Thanks to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are all suddenly part of a remote workforce getting more familiar with the feeling of social isolation and its side effects. Social distancing has turned into lockdown for many citizens, and it’s a new reality with no confirmed end in sight. As CEO of Team IMPACT, a nonprofit connecting children facing serious or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams, I am very familiar with the psychological and sociological effects of isolation. I believe that this knowledge is something that all leaders and managers will now need to familiarize themselves with in order to lead effectively in this new reality.
One of the best ways to combat the depression and loneliness of isolation is to be of service to others. Philanthropy and volunteerism can help us navigate seemingly impossible situations and focus on silver linings — something we can all benefit from at a time like this. The lessons we can take from being mentors, for example, are many and can be applied to other areas of life such as leadership, management, self-control and more. How can you encourage your team to give back not only in a time of need but as a way of life? It is still possible, even in our virtual reality.
Being of service is sometimes of interest but not necessarily top of mind for university-level student athletes. They are thrust into a busy and demanding spotlight with pressure from others who are invested in their success as athletes. This can make it hard to think of others as they stay solely focused on their game and how to become better, stronger, faster, more in-demand and noticed. The adults around them don’t always think to help teach them how to focus on other lessons outside the sport that will help them transition to life beyond college and to the type of person they want to be as an adult. But providing mentorship and volunteer opportunities for these individuals now can unveil confident and compassionate leaders of tomorrow who know the value of empathy and philanthropy.
The younger generation has grown up with technology providing just about anything they could want at a moment’s notice. They have often missed the lessons of patience and giving, how to invest in others and build meaningful relationships, and the reward of waiting. Mentoring and volunteering their time for a cause greater than their own can teach them all of these lessons. They learn to become leaders inspiring others in times of hardship, dedicated teammates and partners in fun.
At Team IMPACT, we have explicitly found that matching university athletes with sick children for mentorship and companionship results in a win-win equation for both parties. The children officially become a “team member” of participating teams and benefit from the emotional connection and support as they face medical challenges with an increase in confidence, optimism and a sense of belonging. Likewise, the student athletes gain a whole new perspective — recognizing the value of looking outside of themselves and learning important character-building skills such as empathy, compassion and generosity of spirit. Being a mentor also teaches them to learn how to better identify priorities, keep perspective, be in the present moment and be generous in spirit. Specifically, student athletes often have a tremendous amount of pressure to perform, and they, too, can forget to enjoy the moment. When they help someone who is facing much more severe concerns — life-threatening diseases, for example — they are able to refocus on what’s truly important.
In 2016, 2018 and 2019, we conducted research consisting of in-depth interviews and focus groups with student athletes and coaches. The interviews and focus groups were recorded and analyzed using the constant comparative method. The research has consistently revealed that, for our university athletes, the benefits of mentoring a sick child are:
- Cohesive teams (functioning as a unit).
- Team bonding (working toward a common goal).
- An enriched team environment.
- A positive team perspective (winning is not everything).
- A positive internal perspective.
- Increased team performance.
- Awareness of those less fortunate — more than 90 percent of the student-athletes agreeing or strongly agreeing that because of Team IMPACT, they have an awareness of people whose lives are different and of the issues and needs of others.
These are all attributes that will make them better citizens and employees moving forward. Many students feel more compassionate and now exhibit a more positive attitude about life. For example, when asked about the best lessons they’ve learned through mentorship, some of our student athletes said:
- “One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to be present in the moment. No matter what is going on in life, to just focus on what you have in front of you.”
- “Life is much bigger than sports, but sports can bring us all together. Times may seem tough, but they could be much worse.”
- “Little things can make a difference and rarely go unnoticed. The effort sometimes matters more than the outcome.”
The opportunity to volunteer, mentor and help others is beneficial to not only the recipient but to the mentor. I believe the benefits are wide-reaching and not just relevant to college students. Consider providing your team with organized outlets to volunteer and give to others. The outcomes and advantages will help shape stronger teams, empathic leaders and a happier workforce.
And yes, even in our virtual environment, plenty of nonprofits are offering mentorship and volunteer opportunities. Alternatively, your team can create their own opportunities: sewing masks for healthcare workers in the COVID19 crisis, posting ideas for home-cooked meals for remote workers, grocery shopping for the elderly in your community, creating a virtual book reading for homebound kids and more. Getting your team focused on helping others will create camaraderie, a sense of purpose and creative inspiration.