Jeremy Boone is standing in front of 70 silent student-athletes from West Charlotte High School.
He's waiting. He hasn’t gotten an answer yet. So he asks his question a third time: Who considers themselves a leader?
Slowly — finally — a hand goes up. It belongs to the tiniest kid in the room. By Boone’s estimate, he's 14, and weighs around 115 pounds.
“OK, let’s start there,” he says.
The kid sits up tall and speaks. “But I’m not on the team.”
Boone knew he faced a challenge.
Boone's a performance coach who works with NFL players, mentors NASCAR pit crews and hosts a weekly podcast "Coach Your Best." Much of his early work was about strength, speed and conditioning. But he’s shifted his focus to the mental game, especially developing leadership skills.
He met John Yewcic when he spoke to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools meeting of athletic directors on motivating students toward the character-building side of athletics.
Yewcic, the new athletic director for West Charlotte, thought bringing in Boone would be more effective than having coaches lecture. So Boone came to West Charlotte at Yewcic's request to speak to the football and basketball teams. Coaches thought they had something special with both teams — but they also knew something was missing.
Finding their why
West Charlotte's football team won five games in 2017, its best record in seven years. The basketball team included a junior small forward, Patrick Williams, who's already ranked as the fifth-best player in the state for his class with recruiting offers from Louisville, N.C. State and Maryland.
Both teams made the state playoffs for the first time in several years last season. But their coaches worried about a lack of leadership.
Boone usually asks coaches who they think are their team leaders. Normally, he says, they identify two or three kids. At West Charlotte, coaches couldn’t identify any students with leadership potential.
After the April football session, West Charlotte decided to invite all its teams to the next meeting. Boone was told to expect four or five kids. Instead, around 20 showed up, recommended by their coaches.
They met twice, the final time on May 24 after school.
The goal is to see who's committed to an ongoing leadership program to better their school and their teams. Boone begins by making sure the students retained information from his last visit: be braver, bolder and better than before.
Then, he makes everyone in the room write down their leadership mission for the summer and identify any obstacles.
The students breaks into pairs. One listens. The other offers feedback .
Then, the students share their partner's mission with the group. One wants to focus on not just the message when he's talking to his teammates, but also the delivery. Another wants to encourage her team to show up to practice on time and keep their grades up.
Boone asks the room for advice. A student suggests team bonding outside of practices. After some prompting, another suggests setting firmer expectations.
Slowly, Boone inches them to his advice: ask repeat offenders why they want to be on the team. The key, he says, isn’t to put them on edge, but to try and understand their reasons for showing up late.
“Then once you know their why, now you know how to have conversations with them, where maybe they just need help," Boone says. "Maybe it's not that they don't want to be late. So always find your what first?"
“Their why,” the students respond.
Making an impact
Julian Wright has been at three of Boone's meetings. The 11th-grader is a safety for the football team. Last season, he had 60 tackles, three sacks and five pass breakups. Wright, who is also a student council representative and a National Honor Society member, knows the team had success last season, but he wants to go further. He said that trust and communication issues held them back from winning more games, something that he aims to fix this summer.
Wright didn’t raise his hand in that April football meeting with Boone. But at the end of the fourth meeting, he's the first student to answer Boone’s question.
“I'm going to end with this,” Boone says. “We ended with this last time. This is the mantra. You've got to take it with you everywhere you go this summer... This is the life rule. Anybody remember what it was? What was it?”
Wright gets off part of the mantra. “If your impact doesn’t make a difference…”
“No, if your presence...” someone supplies from the crowd.
And then Wright gets the whole thing. Boone applauds him and repeats the answer.
“If your presence doesn’t make an impact, then your absence won’t make a difference!”
It's the last official meeting of the school year, but Boone and Yewcic have plans for the summer and beyond. There are 250 student-athletes at West Charlotte. Boone wants “well over” half of them to show up to meetings in the fall, and for them to be invited by their peers, not their coaches.
And after that? Boone wants the athletes to go beyond sports. He began working with Charlotte schools to give back to his hometown, he said, and that means spreading his message to people outside of the school. He wants the West Charlotte group to reach out to people in their community — people that aren't already leaders, but need to hear a message of leadership. As Boone put it, this isn't just about championships.
Wright would like to win a championship — and he thinks that he can — but he also wants to be a leader for his team, to find the right leadership mix of humor and discipline.
“It just depends on us,” he said. “Nobody can stop us but us.”