Naturally quiet and reserved, Kareem South isn’t the picture of a typical leader. He readily admits it, too. But ask anyone close to him, and they’ll tell you the opposite.
“He’s not gonna be in a room very long before he’s recognized as a leader,” says Zane Sturm, pastor of New Life Church in Corpus Christi, TX. Kareem started at guard for three years at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and made New Life his church home. Now a grad student transfer at the University of California, Kareem saw Pastor Sturm’s words come to life when his new teammates immediately began looking to him for leadership. Age and experience – Kareem is one of two seniors on Cal’s roster – combined with valuable training at Athletes in Action’s Captain’s Academy, have borne this leadership fruit.
"I want to become an athlete of influence!"
This week Kareem, the rest of the Golden Bears, and thousands of other college basketball players tip off the 2019-2020 season. Kareem’s preparation for the season, and specifically for his role as a team leader, offers a glimpse of five valuable habits for any Christian looking to bring on- and off-court leadership to their team.
Habit 1: Start with Action
Kareem identifies AIA staff member Morris Michalski, or “Coach Mo,”, as one of his mentors. Coach Mo helps mentor players attending the annual men’s Captain’s Academy, a weekend designed to empower college basketball team leaders to step into higher levels of leadership.
One of Coach Mo’s nuggets of wisdom sticks with Kareem: “people don’t care about how much you know unless they know how much you care.”
As a result, Kareem intentionally seeks to show teammates how much he cares for them, as well as an example of the discipline needed to succeed in Division One basketball. He’s focused on eating well, getting good sleep, and taking care of his body so he can endure the rigors of the season. And during practice he looks for opportunities to use his voice to offer advice and constructive feedback to younger players.
Kareem also recognizes the daily off-court opportunities to show care. “Bringing them to lunch, hanging out at someone’s house: those are the times when I’m more intentional with pouring into them,” he says.
Team Leader: What daily opportunities do you have to express care to those you lead?
Habit 2: Build on Your Strengths
Kareem has had to grow into the more vocal side of leadership, something he credits to the example of team leaders he followed as a young player, and to the Captain’s Academy.
“It’s definitely helped me from a relational standpoint,” he says, “having to mentor and relate to different types of people.”
The academy also encouraged him to reflect on his strengths and how they translate into leadership. Kareem is a good listener and naturally discerns how people are feeling and what provokes their emotions. He’s empathetic. As he’s grown into his own voice ⎯ not a commanding, up-front presence but that of a caring, consistent friend ⎯ he’s built on that empathy to bring encouragement that lifts others up or motivation that fuels their growth.
Team Leader: What are your strengths? How might you build on those to lead others well?
Habit 3: Stand Firm in Faith
Kareem’s parents raised him to follow Christ, but it wasn’t until he was out on his own ⎯ at a prep school for his senior year of high school and during his time at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi ⎯ that he truly made his faith his own.
As he grew in faith, he faced a struggle common to all athletes: dwelling on past mistakes (or even past successes) and getting caught up in future aspirations. Both brought Kareem out of the necessary focus on the present, and led to anxiety.
Kareem found freedom through a regular routine of prayer and time in Scripture. “Every day I spend time in prayer and meditation,” he says. “Going to Scripture [also] helped a lot in defining who I was in Christ, and helped define what I’m called to do.”
These anchoring habits reduced anxiety, especially before games. “I knew that once I was spiritually well, I didn’t have to worry. I trusted the work that I put in, and now I’m just trusting the process and trusting God.”
This trust ⎯ releasing control into God’s hands ⎯ has given Kareem greater freedom as a player and a team leader.
Team Leader: How can you build a discipline of prayer, meditation on Scripture, and placing trust in God?
Habit 4: Practice for Adversity
Cal’s coach, Mark Fox, made sure that the team’s training camp featured ample doses of adversity. At times these challenging environments brought discouragement, but it was done with a long-term view. The season is a grind, the team will face hardship along the way, and they need to be mentally and physically prepared.
As a veteran player, Kareem has already gone through his share of adversity. Twice in his career at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, his team lost in the conference championship game, falling one game short of the NCAA Tournament. While the losses were bitter, Kareem looks back with appreciation.
“In the losses you learn a lot about yourself,” he says.
Adversity has also seasoned him to face his present moments differently. “I think every day is a challenge, but every day is an opportunity too, to rise to that challenge. Every day I come out with the mindset to be better than who I was yesterday.”
There are abundant spiritual parallels here. The Bible is rife with examples of people growing through hardship, and calls for God’s people to endure trials faithfully, knowing that God uses them for our benefit (Romans 8:28, Hebrews 12:7-13).
We can prepare for these difficult times through “practicing adversity.” Fasting, a commitment to read the Bible daily, putting away your phone to intentionally listen to God: all these things can be the means to build the spiritual muscles required to face those times in life when trusting God is difficult.
Team Leader: What adversity are you facing now that might prepare you for on- and off-court challenges to come? How can you make the most of these refining times?
Habit 5: Encourage and Empower
When he was a freshman, older teammates challenged Kareem by affirming his talent and challenging him to become better. It’s now Kareem’s turn to do the same.
Early in training camp, the adversity created in practice began to weigh down a younger teammate. Coach Fox pressed him, expecting a lot out of him. Kareem noticed his teammate beginning to wallow, so he stepped in with some meaningful words. “You have a gift,” he said, “I know how far you’ve come and what you’re willing to work toward. Just stay committed because there are gonna be ups and downs.”
A senior leader coming alongside a freshman in this way is powerful. It’s how the bonds that make good teams form. It’s also an echo of the “grace and truth” Jesus brought to others.
Good leaders want others to succeed, so they’re willing to bring difficult truth that can motivate and empower someone to become better, and to uplift them when they’re struggling.
Team Leader: Do you tend more toward bringing difficult truth to your teammates, or a more gracious voice? How can you balance both to better help your teammates succeed?
We will be revisiting Kareem South later this season, through a March feature story in Cru Storylines, the digital publication of Cru. Additional articles will also appear here. These will offer an in-depth look at how an Athletes in Action student leader seeks to live out his faith and influence others for Christ within the demanding world of high-level college sports.