Stick-to-itiveness in Sports and Science

My first team sport was soccer, as part of an all-girls league in my hometown. I recall fondly the smell of freshly cut oranges passed around at halftime and breaking in stiff new cleats at the start of a season. My favorite coach was Mr. Glover — a stocky man who came to practice lugging a mesh bag full of a dozen soccer balls and with a whistle dangling from a lanyard around his neck. Mr. Glover worked us hard — sprints from the goal line to center field and back, trapping practice that left us battered and bruised, and scrimmages where we played four-on-four at dusk until it was too dark to see the ball. Each practice made us a bit better, and we played our hearts out in weekend games.

As a defender, I specialized in big kicks that sent the play back to the other side of the field. I was a solid contributor who paid attention, worked hard, and took the game seriously, but I wasn’t showy or a superstar. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I didn’t wow the coaches at the high school soccer tryouts. They placed me on the thirds team — not varsity, not junior varsity — but the team for the inexperienced or less athletic girls, some there only to fulfill the sports requirement.

I still remember the slap of disappointment. Was I not good enough? At practice I went to my usual spot back on defense, but the coach called me to mid-field. She had me play forward and take penalty kicks. Teammates asked me to explain the rules, to show them how to do a throw in or a give-and-go. I took shots, had breakaways, and scored goals. By the time the season ended I was glad to have been placed on the thirds team. And when I played varsity the next year, I had a new-found confidence, better skills, and more versatility.

Sports are a terrific proving ground for many of the traits that are critical for professional success in science and business. My experiences as an amateur athlete and as a soccer and hockey mom have netted these key lessons:

Skills are foundational requirements for success. Elite athletes are renowned for their exceptional skills. Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s dominance in multiple track and field events earned her world records and medals at four different Olympic Games. Cristiano Ronaldo’s agility, step overs, and soccer goal scoring abilities are second to none. Serena Williams’ athletic prowess characterized by powerful serves and consistent groundstrokes led her to 39 grand slam tennis titles. For each, their success was due, at least in part, to relentless practice that honed their skills.

Athletes spend countless hours at the gym or court or field, training until actions become second nature, until they get better and better and better. Repetition, under the tutelage of great coaches, builds muscle memory. Shoot, kick, run, hit, swing. Again. And again. The beauty is that skills development is largely in our control (barring some physical and economic constraints). Want to improve your jump shot? Get out there on the court and practice. Not once or twice. Take a hundred shots. A hundred more. Want to improve your batting average? Get in the batting cage and swing that bat. Lift weights. Watch yourself on film. Skills development requires focus and discipline — with the promise of good results.

The same holds true for skills in science and business. To become a stellar software developer, you need to build core skills like coding, machine learning, and data analytics. A computer architect needs to learn chip design, memory controls, and networking. Project management, agile development, and communication skills are essential for development team leaders. How do you build these skills? Fundamentals are taught in college, trade schools, and virtual classes. Free online tutorials, hackathons, and bootcamps offer additional instruction. Internships and apprenticeships allow for on-the-job training. Mentors can guide and coach. And then it’s practice, practice, practice to hone those skills and be ready for real-world challenges.

Teamwork is essential. Even the greatest athletes with the most extraordinary skills don’t guarantee a winning team. A soccer club with a league-leading scorer will still lose if it gives up too many goals. A baseball team with the best-ever pitcher may never win a game if it can’t get runs on the board. Exceptional teams like the Brazil national soccer team of the 1960s, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, and the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team of the 2010s each had a special quality to them: a larger-than-life chemistry, a way of working together that enabled them to defeat rivals over and over again. Players bring different skills to the game, complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

Science and technology innovation also requires bringing together individuals with different skills, expertise, and experience to co-create something new. Consider the 2020 race to find a safe COVID-19 vaccine, which was achieved with an unparalleled intensity of global collaboration. In my experience leading a microprocessor design team of nearly five hundred engineers spread across six different locations, the unique challenges of hardware development were clear: everything needs to come together at precisely the same time in order to build the physical chip. There’s a huge complexity to the task — billions of tiny transistor switches connected together by miles of miniature wires, all squeezed into a silicon chip the size of your thumbnail. Team members with expertise in circuit design, logic design, timing, and integration all work together to design and test the microprocessor, the brain of the mainframe computer. Each individual skill is critical, but it’s the “we’re all in this together” camaraderie that makes microprocessor design truly a team sport. Today, we are relying on expert climatologists, material scientists, engineers, and economists to join forces to accelerate innovative solutions that address the pressing threat of climate change.

Perseverance is key to achieving results. Sports also teach us that, to excel, we can’t give up. That we can overcome self-doubt, defeat, injury, and adversity. Hank Aaron endured racist threats, persevering to become one of the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time and breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing home run record. Nadia Comaneci achieved gymnastic prowess, including five Olympic gold medals and a first-ever perfect score at the Olympics, despite challenges she faced by the restrictive Romanian government. Alex Smith’s extraordinary comeback — after a devastating leg injury that required 17 surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation — helped lead the Washington Football Team to the 2020 playoffs.

Rare is a day in the science lab that is chock full of exciting discoveries. Research and development are often tedious and repetitive — not unlike running laps or lifting weights. Data collection, analysis, running tools, writing code, designing experiments, and reporting results. These are all investments that, eventually, yield important results. Science is high stakes and “failure” is often the outcome of experiments; a null result, disproving a hypothesis, still generates valuable knowledge. And sometimes it takes a long time for insights to drive impact. IBMer Charlie Bennett first coined the term Quantum Information Theory way back in 1970. Through the perseverance of Charlie and an innovative team of scientists and engineers, over forty-five years later IBM made quantum computing available to everyone via the cloud. I am inspired by the sheer magnitude of the tenacity, stick-to-itiveness, and grit demonstrated here.

About five years ago my then nine-year-old son declared that he wanted to be a hockey player. He had progressed to red belt in Tae Kwon Do and was an enthusiastic soccer goalie, but he had never expressed interest in hockey before and he didn’t even know how to skate. But I know my son: When he makes his mind up, there’s no stopping him. It wasn’t easy — he was starting later than most kids and was unsteady on the slippery ice. He didn’t know how the equipment worked, and he didn’t know all the rules. But he was determined. He took lessons, practiced stick work in the driveway, rollerbladed to work on his edges, played on multiple teams, attended power skating camp, and crawled out of bed for 6 a.m. games. He struggled, slipped, fell, got back up, and kept trying. Next week he’ll play on his high school varsity hockey team for the first time, if COVID-19 protocols allow it. And I wouldn’t be any prouder if he built his own quantum computer.

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