10 Leadership Lessons from Olympic Rugby Star Alev Kelter

Alev Kelter thought her Olympic career was over before it began when she received the phone call that inspired her comeback. It was from Ric Suggitt, the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Rugby team. Even though Kelter had never touched a rugby ball before, he asked her to try out for the team based on her past athletic experience. At that moment, Kelter’s hard work and determination presented an opportunity that she never even imagined. Her story brings us leadership lessons that can be used across your leadership team.

Before taking up rugby, Kelter was on the United States national team for both women’s soccer and ice hockey at the age of 14. She went on to play Division 1 ice hockey and soccer in college. But when she tried out for the U.S. hockey team that would head to Sochi in the 2014 Olympics, she didn’t make the cut, which was a devastating blow. And even just this month she was unable to play in the Rugby World Cup due to a 2017-18 season injury.

But that’s when Kelter’s resilience and determination shone the most. A competitive person since the day she was born—Kelter’s twin sister beat her out of the womb by a single minute, which she credits with the drive she still has today—she used that one failure to inspire her next adventure as a rugby player. Kelter went on to win a silver medal at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games and represented Team USA in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She’s currently training for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo at the High-Performance Training Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Site in Chula Vista, California.

Kelter is just one of the inspiring Olympic athletes that shares her story in our Gold Medal Leadership Experience. The lessons that she’s learned throughout her journey demonstrates her leadership potential, and can be applied to challenges any of us are going through at work or in life.

Here are her 10 biggest takeaways that can help all good leaders – aspiring athlete or not!

1. Do what you’re passionate about – and do it well

“When I was growing up, I played about seven different sports, from ages eight until 18. And it wasn’t until right before college that I specialized in ice hockey and soccer. I was told to pick one sport. But I was very passionate about both, so I decided to follow that passion.

2. Trust yourself – and your beliefs

“[During that time] I made a pact with my Lord. I said, ‘Okay God, I’m going to play each sport as hard as I can. Whichever one I go further in, I’ll do.’

I ended up making both national teams at age 14. That was my cue to do both for as long as possible, until those doors closed.”

3. Failure can lead to success

“[When I didn’t make the Olympic hockey team], it was a devastating blow. I went through a low spot in my life. I felt like I had failed and that I had let a lot of people down. My parents took me to practice at 4:30 in the morning and put a lot of money into my ice time.

During this tough period, I went snowboarding and decided that since I didn’t have a contract, (where you sign your life away and promise not to get injured!) that I would hit every jump and be free up there on that mountain. I tried a backflip and landed on my face in the fresh powder.

Laying in that snow, I realized this failure to make the Olympic team didn’t make me any less of a human being. I decided that these highs and lows in my life, the successes and failures weren’t going to define me.

“When I got back to the lodge, I had a missed call on my phone from the head coach from the USA Women’s 7’s Olympic Rugby team asking me to try out.”

4. Be open to every opportunity

“Two weeks later, I flew down to California. I touched my first rugby ball at the Olympic training center. I’d never held a rugby ball, and here I was coming to the Olympic team to try out. It was a bit daunting! But for me, it was about the experience. I knew that I had a lot of room to improve and that I could only get better.”

5. Taking risks can pay off

“If I didn’t take the risk of playing two sports, I doubt I would’ve been a Division 1 athlete. That led me to have twice as many opportunities to represent our country.

And playing both sports set me up for success in rugby, which is very dynamic. It involves lateral mobility, speed, tackling, and kicking. Playing both sports led me to be the athlete I am today.”

6. Be vulnerable to build trust

“I was extremely nervous meeting the other rugby players. I didn’t know anything about rugby, but I knew that being vulnerable would help me build trust with them. So I decided to listen and be a sponge to soak up what they could teach me. I respected these women and wanted them to understand that. Being honest, open, and vulnerable created the strong relationships we have with one another.”

7. Focus on the present moment to manage stress

“If you think about the outcome too soon, in a game that’s only 14 minutes (which Rugby 7’s is), you might miss something. You’re missing what’s happening now.

This lack of awareness happens in all areas of life. When I’m creating to-do lists in my head while I’m driving, I usually miss my exit! I try to be completely present as often as I can: I smell what’s near me, and admire what’s in front of me, so I’m not missing the moment.

Athletes have to have tunnel vision to stay in the zone for as long as possible. And for me, the pressure doesn’t necessarily cause that tunnel vision. Instead, that focused vision helps manage the stress.”

8. Even if you and your manager don’t agree, remember you always have the same goal

“My coach and I might have a different reason for why we’re doing something. But we have the same goal, which is what unites us.”

9. Being resilient means you don’t let wins or losses define you

“It’s not all about winning or losing. You can win and still feel like you played awful. And you can lose, and still feel like you did everything within your power. That outcome shouldn’t define you. Your work ethic and your core values are more important than the things you can measure objectively like ‘we won or lost.’”

10. Good leaders understand that “no” is not the end

“The biggest lesson for me was not to let someone saying, ‘no,’ define me. If I had let those “no’s” speak for who I am as a person, I would never have tried again.

Instead, I’ve learned to say, ‘Okay, that’s a no. Let’s move on. How do I get around it?’ When you start to flex those lines that you didn’t think were possible, you see your true leadership potential.”

 

High-performing athletes can teach all of us about overcoming limitations, performing under pressure, and building mental toughness. If you and your leadership team want to develop these skills, learn more about our Gold Medal Experience.

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