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On leadership: A Q&A with Chris Plonsky

As a part of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Leadership Lecture Series, Chris Plonsky discusses her thoughts on leadership and the role of intercollegiate sports.

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The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Leadership Lecture Series will feature Chris Plonsky, women’s athletics director for The University of Texas at Austin. On Nov. 9, Plonsky will discuss leadership and the role of intercollegiate sports, how student athletes are prepared to deal with adversity and how the university equips student athletes to be leaders for life.

Q: On Nov. 9, you will be speaking about the role of intercollegiate athletics at a publicly funded university. Can you give us a preview of what your talk will include?

A: Intercollegiate athletics is one of the most visible aspects of a college campus. I think there are a lot of myths about college athletics: why we have it, how we fund it and what individuals really derive from the experience. We’re in an amateur athletics business, and these athletes are no different from an artist, somebody who’s gifted in theater or drama, or people who are brilliant in a laboratory or research. We recruit individuals who have a physical talent who compete but, in every other aspect, they are regular students just like everyone else who goes to school here. They are here to obtain a degree while they’re participating in this extracurricular activity. I think the largess of athletics confuses people. They think it’s a pro endeavor when it’s really not.

Q: This year marks your ninth year as women’s athletic director. What have you learned about leadership in that time?

A: I’ve been at The University of Texas at Austin for a total of 23 years. One of the reasons that I came to Texas was because I was attracted by the reputation of the institution. The reputation of the university and the city of Austin as a wonderful, vibrant, exciting place to live was nationally known. I think what taught me most about leadership was having the great opportunity to work with a number of people who I admired. My first boss at Texas was Donna Lopiano, the first full-time women’s athletics director here. Donna is responsible for everything you see today in women’s athletics at the college level. She was aggressive. She was brilliant. She was dedicated, and she built the model athletic program. What she taught me is that leadership is about taking what you’re responsible for and making it the best that it can be. You have to make great hires and great decisions. You need to put people in place who are talented and skilled and allow them to do their jobs. We always hire people who are smarter and better than we are. I want them to push me. They bring something to us every day, and I think that’s why we have the kind of women’s athletic program we have today.

Q: What elements of leadership do you try to instill in your student athletes that transcends sports?

A: That would be the part of our business that’s so understated because it’s not as visible as a football game or a volleyball match or a tennis match. It’s the programming and the structure that we have for these young people that starts the minute we recruit them. It doesn’t start the day they step on campus. It starts with their enrollment. But before that we’ve already identified if they are a good student. Are they tough? Can they get through the hard courses along with the easy ones? Are they tough competitively? Can they be a team player? Are they a leader? Are they a captain of their team? Or are they just someone who does what they’re told? By the time they get through their freshman year and halfway through their sophomore year, they’re pretty grounded. If they’ve stuck to it, listened to the advice they get, and if they’ve really dedicated themselves to time management then they can fend for themselves.

Q: Is there anything unique or different about being a mentor or guiding force for female athletes as opposed to male athletes?

A: Absolutely. I’ll speak to this university. This university was first in declaring that Title IX wasn’t a law to be ignored. Suddenly women’s sports became formalized. There might be young women who were so physically gifted in a sport that never would have dreamed about coming to Texas. Think about the change in the workforce and the change in sociology in those young women who experienced a great athletic career. They received an unbelievable educational opportunity and a degree. They grew up here and learned about being empowered. The true dynamic here was to emulate all the great things that happened to men in sports because men and women athletes learn the same things along the way: teamwork, good communication, how to get through adversity, to do something for the greater good, everybody bonded for one goal.

Q: Sports has a lot of ups and downs, victories and defeats. Some say an athlete can learn more from defeat than from victory. How do you prepare your athletes to deal with adversity?

That’s the thing that’s so unique about sports. You have to bring it every day in order to achieve success. The day you decide it’s not important, somebody else is going to out-compete you. We say around here that we actually love athletes who hate to lose more than they like to win. If you really hate to lose, detest losing, can’t stand it, then you’ll be a winner. That feeling of failure has to be a driver if you’re really competitive. People who don’t hurt after losses can’t survive here. They have really got to hate the thought of losing. When I say losing, it’s not just about a game. It’s about following a team rule. It’s about doing what you’re told in the academic area. That’s what the uniform means.

Chris Plonsky will be the fifth speaker in the Leadership Lecture Series on Nov. 9 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in Bass Lecture Hall, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, 2315 Red River St.

Learn more about this and other Leadership Lecture Series events.