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Rethinking the Win

By Nate Repensky, SportsEngine, 04/12/19, 11:30AM CDT


“We need to make sure athletes understand where sports rest in their life and what they can do. Winning is being prepared in case you don’t make it to the next level.”

Winning. To Vince Lombardi, it wasn’t everything but rather the “only thing.” To George Steinbrenner, it was just slightly more important than breathing. It’s said that winning cures all ills.

This mindset has seemingly trickled into the $15 billion-a-year youth sports industry. Yet for young athletes, is success as black and white as wins and losses or as obvious as the scoreboard?

Lea Olsen

Lea Olsen doesn’t buy it. Olsen, a former collegiate basketball standout at the University of Minnesota and a current broadcaster for the Minnesota Lynx and Minnesota Timberwolves is urging athletes, parents and coaches to alter their definition of winning. Founded in 2016, Olsen’s foundation, Rethink the Win, is dedicated to creating a more positive experience for youth athletes.

“Sports have changed for young people in recent years, and we haven’t done a good job of changing with them,” Olsen said in reference to the vast growth of the amateur sports industry. “If sports are just about winning and securing scholarships, then I think a lot of people are going to be wasting their time.”

Olsen’s idea for Rethink the Win spawned out of her experience as both a youth and a collegiate athlete and as a parent. Following her coverage of the WNBA at ESPN for five years, Olsen began covering local teams in Minnesota, including the boys’ and girls’ high school state basketball tournaments. This coincided with Olsen’s kids’ participation in the Twin Cities youth sports scene.

“As I stepped away from professional sports and started to look at younger athletes, some of the things I saw I was loving, but some I was hating,” Olsen said. “It was making me very nervous for a lot of young athletes"

Lea Olsen with a young group of soccer players

“Rethink the Win started because my son [now a high school baseball player] was heavily into traveling sports. My daughter who played volleyball did a lot of traveling as well. Once I started seeing some of the intensity around their sports, I realized I was having these conversations all the time with parents on how intense it is, how to keep up with everything and to know how to optimize your child’s experience.”

Olsen took a full year to figure out exactly what message she wanted to convey with the Rethink the Win platform, opting to focus on the “wins” athletes can achieve simply from committing to a sport.

She reflected on the instrumental value sports have provided in her life and aimed to tell the story of winning from a different perspective.

“Early on, one of the conversations I have had with a lot with athletes, particularly female athletes, is that athletes are sought after by corporations after they have played sports,” Olsen said. “It has nothing to do with wins and losses, and everything to do with their commitment to sports, their ability to manage schedules and their experience being part of a team."

“If you can come in with that mindset, you’re going to win no matter what. Hopefully, you can get wins on the field and court as well, but when you step away from the game you’re definitely going to have a lot more wins.”

Now starting its third year, Rethink the Win’s website includes a blog dedicated to “winning” content and various ways sports organizations can leverage Olsen as a speaker.

Still working part-time and traveling with both the Timberwolves and Lynx, Olsen’s connections have given her the ability to present the Rethink the Win platform to a number of prominent current and former athletes.

The list has included NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, NFL Hall of Fame inductee John Randle, and Carl Lee, voted one of the 50 greatest Minnesota Vikings of all time. Olsen said each has been supportive of her mission, citing experiences from their childhood and how Rethink the Win aligns with their philosophy on parenting and coaching.

Carl Lee

“I’m in New Orleans for my last season and playing in my last game,” said Lee, a three-time NFL Pro Bowler and now the Youth Sport Director in South Charleston, West Virginia. “Now, at the end of 12 years of pro football, I have no idea what to do. No matter how many games I won, did I really win? If I’m not able to sustain my life after football, I didn’t win.”

“We need to make sure athletes understand where sports rest in their life and what they can do. Winning is being prepared in case you don’t make it to the next level.”

Not only has Olsen’s mission caught on with professional athletes, but it has also seen a grassroots adoption in the Minneapolis area. Last fall Olsen was invited by Mike Greenbaum, president of the White Bear Lake Basketball Association, to speak at the association’s annual tip-off event.

The event included all players, parents and coaches within the organization. Olsen presented to all three groups, with her focus on the value of redefining winning.

“The best thing about Lea was that she was really engaging to all three groups,” Greenbaum said. “She did a phenomenal job connecting all three groups and relaying stories from her experience as an athlete and parent that resonated with everyone. She stressed that the emphasis from each group needs to be on the kids and empowering them so they can achieve the personal wins within sports.”

Since the presentation, Greenbaum and the White Bear Lake organization has taken to practicing what Olsen preached. Now in the middle of basketball season, the association has taken specific steps in installing midpoint evaluations to ensure the focus isn’t the win-loss record as much as individual and team development.

Looking ahead, Olsen hopes to grow her platform and audience for Rethink the Win. One of the major topics Olsen is passionate about is the retention of youth athletes in sports so they derive all the experiences and lessons sports offer.

To ensure kids continue to play, Olsen starts with the parents.

“All parents need to be cognizant that this pressure to succeed exists for your kids,” Olsen said. “You may not have to push your kid to feel this way, it may just happen.”  

Avid supporters of Rethink the Win, Lee and Greenbaum see the foundation going as far as Olsen wants to take it.

“If Lea uses her platform to speak about it, and the conversation gets started, it will take off,” Lee said. “There are thousands of players who won a ton of games in all levels of football but are struggling in life. I think she’s asked the right question with what does winning really mean.”

Lea Olsen with a young group of volleyball players

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