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Lessons from the Super Bowl

You can learn a lot from a TV commercial.

By Kathleen Brewer-Smyth
It may seem un-American to admit that one is not a fan of athletic events. Moreover, as funding for health care and research shrinks, it is troubling to watch sports stadiums being demolished and replaced by larger, more costly structures, while inner-city hospital emergency departments close because of insufficient funds.
 
The subject triggers personal memories of assisting a neurosurgeon who was drilling into the skull of a critically injured patient while listening to a football game over the radio. As the delicate procedure in the ICU unfolded and the crowd in the stadium cheered, we contemplated how society could permit such huge salaries for those who toss a ball around—compared to those who, for years, have studied how to care for people before, during and after brain surgery.
 
It seems, however, that little can be done to alter such great disparity between health care and athletic funding, given that even nurse scholars opt to attend Super Bowl parties—if for nothing other than socializing and viewing extremely costly TV commercials. Can watching Super Bowl games inspire a nurse scholar in his or her scholarly pursuits? I think it’s possible.
 
Take, for example, the Budweiser commercial that Anheuser-Busch ran a few years ago during a Super Bowl game. The commercial showed a small donkey watching a team of majestic, intimidating Clydesdales pull a Budweiser wagon and longing to join them. It reminded me of novice researchers longing to be part of a highly productive, scholarly research team but feeling intimidated.
 
Dream big
Perhaps that commercial (or others in the series; see video 1, video 2 and video 3) could be used to inspire and encourage pre-doctoral students as they seek to identify a dissertation chair, establish a dissertation committee and, as their careers progress, continue building new research teams. Requesting meetings with leading researchers in one’s area of interest is often not only an attempt to get into the game; it may also be an effort to convince established researchers, who are already overextended with their own research program, to help an aspiring researcher reach his or her goals. It may seem impossible, as impossible as a donkey trying to be a Clydesdale.
 
Can watching Super Bowl games inspire a nurse scholar in his or her scholarly pursuits?
Most, if not all, scholars have felt at times like the donkey that gazes longingly, hoping to join a team of Clydesdales that, in response, looks back at the donkey as if it were crazy to consider such a mismatch. To a fledgling researcher, great mentors may also seem overwhelming, such as one whom I asked to leave the comfort zone of his laboratory to go to prison to help me study neurological and neuroendocrine correlates of high risk behavior—research related to his. From my “donkey” perspective, he seemed to be as large as a Clydesdale and, initially, he even appeared to consider my request irrational. However, through my persistence, he and other researchers joined my team and followed my lead, similar to the donkey that aspired for leadership and eventually led a team of Clydesdales.
 
Emulate great mentors
Just as the donkey in the commercial worked hard to be a Clydesdale, even to the point of sporting Clydesdale-like feathers above the hooves, so principal investigators (PIs) and other researchers need to seek out and emulate great mentors—knowing that, at some point in their career, they too will be called upon to mentor others. Though one may feel like a donkey (or another name for that animal) when seeking out mentors and collaborators, one must step out and be persistent, despite intimidation. Presenting critically important ideas in compelling contexts may draw leaders to your project like a magnet although, it should be noted, it takes time and perseverance to build trust and credibility.
Commercials such as this remind us that, with every success, each member of a team contributes and benefits differently. Servant leadership can be quite effective even though, as the leader, it may seem counterintuitive to serve other members of the team. Optimal conditions allow each team member to play a critical role and for each to benefit from the others.
 
Just as a quarterback cannot succeed without those in defensive positions, so it is critical to recognize, develop or recruit individuals with skills critical to the objective. To achieve success, it may at times even be beneficial to change roles; for example, alternating who serves as PI on different aspects of the study, based on individuals’ area of expertise.
 
Recognize strengths and weaknesses
Successful leaders channel each individual’s strengths toward reaching the goal. Mentorship requires recognizing one’s own strengths and weaknesses and identifying others with complementary strengths. A successful mentoring relationship provides a win-win environment for both mentor and mentee, and it takes effort to establish a plan or formulate an idea that helps each reach his or her individual goals while advancing the science.
 
Super Bowls remind us to bounce back quickly after the agony of defeat. Though critical reviews of grant proposals, manuscripts and various scholarly works may be painful, one must get up quickly after being tackled and learn what to do differently in the next play. Occasionally, injured players require assistance and must be removed from the field for a time—with the coach and medical team determining whether the absence is for the balance of the game or just a brief recovery period—until the player is able to play again. Similarly, good mentors are able to determine if a proposal or manuscript is fatally flawed or if it can be salvaged with a quick revise-and-resubmit.
 
Learn from the success of others
To help mentees achieve success, it’s important to disseminate stories of great defeat followed by great victory. In times of frustration, such stories can be tremendous sources of encouragement. Tony Dungy (2007) provided just such a story. If Dungy had not experienced great difficulties, including being fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he may never have become head coach of the Super Bowl-winning Indianapolis Colts.
 
Similarly, as a Nobel Prize-winning researcher described in a speech a few years ago at the National Institutes of Health, the extensive, painful opposition he faced throughout his entire career, much of it from the scientific community, served to motivate and help him achieve his award-winning contributions to disease prevention and treatment. Both wins and losses can be motivators and precursors to greater advances.
 
In summary, after every tackle, get back into the game as quickly as possible. Do not wallow in the agony of defeat. Seek advice from and be inspired by successful people. If the work is compelling, do not be intimidated when seeking opportunities to run with Clydesdales. Look for benefits in all setbacks. Persevere as if the next play could win the Super Bowl. RNL
 
Kathleen Brewer-Smyth, PhD, RN, CRRN, is associate professor at the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences, School of Nursing, in Newark, Delaware, USA.
 
Reference:
Dungy, T. (2007). Quiet strength. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers
  
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