but learning a new skill challenges our brain’s plasticity and body’s mechanics. A good coach will break down a formidable skill into easily digestible chunks, allowing mastery of the basics before adding additional technical nuisances. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t master skills quickly, there is fun (and laughs) in the journey! At the conclusion of each session reflect on your performance and write down tangible ways to practice and improve. You will build resilience throughout the repetition of this cycle. The moment that you master the skill and it clicks in your brain, it feels magical. And the confidence gained through this mastery will radiate into the other aspects of your life. 

  1. Teach and Coach

As you progress in honing your chosen sport, consider coaching others in it! Complete any necessary courses, enjoy developing a knowledge base of your sport, and build your network of coaches and athletes. Apply the skills you have learned over time to your new trainees, whether they are members of your unit, neighbours, or the local children’s team. Coaching for the first time is nerve wracking, but remember how far you have come since you started. Reflect on your journey, through your frustrations and growth, and turn these experiences into teachable moments. Lastly, remember the confidence you have gained in the process before you take the floor. Coaching develops effective communication, deliberate planning and organization, empathy, and a myriad of other leadership skills. 

Workdays in Defence are demanding and exhausting but having a sport as a hobby can be a great way to recharge and personally develop outside of the workplace.  As leaders, we want to challenge ourselves every day to reach out fullest potential. Use sports to create situations to be pushed out of your comfort zone. Enjoy the journey, watch your self-confidence increase as you master your chosen skills, and reflect on the leadership lessons you have gained in your experiences. I am proud of the woman I have become, and I largely have sport to thank for that. I hope you will join me on the journey of strengthening through sport as well. 

About the author

Darby Nelson is a Marine Corps Supply Officer stationed in Okinawa, Japan. She has a strong interest in the quest to be both smart and strong. She also has a fascination with the Australian Army. You can follow her on twitter @darbyanelson.