Photo Credit: John Lott
Addressing a conference of high school students, R.A. Dickey had just presented a tightly abridged version of his roller-coaster baseball career and explained the vagaries of the pitch that made him rich and famous.
So basically, observed a teacher in the audience, your pitch represents your life. Yes, Dickey replied.
“My life has been a knuckleball,” he said. “It’s been something that’s gone up, it’s gone down, it’s gone all over the place.”
And he told the students that they too would deal with their share of turbulence.
“Life is hard … but that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome,” he said.
The Blue Jays’ pitcher was the keynote speaker at the club’s first student athlete leadership summit at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday. Grade 10 and 11 students from 50 Ontario schools were represented. Each school sent two students and one educator to attend a series of sessions on topics ranging from sports psychology to coaching to LGBTQ issues.
Speaking for 20 minutes, Dickey sprinkled examples from his own experience into an extemporaneous homily about life skills and leadership. He did not mention the details of his difficult early life, which included childhood sexual abuse. But in sports as in life, he said, the keys to surviving adversity and becoming a good leader include a keen sense of self-awareness and a focus on building positive relationships.
Those principles were a big part of the Blue Jays’ success last year, he said. (He did not talk about the team’s current season. It was not that kind of speech.)
Cultivating those values takes hard work, he said, and that work is never done.
“All the things I’ve said, they look great on paper and they sound really motivating to hear,” Dickey said. “I get it. But the truth of the matter is, there are things in my life, because of my story, because of what I’ve been through, from all my experiences when I was young to now, that I’m going to be working on my whole life.
“Maybe the most important thing I want to share with you today is how important it is to be able to hold what’s broken about the world and yourself, and what’s incredible about the world and yourself. To hold both, and be able to take a step forward. That the trick, man. That’s what’s hard about life – holding what’s broken about the world and all the things that you don’t understand and the mysteries therein, and holding what’s incredible and full of joy about the world. It’s holding both.”
Herewith, more excerpts from Dickey’s speech:
“To be good at anything in life, I think you have to be able to identify and be honest about what you’re good at and what you’re not. One of the best qualities that you can ever have … when you get out into the real world is to be self-aware. Being self-aware equips you to do a lot of different things. It helps you be honest about your shortcomings … Someone who is honest with what they don’t do well, and you can physically see them trying to improve upon those things, is motivating. It’s inspiring.
“So spend time with a list, a notepad. I have one by my bed; I have since I was 12 years old, and I write thoughts down in it. I diary a lot. I’m a writer. I was an English major in college. I love writing, I love the written word. There’s something very permanent about the written word. So I write a lot of things down. I would encourage you to do the same. But one of the things I would do at the end of some nights, when I would have a bad day or a good day, I would write some of the things that I don’t do very well … And then I’d write down the things that I do do very well. And then I would have a list. And so basically, as I grew, I tried to grow out of the things that I didn’t do well.”
On developing your gifts:
“If someone sees you leveraging your gifts, whatever they may be, in particular to serve other people, then they’re going to be motivated by that to be the best possible human being that they can be as well. And then you have the bud of being a great leader.
“Being a great leader doesn’t mean being the boss. It doesn’t mean being the boss on the field. It doesn’t mean being the boss in the boardroom out in the business world. Being a great leader is knowing yourself so well and so intimately that you can invest in other people in order to help them realize their complete and full potential.”
“This is what I learned through my marriage most of all – it’s something that helped me to be a much better teammate, a much better parent, friend, athlete – and it was the art of communication … Communication is probably the most important thing in good leadership. That’s a bold statement, but I’m going to stick by it. Here’s why: because ultimately at the root of everything is relationship. It’s what kind of relationship do I have with the guy beside me and how can I do the things … to help bring out the best in him.”
“Communication is integral – telling the truth – and guys, I’m going to tell you, it is so easy in this modern-day culture for you not to tell the truth about so many different things. Being honest, and having the reputation of being an honest human being, is so refreshing. And not just refreshing, it’s difficult. To be honest is difficult. It’s not easy. But here’s what is easy about it. You don’t have to remember anything if you’re honest. You don’t have to cover up things. You don’t have try to keep up with this lie or that lie, or this tweet or that tweet, or ‘what did I say,’ or this gossip or that gossip, or this hearsay or that hearsay. You don’t have to keep up with it. If you tell the truth, then you can be free to just be.”
On building community, on and off the field:
“We want to be great, we want to go to the World Series and I believe all the things that I’m telling you today will help us achieve the World Series. And I saw glimpses of everything I’m telling you today in our championship team last year when we won the AL East, and I’ve seen it in a lot of great teams that I’ve been on. But forget that for a moment. In 20 years, you won’t remember 90 percent of the players that ever walked out on that field. But what you will remember are the relationships that you have made because you did the things that we’re talking about today. If we did more of that as a community, if we leveraged ourselves to serve others as a community more and more, then we would see this grass-root thing start to happen in the lives of other people. We would see potentials being realized like never before. It would be a really incredible experience to view. And I can tell you first-hand, it is an incredible experience to be part of a dynamic like that.”
The genesis of the leadership summit
In recent years, the Blue Jays have received many requests from schools and community groups to stage events in support of various causes – far too many too accommodate, said Holly Gentemann, the club’s manager of community marketing and player relations. That challenge led to the idea of a leadership conference for student athletes that would cover an array of topics.
“We don’t want it to just be a fun event with our name attached to it,” Gentemann said. “We want it to be relevant. The students can go back to their schools and implement the ideas they learn here.”
Among the 11 experts who led the sessions were Jays’ bench coach DeMarlo Hale (coaching), former club president Paul Beeston (sport management and philanthropy), Josh Lukin of MLB Advanced Media (sport and social media), mental performance consultant Lisa Veloce (sport psychology) and Mark Allen of Respect in Sport (bullying and sport).