In intercollegiate athletics, teams are often evaluated by national rankings. Whether it is the top 25 poll, RPI or other measurements, rankings provide context to a program’s performance within their conference or nationally.
And while NCAA institutions don’t have a poll or weekly rankings to help determine the nation’s best in student-athlete development, one thing is abundantly clear. Not only is the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Leadership Academy the nation’s premiere comprehensive leadership program, it is also helping define how student-athletes around the country are being introduced to leadership training.
Led by Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Services Eric Wood and Director of Student-Athlete Development Marcus Sedberry, the Razorback Leadership Academy has become a model for programs around the nation. Thanks in part to its resounding success, Wood and Sedberry have assumed leadership positions themselves within national organizations. Wood is chair of the NCAA Student-Athlete Affairs Committee while Sedberry is the chair elect of the Life Skills Committee within the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A).
"There are a number of programs around the country that include some elements of leadership training," Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Success Eric Wood says. "Some will bring in speakers or have an information session or two. But the University of Arkansas was the first in the Southeastern Conference and one of the first in the nation to develop a comprehensive leadership program tailored to developing core leadership skills of student-athletes, coaches and staff members at different levels.
"When we visit with colleagues around the country, they are impressed by what the University of Arkansas offers its student-athletes and they ask for information on how they can duplicate it at their institutions. Thanks to the leadership and unwavering commitment of (Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics) Jeff Long, the University of Arkansas has developed a reputation as a trend setter in the industry."
Shortly after Long arrived at Arkansas in 2008, he decided to revamp the student-athlete development program. Among the changes implemented was the introduction of a formal leadership training program designed to equip student-athletes with skills that would benefit them in their athletic careers and beyond.
"Our primary mission in Razorback Athletics is to provide our more than 460 student-athletes in 19 sports an opportunity to develop and succeed academically, athletically and socially," Long says. "The Razorback Leadership Academy is an integral part of meeting our mission. By providing leadership concepts and equipping our coaches and student-athletes with specifically tailored skills, the Academy is instrumental in fulfilling our ongoing commitment to student-athlete development."
In 2009, Razorback Athletics invited one of the nation’s top experts on sports leadership to help the program launch the Razorback Leadership Academy. Jeff Janssen, the founder of Janssen Peak Performance, facilitated multiple sessions each semester for student-athletes chosen by their respective coaches for either Emerging or Veteran Leaders. In addition, Janssen worked with coaches and staff members on developing leadership qualities.
The response by student-athletes and coaches was overwhelmingly positive. And soon even the Razorbacks’ most nationally successful and recognized programs were utilizing the Razorback Leadership Academy.
"The Razorback Leadership Academy continued to an integral part of the growth and development of our baseball program," Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn says. "The leadership principles outlined and the practical applications provided are extremely beneficial to our student -athletes and our entire coaching staff."
Almost immediately, it was clear the program needed to expand to meet the growing desire for more student-athletes and coaches to get involved.
In 2010, the program was expanded to include Rookie Razorbacks. In 2011, a Leadership 360 group was developed to provide even more advanced leadership training to those student-athletes who had been in the program for their entire collegiate careers.
In 2013, the program has grown to include more than 180 Razorback student-athletes taking part in at least three leadership targeted workshops each semester.
"The Razorback Leadership Academy has grown both quantitatively and qualitatively through the years," Janssen says. "We have more student-athletes involved in each of our three levels of the Academy: Emerging, Veterans, and Leadership 360. From a quality standpoint, we have more student-athletes who have earned our prestigious Leader of Distinction Award than when we first started. This shows that we are indeed developing better and more effective leaders throughout the athletic department."
With a comprehensive sports leadership program well established, Wood and Sedberry decided to enhance the program with a new approach and another nationally known facilitator Tim Elmore has already developed a reputation for his innovative leadership instruction. His visual driven approach teaches leadership through a series of images. The positive habits, attitudes and character developed through the program are beneficial to a student-athlete’s career, but also applicable to much more than athletic competition.
"Tim’s ability to engage student-athletes through pictures is something that really is in tune with this generation,"Sedberry says. "For instance, he can use an image of a thermostat and a thermometer to teach impactful leadership concepts. He will ask, as a leader are you like a thermostat setting the temperature of your team? Or are you the thermometer and merely reflecting it? It is imagery that can be used later to remind the student-athletes of the leadership principles they have learned. We are using the Habitudes Curriculum with our Rookie Razorbacks and it has been very effective."
Another development in the Razorback Leadership Academy has helped it stay on the cutting edge nationally. In 2013, the University of Arkansas partnered with SVI to create a Razorback
Leadership Mobile App to engage student-athletes in leadership material by reinforcing and extending information covered during monthly Razorback Leadership Academy workshops. The app uses SVI’s Anywhere Learner Mobile platform to create a customized, easy-to-use web-based mobile application that delivers leadership concepts, ideas, strategies, and tips. Razorback student-athletes in the leadership program use the downloaded app to help them succeed on and off the field by applying the information in real time.
"The mobile app is just the latest way we are re-shaping the way leadership training is being engaged by our student-athletes and those around the country," Wood says. "Leadership is not something a student-athlete needs to think about two or three times a semester in a workshop. It is something that should be a part of their lives every day.
Whether is competing in their respective sport or later on in their professional careers outside of athletics, the skills they are learning will benefit them. That is why we remain committed to equipping them with what they need to be successful in all aspects of life."
Razorback Road is a weekly column published on Thursdays by Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Kevin Trainor. Trainor is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and has worked for Razorback Athletics for more than 20 years.