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What I Learned About Parenting From Pat Summitt

We lost a legend today. Pat Summitt, former University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball head coach, died at the age of 64. Coach Summitt holds the records for the most wins of any NCAA basketball coach, male or female, coaching the Lady Vols from 1974 – 2012. For so many, Coach Summitt was a mentor and role model. When she began coaching at the age of 22, the NCAA did not formally recognize women’s basketball as a sport. Over her career, Coach Summitt was a fierce champion in the world of basketball and a hero to so many.

Pat Summitt basketball university tennessee parenting lessons

(AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

I am a proud alumna of the University of Tennessee and was able to meet Coach Summitt several times. She was a powerful speaker with an important message. Never much of a women’s basketball fan, I came to UT unaware of her celebrity status but was quickly converted. Coach Summitt stood for so much more than basketball — she was a leader, and someone from whom I learned many valuable lessons.

As a mom of a baby girl, I am now very aware of how important these lessons are – and how much I want to remember them so that I can instill them in my own daughter.

I learned a lot in regards to parenting from Pat Summitt:

  • Strength: Coach Summitt was a strong woman and she coached strong women. I want my daughter to know that women can and should be strong – physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t want her to ever downplay her strength to appear more feminine. Coach Summitt showed us with her Lady Vols that you can be a strong woman.
  • Girl Power: Coach Summitt is the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history – male or female. When news agencies reported her death, headlines read “legendary coach,” not “legendary women’s coach.” For a coach who began her career in a time when the sport was not even recognized by the NCAA, she pushed for equality, for access, and for recognition. I want my daughter to live in a world where women are recognized for their accomplishments among all, not just among women. I want her to live in a world where women have the same access to sports, to careers, to life. We’re not there yet, but Coach Summitt was a big part of that movement.
  • High Standards: Every single Lady Vols basketball player of Coach Summitt’s went on to earn their degree. I remember having Lady Vols in my class as a student. You better  believe they were on the first row, present at every class, and participating. Coach Summitt held her athletes to the highest standards. She was known for her drive for perfection on the court, but it transcended into all aspects of her players lives. She invested in them as people and that meant expecting the most out of them. As a parent, I need to remember this – I need to remember to expect the best of my daughter. If I have high standards for her, she will see that I value her and believe in her.
  • Hard Work: Coach Summitt was well known for saying “you can’t always be the strongest or most talented or most gifted person in the room, but you can be the most competitive.” She knew that the secret to winning was in outworking the opposing team. Coach Summit didn’t make those records or win those championships based on her sheer skill as a coach – she worked for them. I want my daughter to know that while she certainly has gifts and talents, those will not take her far without coupling them with hard work. I want her to know that she has to work for her achievements – things won’t just be given to her. With hard work in all aspects of life, she’ll go far.
  • Learn from your Mistakes: Coach Summitt said “admit to and make yourself accountable for mistakes. How can you improve if you’re never wrong?” She certainly drove for perfection, pushing her players to excellence and demanding much from them, but they were better for it. Part of that process meant reflecting on their losses and owning their mistakes. She emphasized learning from your mistakes and that is something that I want to teach my daughter. She’ll make mistakes – she’s human after all, but what I want to teach her is how to rebound from those mistakes, how to learn from them.
  • Invest in People: Coach Summitt, in an interview, said “I won 1,098 games and eight national championships, and coached over four decades. But what I see are not the numbers. I see their faces.” Pat was known for living by the motto “you win in life with people.” She nurtured relationships, she cherished them. She gave of herself for family, friends, and the university. I want my daughter to recognize the importance of relationships, of the people in her life. I want her to invest in people the way Coach Summitt did.

One last lesson I learned from her is from a story she told at our honors college graduation, one that is included in her book. Her son Tyler came home in tears from middle school basketball practice. He had been cut; he had not made the team. As she told it, as a parent she was hurt; she was livid. How could he not make the team? He was her son — he was a Summitt. Didn’t the coaches know what they were doing? But she held that all inside. She sat down with Tyler, listened to him, let him express his pain. Tyler said he was going to give up, that he didn’t want to play basketball anymore. She told him that if he worked hard, really hard, if he practiced, that the following year he could try out again and maybe then he’d make the team. Sure enough, Tyler did make the team and went on to walk on the UT basketball team.

That story resonates with me so much more now that I am a parent. It is about bearing your child’s pain, about listening, about holding back your own emotion. Coach Summitt pushed Tyler to persevere through hardship and that is exactly what we must do as parents. We must model how to pick yourself up when you’re at a low point and work towards your goals.

Reflecting on Coach Summitt’s legacy, I think about the fact that not only was she a coach, but she was a mom. Balancing those two roles must have been challenging, as her coaching career was demanding. I have so much admiration for what she was able to do as a mom as well as a coach. I think that’s why her story about Tyler sticks out to me – because it shows her human side, the humanity of being a mom.

Coach Summitt was loyal. She was strong. She had integrity. She was a leader. I am grateful for her and will hold close the lessons she taught as I raise my daughter.

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