In her 27 years of coaching at UCLA, Sue Enquist guided the Bruins to a record 11 national championships. She is the standard of excellence when it comes to softball. Yet the story she shares isn’t one of success.
It’s one of her least memorable professional moments.
“Early in my career, I was off the rails,” Enquist told a full ballroom at the Millennium Hotel on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m the girl who threw the second place trophy in the trash can. And got caught.”
She tells the story of her actions back in 2000 when her Bruins failed to win an in-season tournament and how it ended up getting serious national publicity. It was a humorous story, one she went back to several times throughout her keynote presentation to about 175 athletes, coaches and administrators as part of the University at Buffalo’s Women in Sports Symposium.
It’s a story she tells in all her presentations across the country to underscore several points in her lessons about life, success, leadership and athletics.
“It’s important to be able to have somebody like myself who has had a very successful career to realize that I’m imperfect, to not take yourself too seriously and to learn from your mistakes,” Enquist said. “I also want them to understand if they can always think before they do something that could be controversial as a student-athlete or as a coach, that you can’t ring back the bell. You can own the mistake, but you can never unring the bell, and to me that’s an important lesson.”
Enquist’s presentation touched on her core values, which focus on competing, organizing, recovering from failure and enthusiasm. She spent the most time discussing failure, embracing imperfection and finding ways to succeed when things go wrong.
“We were never in Plan A when we won 11 championships,” Enquist said. “We never won in Plan A. We were injured. We didn’t like each other. We weren’t confident. Leadership is messy, and great teams are calm when it’s messy.”
And finding success in Plan B is about being comfortable with failure. It’s the word no one likes to talk about in college athletics, but Enquist believes that if student-athletes have the freedom to fail, they will feel more comfortable taking chances, affording themselves more opportunities to be creative, to lead and to find success. “We don’t talk about failure at all,” Enquist said. “It’s all about winning. It’s all about dominating. It’s all about ‘we own it.’ Instead we need to embrace failure. We need to embrace and celebrate when people are great in Plan B. If we started to do that with more balance, I think the players would have more freedom to be successful.
“The player today feels a lot of pressure to be perfect. They don’t want to let down their families, their coaches, their teammates. If we create conditions where they feel free to fail, they’re going to have a better experience and ultimately get closer to their personal success.”
The presentation by Enquist was followed by panel discussions on establishing oneself in a predominantly male industry and on teaching empowerment through keeping girls interested in sports.