Q&A with Dr. Steven G Estes

Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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We recently interviewed Dr. Steven G Estes for our article “Lifelong Leadership with Latitude (and a learning attitude!)” which was fascinating. We found that there were too many valuable insights and experiences in leadership to restrain into one article and knew that you’d love to read more too. So, we are sharing the extended Q&A here.

For you, what is the foundation of the body-mind connection in sport and physical activity?

I had a professor in graduate school at Ohio State University, Sy Kleinman, and he was very interested in the mind body connection.  Because of him I became aware of how important this is in studying physical education. I have all of my degrees in that discipline. In the US, we value the mind over the body in education. This means that things that are physical or are of the body are of lesser value. Everything follows from this: budgets, facilities, intellectual support, academic legitimacy. So, I spent much of my academic career studying the history and philosophy of education with respect to mind and body issues. Eventually what I’m trying to do is to justify physicality. My efforts are modest, but consistent over time and I’m pleased to observe that we seem to value our physicality much more in 2020 than we did when I began my studies in 1982.

What role does self-awareness play in the mind-body connection? 

Self-awareness has to do with every aspect of our lives. I know that you folks at Athlete Assessments are ferocious about helping clients, coaches, athletes become self-aware with respect to their behaviors. As we come to know something of our physicality, it is my belief that we will live better in the world. In a more conscious fashion. I suppose this is what education is about anyway – becoming self-aware.

How are others impacted by an individual’s body-mind connection? 

That’s a good question. When I read your question, I realize that I have been focused on Juan’s existential condition, and not focused in any way on culture. I suppose that individuals living better in the community will help each other, so in that way a healthy individual affects positively those others in the environment.

When you work with students in either sport psychology or leadership programs what do you think is the most important element for them to understand and master?

Some sort of life education goals. By this I mean that we continue to grow throughout our lives. Both leadership and sport psychology have this in common. We should be getting better our entire lives. No matter where one starts, we should just always be trying to improve. This does not mean excellence, it just means simply getting better, and being interested in getting better. These two particular courses provide tools for individuals to do just that.

What is the most important thing to consider when establishing the culture you want for your people?

Integrity. If people are self-aware, and if we are living honestly in the world, then we become models for the people around us. We model the behaviors we want others to exhibit. Another way to put this is the golden rule. ‘Do for others what you would hope others would do for you’.

Does your previous experience as an athlete and a coach shape your approach in the classroom?

Absolutely. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my athletic experiences. I understand that you are a rower, so you probably know something of what my day is like. The first thing I think about when I get up in the morning is: Will I row today?  Will I row well today? Everything is planned around being in the boat. Ironically, there have been years when I would never get to be in the boat.  But those formative experiences have stayed with me all these years. 50 years!

Your recent athletic achievements/adventures add an unparalleled dimension to your life.  Can you tell me about the mindset that enables you to dedicate yourself and complete these challenges?

I’m not self-aware in that way. It’s not like I have a “mindset” that I’m conscious of. That is sort of like an application on your computer trying to talk about its own operating system! Now there is an image. But if I were to take a stab at answering this question, I think I’ve got a set of internal standards by which I judge my own thoughts and behaviors. They’re pretty sad at this point in my life (I’m 67).  And I try to live by them, for if I do not then I disappoint myself. Conversely, when I do live by them, I feel whole and complete in the world. I suppose this motivates me to get up and do it again the next day!

What do you think is the most important factor in effective leadership?

Again, I will come back to integral. Doing the things that you say and think that you were going to do, and doing them honestly. I’ve learned that I don’t do everything excellently. In fact, looking back on it I’ve done very few things in my life that I would consider “excellent.”  Too often I’ll get tired and stop short of total commitment or total effort. There were a few years when I was rowing when I came very close to consistent, high level effort, as hard as I could, every day. I suppose that is why being in the boat has been such a powerful experience for me. It was one of the times when I actually really tried to be excellent over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, I did better at that than almost anything else I have ever done. That was incredibly rewarding. With that standard in mind, I teach, I write, I’m a father and a husband, and all of these things that I do are measured against those times in my life and I really try to be a good man. The reason integrity is important is that you’ve got to find a way to be honest with yourself. You can’t kid yourself about being really good when indeed you know you are not.  At the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to forgive myself for those things where I am “human.”  Aren’t we all?  

Why do you work with the US Military in your current capacity? What aspects of leadership does the environment amplify?

In 2007 I was a dean at my university and Reserve Officer Training Corps or ROTC reported to me. As I got to know the cadets, I became very impressed with how they were living their lives, their sense of mission, their sense of community, their sense of patriotism. And my question became, ‘Why are these college students so good?’ One of the aspects of ROTC training is leader development. I made the connection between ROTC, the military, leader development, and higher education, and I decided I wanted to be part of that. Also at that time the United States was heavily involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m a Vietnam era American, but I did not participate in the military during that war. So I think I felt a little bit left out, like I have not done my patriotic duty. When the opportunity came around in 2007 to contribute in some small way, which was working with ROTC cadets, I thought I could do my part. From there one thing led to another, and I ended up getting heavily involved by joining the Tennessee State Guard where I now serve as the Headquarters, Headquarters Company (HHC) Officer in Charge of Public Affairs. I’m pretty proud to wear that uniform.

Can you tell me specifically the details of your presidency of NAKHE? Dates? Why did you take the role? What did you want to achieve while you held the position?

I became president of NAKHE for the first time in 1998. It was the one academic society in which I have always been active, and I have been on the board, held key leadership roles, chaired several of the high profile committees, published in the journals, and presented at every conference. So, I’ve been very active.  In 1998 it was what I thought was my culminating experience. Being President is something that happened only once in those days. Then in 2012 the Association was doing very poorly. Membership was down, our journal was not particularly well read, conference attendance was getting smaller.  And one particular event jumps out: a good friend of mine, Shane Frelich, was Vice President and running the conference. He came down with cancer. The current President, Jimmy Ishee, told me he was going to cancel the conference. So, I stepped in and ran the conference that year. I looked around and saw that the organization was doing very poorly, so I just got active. Started making phone calls, got myself back on a committee, and the next thing I knew I was nominated again for President. At the same time, I had started a leader development workshop in the summer. And then quickly became very popular and one of the highlights of the association. So, I was a natural fit for President. We redid our strategic plan, we changed our mission toward leader development, and we started growing again. I was President for two more years, and when I stepped down, NAKHE was pretty much in the shape it’s in today. My proudest achievements are all of the young professors who have joined NAKHE – the Association is in great hands now, and in my mind is better than it’s ever been. What is especially rewarding is that I’m not running it, these young professors are. That’s intensely gratifying.

What are the key reasons a student will choose your program and/or class?

Most students take my classes because they are required to do so. So, I do not fool myself about my popularity! However, my leadership class has gone very well. And many of my doctoral students report that it was the most important class they took in their program of study. Again, that is intensely rewarding.  I’m teaching the class right now, and it’s as much fun now as it has ever been. I just learn so much every time I teach it, from what I’m reading and researching as well as from my students.

What are the most valuable take-aways you aim for your students when they take your class?

Hmmmm…. Good question. Certainly, I hope that they learn the content. But just as importantly I hope that they take away an interest in the topic so that they will continue to learn about it.

What is the best feedback you receive from your students about their experience in your classes?

The best feedback is probably when I have lost their attention. You can tell when people are focusing on something other than what is going on in class. I try to immediately change direction to grab their attention back. Next, when students report after the class is over that the class was important to them. That happened just this morning. One of my doctoral students called my leadership class “mind bending.”  Flattering!  This particular student is now Director of University Publications, and his feedback was especially rewarding – he’s really good at what he does, and I respect his opinion.

If some of your students are student-athletes, coaches or already sports administrators, what additional benefits do these students get from doing this class?

I always have a goodly number of athletes in my classes. But I rarely think of them taking away what they are learning with me and using that directly in their sport. I’m quite a bit more general in my approach to all of my students. I think of the students first, and some of them happen to be athletes. I’m reminded of the best scholar in my field that I’ve ever met, Michael Oriard, American Studies faculty at Oregon State University.  He played American football for four years in the NFL, and one year in Canada. I told him I was impressed that he did his doctorate while he played pro football. He corrected me: he was a full-time doctoral student and on the side, he played pro football!  Perspective is everything.

What do you like most about teaching this class?

I assume you mean the leadership class. Learning about myself and how I relate to others in groups has been the key motivation to all of my studies for over 30 years now. I’m always passing along to my students what I am discovering myself. So, I’m always intensely interested in the topic. I suppose what the students get out of it is the sense that I am intensely interested in the topic! I probably drag them along a bit.

What do you like / most enjoy about your role at the university?

Being a tenured full professor is probably one of the great jobs in the world. I study and teach what I want to study and teach and when I want to study and teach it. It just doesn’t get better than that. I get to plan my work, and work my plan, without anyone looking over my shoulder. Freedom!

What do you think are the most important skills/experience students leaving your program need to succeed post-graduation?

It’s trite, but lifelong learning skills. I hope you can tell that I still feel like I am a student. Student of life. I hope my students take away that lesson. Next, you make such great friends in college. I was a coach for six years in the 70s and 80s and I see that my athletes are still in touch with each other.  That’s quite rewarding, that I organized something where these athletes are still in touch with each other and are still the best of friends. I had something to do with that, and that feels pretty good.

What was one thing you changed in your program or your teaching from last year that has made a significant difference?

Well, I have tried to change something, I’m not sure how good I am at it. I try not to dominate the conversation. Instead I try to get the students to exhibit much more leadership in class. So that means I need to be quiet much more than I used to be. I lecture much less. Instead I assigned readings, and I assign leadership of those readings. I spend my time in class commenting and coaching what they say, rather than making them listen to me. At least that’s the plan!

What advice would you give someone starting out in their academic or teaching career?

Read. Read. Read. Reading is the fastest way I know of learning from the experiences of others. Next, talk to people and make friends. Two of my new professional friends are Bo and Liz. I’m so glad they came to our conference a couple of years ago. They have had a big impact on me and what I teach, and now I am sharing with others what I have learned. That’s an example of the world working well. And now we’re friends! I hope one day to get to Australia and see all of you folks down there!

What gets you excited / what do you look forward to most about your role within sport management?

I don’t think of myself as someone in sport management. Rather, I read and write in the humanities, and my goal is to help people think critically and live better in the world through a humanistic understanding of sport. I know what you mean by my “role in sport management,” and I suppose that teaching the humanities, which is required coursework in approved sport management programs, it’s required.  At the same time, sport management is considered business oriented. And I don’t see myself as doing sports business. I do kids. Helping them grow and become complete people. That is the role of higher education, discovery and sharing what we know with others. We don’t teach anyone to be good at business.

What has been the top 1-3 things that have helped you succeed in your own career?

Perseverance certainly. Many of my successes are just that because I outlived those who stopped working – or rowing – or whatever.  I just kept going.  Eventually success (such as it might be in any of these domains – rowing, or scholarship, or academic association leadership) came my way.  Next, be nice. I’m a firm believer in the No Assholes Rule. Third, return your phone calls!  I’m surprised at how often my colleagues simply don’t respond to requests for information, or return phone calls, etc.  

What are you most proud of? What has been your career highlight so far?

That’s a hard one. Nothing jumps out. At the same time, something that has really been a lot of fun recently are the reunions of the teams I coached in the 70s and 80s. Reconnecting with those guys has been a real joy. I guess another thing that comes to mind is that I’m still engaged and interested in what I do. I’ll retire in a few years, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I retire. At this point I’m still curious and I’m looking for answers to all sorts of things. If all goes well, I’ll continue trying to get answers!

How/why did you get into the role you are in now?

By chance. I had been rowing and coaching through the early 1980s, and honestly, I was starting to slow down as a rower, and I know I did not want to coach anymore. A professor in my master’s program suggested I do a doctorate. My question was, Why?  What university would ever want to hire me as a professor?!!!  Going to graduate school at Ohio State was really an eye-opener, and I learned about a whole new world out there in higher education. I fit right in, and never looked back.

Can you share an ‘ah-ha’ moment in your career?

It was in rowing – I was on the ’82 USA team, and many of my mates were so successful – and much of their attitude was one of simple expectation.  They just ASSUMED they would go on and be successful.  They were from wealthy families – rowing in the USA is a fairly elite sport, and my friends were from Princeton and Yale universities.  One of my mates, his father managed an extremely successful and well-known trust. That guy just knew that he would go on and work in the world, and be very good at whatever he did.  I realized that he and I were not different at all – except in our expectations.  So, all I had to do was to change my attitude about how I live in the world.  Worked out well for me.  I’m sure my mate makes much more money than I do, but money is never what I was interested in – I am more interested in ideas and friends than making money.  So, I got what I wanted – friends, and I’m immersed in questions that I get to try to answer.  Fun.

What are you aiming for in the future?

Keep on doing what I’m doing I suppose. I worked hard to be able to live the way that I do. So, I want to continue this. But there are other things out there that I’d like to do in the near future. Certainly, traveling with my wife, Betty, is high on my list. Both of us like to do the same thing (she’s also a professor) and traveling with Betty is a joy. It’s like new discoveries every day, new friends, all sorts of things. And telling stories about it. I’m sure we will both keep writing. Betty finished a novel this summer, and decided she wanted to understand something about contemporary art, so she wrote a book about that. Amazing.

How has working with Athlete Assessments contributed to your class? (what has been most valuable)

Finding a tool where students can become more self-aware has just been an excellent experience for my students. They implicitly know that what they are learning is more important than the grade they get in the class. Incredibly positive comments about the instrument. Students feel that I truly care about them knowing themselves better. And that is true. But I’ve never had a tool that made this point so explicit.

Any other comments about the work we’ve done with you or about us?

I love working with you guys. You always return my calls and request for information! I hope I am returning the favor.

When it comes to wine, I agree with Liz we are a nation of beer and wine people. I would choose a big hearty shiraz and a cool crisp semillon sauvignon blanc. Anything that comes from the Margaret River region in WA Australia or the Marlborough in New Zealand I’m not well enough experienced or educated in wine to comment on more balanced or delicate varieties.

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