PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Before they could learn to stand up as leaders, 10 dozen local high school students had to lie down on the floor of the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium.
Tuesday's fourth annual Berkshire County Leadership Summit began with a brief yoga session led by Kripalu instructor Iona Smith, who reminded boys and girls from throughout the county of the importance of breathing, focus and listening.
"A lot of yoga is about listening," Smith said.
And after leading the group through a series of breathing and stretching exercises, Smith had them pair up and practice active listening with a boy or girl whom they had never met.
"We want to be able to focus and listen enough that we can report back in such a way that we can say, 'What I heard you say was...,' " Smith said.
Smith's Kripalu colleague, Sean Flynn, was they keynote speaker for the daylong conference, which invited 10 student-athletes from each of the county's public high schools.
Flynn, a guidance counselor at Monument Mountain, a soccer coach and a former Spartan student-athlete himself, echoed Smith's comments on the importance of listening — particularly for those who would be leaders on the athletic field or in the classroom.
"Leadership is an emotional experience," Flynn said. "It's about relationships and about putting yourself out there. As you know, the captains that care about you, that put it out there — they're the ones you'll go the extra mile for."
Students — primarily sophomores and juniors — were selected by their athletic departments to participate in the event. The day featured a series of breakout sessions with topics that included characteristics of a leader, social media strategies and the role of a captain.
Pittsfield-Taconic Athletic Director Jim Abel welcomed the group to the Boys and Girls Club and introduced Flynn as the featured speaker. And Abel took the opportunity to share with the group that he himself is not comfortable talking to large groups and was battling nerves as he stepped before the assembly.
"This is an event where we're going to get you outside your comfort zone," Abel said. "Part of being a leader is getting outside your comfort zone to learn a little about yourself - about your strengths and what you might need to work on."
Flynn broke down leadership into three areas that he explored in his talk the whole group.
"One is, are you going to treat this as an entitlement or are you going to treat this as a privilege?" Flynn said. "The second thing is, 'What are you going to bring to it?
"It is super easy to stay in your comfort zone, particularly if you're a fairly strong athlete. You can go along and be solid and be good, but are you ready to take that next step? As a leader, you've got to be ready to be at your very best. Because everybody's going to be watching you - not what you say, it's going to be what you do.
"The third thing is this ... 'Am I making a difference for them in helping this become a transformative experience for them or is this just going to be an isolated experience where they see no real value in how how it relates the rest of their life?' "
Flynn shared his experience as a member of a Western Mass Championship soccer team at Monument Mountain and the fact that some of his high school teammates remain among his closest friends. He also shared that for some of the members of that title team, life has not been a string of unbroken success since their high school days.
True leaders can help make high school sports transformative for those around them, he said.
"I couldn't necessarily tell when we were going through it which ones were going to end up where," Flynn said. "Now, I look at that plaque and I look at where guys are today. There are some guys who are thriving and doing really well in life, and there are some guys whose lives have just crumbled around them.
"Some guys I played with didn't quite pick up on the fact that there was more going on here than just playing a sport. ... They weren't really willing to push themselves and get uncomfortable and challenge themselves in a way that would allow them to make themselves better as people.
"My challenge to you as leaders is to be one of those people who creates a transformative experience for yourselves and the people around you."
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