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Sue Semrau

Do Unto Others…
The Great ones know character is defined by how they treat those who can not help them.

As many universities begin their fall semester this month, one of the most innovative yet under-publicized periods of the college sports calendar begins. Several years ago, NCAA rules changed to allow college basketball teams – both men’s and women’s – to take one pre-season out-of-country trip every four years, where the teams compete against their contemporaries from other lands. I’ve always been fascinated by these trips and almost every coach or player I’ve talked to over the years has said the trip changed the dynamic of that year’s team, opening players’ eyes to parts of the world they’ve never seen and inspiring an esprit de corps that bonds players together.

But no story of a team and its pre-season trip rivals the one I heard a year ago from Sue Semrau, the head women’s basketball coach at Florida State.

In 2009, Semrau took her team to South Africa, where they visited village after village with no running water, no electricity, and the direst of living conditions. At one town’s basketball court, there was broken glass on the floor. When the FSU team started to sweep it off, the children told them not to worry about it – they were used to playing on glass, despite the fact that most had no shoes. It was eye-opening for the Seminoles.

sue2After that game, a nine-year-old girl approached a member of the FSU team and handed her a bracelet, saying, “I want you to have this. Read it.”

It said, simply, “Dream it.”

The little girl explained, “I want you to have this because you have the opportunity to do more than I do. So I’m going to dream it through you and I want you to do it.”

“She had tears in her eyes as she told me about it later,” Semrau said of her player. That was exactly the kind of perspective she had been hoping to give to her team. “It’s one thing to have influence because you’re a great athlete; it’s another to have influence and impact because of service,” the coach said.

One of the causes closest to Semrau’s heart is the plight of children living in poverty, both around the world and close to home. She has guided her teams to volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, at the Coalition for the Homeless in Orlando, visiting hospitals, and working with elementary schools around the country. She says her goal is to make her players more aware of the blessings they’ve been given and the ways that they can give back.

sue3In February 2010, Semrau coached a game against North Carolina (beating the #8 ranked Tar Heels 77-70) in bare feet. She did so to support Samaritans Feet, a charity that provides shoes to communities in developing nations. She was just one of a number of coaches who participated in the effort to collect shoes and donations, but Semrau took her work a step farther. She wanted her players to look not only around the globe, but to recognize the need in their own town for something as basic as a sturdy pair of sneakers.

In fact, to help prepare her team for their South African trip, Semrau arranged a basketball clinic at a neighborhood housing project in Tallahassee. The team set up several stations for the children: one where they drilled basketball fundamentals; one that involved teaching about kindness and faith; one for crafts; and one where the players would kneel and wash the feet of each child before fitting them with a new pair of shoes. When she asked her players to sign up for the station "Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poetwhere they’d like to work, to her amazement, every single one of Semrau’s players said they wanted to work at foot-washing.

The goal of that last station, she explained to me, was for her players “to see the appreciation of these kids and the joy that not only a pair of shoes gave them, but the attention that was paid to them in such a way that these athletes who seemed to have it all in these kids’ eyes, would humble themselves to wash their feet. And our players felt that power in serving . . . It was a very powerful thing.”

Tips from the Great Ones

What was the result of Semrau’s efforts to humble her team through service? They enjoyed their best season in school history, making it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Championships, losing to the UConn team that would win the national title two games later. That on-the-court success was not why Semrau asked her team to give of themselves, but it was a byproduct.

sue5When I asked her if she believed her team’s service made a difference in how they played that season, she didn’t pause: “Without a doubt. When you develop relationships with one another, there is always an interesting and a positive chemistry that goes forward and a trust that is developed. I think that’s the service part of it – it’s the humbling of yourself that allows that type of trust, and trust is so vital when you’re part of a team. We didn’t just have basketball trust, the kind where I know you’re going to cut when you’re supposed to cut so that I can deliver the pass. It was the trust of ‘I’ve been there with you and I’ve watched you humble yourself so I know what I can expect of you.'”

Consider your own team for a moment. What are you doing with the influence you have in your own community? Is your team willing to serve? Do you have that kind of trust in thepeople around you, both as coworkers and as people? Do they have that kind of trust in you?Apply this Characteristic: Organize a day of service in your community for your coworkers to volunteer to work on one project together. Or, find a cause that is meaningful to your organization and see if you can gather support to donate on behalf of your entire team so that the contribution is one in which you can all take part.

Even something as simple as a pair of shoes, or time spent on the basketball practice court… or washing feet, can make a difference. It’s not about the size of the gesture; it’s about the meaning behind it. When others receive service, it reminds them that they, too, have worth and importance.

Remember: Greatness is not self-contained; it serves, shares, and inspires. That’s the only way it can grow.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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