Speaking About Sports

When it comes to sports, Toastmasters International could field an all-star team. A number of current Toastmasters have prominent backgrounds in athletics – members from all over the world, in sports that range from major league baseball and professional rugby to extreme running and international table tennis.

Athletes have drawn on Toastmasters training to help them transition into post-sports careers. For some, that has meant pursuing opportunities as professional speakers; others have used their leadership and communication skills for coaching, training, refereeing or other endeavors.

When athletes retire, they often face a scary period of change. Most have been competing in a sport they excelled at since they were very young – and now that comfort zone is gone.

“Life after sports is always a huge concern for athletes, even the ones who are financially secure,” says Adam Palfrey, a Toastmaster in Australia and a former professional rugby player.

Palfrey, who ran a sports management company in England for seven years, notes that many former athletes hope to hit the speaking circuit or work as a sports broadcaster. They would be wise to take the art of communication seriously, he adds, because developing such skills could mean the difference between success and failure. An athlete can’t coast on his reputation alone.

“Sports fans are fickle, so a great athletic career can be forgotten very quickly if you are unable to produce an enjoyable and professional after-dinner speech that people pay a lot of money to hear,” says Palfrey, a member of the Riverside Toastmasters club in Bulimba, Queensland, Australia.

The same is true for athletes-turned-broadcasters. “The athlete is given only a few chances, and the way he or she performs will determine whether an offer of long-term work is presented,” Palfrey says. “The general public wants to watch their sports heroes, but they also want to hear them impart knowledge and stories.”

Motivating Others
Byron Embry joined Toastmasters at the tail end of his professional baseball career. He flourished as a member of the Pikes Peak club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the experienced inspired him to become a motivational speaker. (See page 12 for a profile of Embry.) And for former NBA basketball player Mark Eaton, Toastmasters served as a launching pad for a career in professional speaking. The former All-Star center became a successful entrepreneur after he retired in 1994; in 2005, he joined the Park City Toastmasters in Park City, Utah.

The club helped him develop the confidence and techniques to become a sought-after speaker. In fact, Eaton, who played 12 seasons for the Utah Jazz, presented an education session at the 2010 Toastmasters International Convention in Palm Desert, California.

Steve Fraser, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, joined Toastmasters on the heels of his Olympics triumph, and he helped start a club at the Domino’s Pizza corporation, where he worked in a series of leadership and management positions. “Toastmasters was great for me, because I was just coming off of winning the Olympic gold medal and was thrust into the speaking world,” he says.

Fraser still draws on his communication and leadership skills, serving as the U.S. Olympic men’s coach in Greco-Roman wrestling. It’s a job he’s held the past 15 years.

Here are the stories of other Toastmasters with a strong sports connection: 

Mike Meier, Table Tennis Umpire
How does Toastmasters relate to table tennis? Just ask Mike Meier, a veteran umpire in the sport. In Toastmasters, he notes, you learn to communicate with poise – to speak calmly, clearly and off the cuff – all of which are useful qualities in his role.

“At professional tournaments, I have to be able to handle angry coaches, disputing players and loud fans, while on the outside seeming cool, calm and collected,” says Meier. “The minute a player or coach sees that I am nervous or lacking confidence, he could try to take advantage of me, which could unfortunately put me in the spotlight, instead of them.”

He gives an example: One time after a match, the well-known coach of a particular player accused Meier of showing favoritism toward the player’s opponent. “By showing the coach, through my body language as well as my words, that I strive to always treat players equally, the issue quickly dissolved,” he says.

As a graduate student from 2005–2007 at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas, Meier played on the school’s table tennis team – a powerhouse in the collegiate world. The squad is the seven-time reigning champion of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. Meier also became an umpire, and after umpiring tournaments in the United States for five years, he recently qualified to officiate at tournaments around the world.

Meier revels in cross-cultural experiences. For the past several years he’s been a member of the Texas Wesleyan Spellbinders club; however, earlier this year, he began a teaching job in Korea and joined the Seoul Advanced Toastmasters club. (He also joined a table tennis club in Korea and plays several days a week.)

As he officiates in tournaments throughout the world, Meier says he continues to benefit immensely from his Toastmasters training. “It allows me to apply all I’ve learned [about umpiring] in a proper, professional manner,” he says. 

Adam Palfrey, Former Professional Rugby Player
As a young man, Adam Palfrey earned a rugby scholarship to Cambridge University in England, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. After graduating and working two years as a chartered surveyor (someone who deals with various property-related issues), he played professional rugby in England.

When he left the sport in 2000, Palfrey and a business partner formed a sports management company. Working with athletes on advancing their careers, he saw first-hand what enabled them to flourish – on the field and off.

“It’s not just the athletes with the ability who progress – it’s the athletes who can also communicate effectively with their teams, with their peers in the sport, with their coaching staff and management,” Palfrey notes. “Those are the ones who see their careers develop faster than others.”

Sponsors are key players in the big-money, high-stakes world of sports. When he worked in sports management, Palfrey recalls, large sponsoring organizations requested athletes who not only had good reputations but who could “communicate effectively with the media and during sponsorship events.”

“The skills that Toastmasters provides would have been invaluable to me during my career,” he adds, “and I regret that no one was able to point me in the direction of my local club.”

It’s never too late to join, however, and last year Palfrey became a member of the Riverside Toastmasters in Bulimba. He says Toastmasters enabled him to learn the fundamentals of crafting and delivering a good speech. “It allowed me to then practice those skills in a safe environment, with a fantastic group of people, all willing to share and provide feedback.”

Even better, such growth is paying off professionally. Palfrey now runs a national training business in Australia called Yellow Rocket Performance, and much of the company’s emphasis is teaching communication skills to employees. 

Norman Bücher, Extreme Runner
What, you might ask, is an extreme runner? Here’s one definition: someone who runs 14 marathons in 14 days. Which is exactly what Norman Bücher did.

The German man completed the seemingly inhuman task this past May. Just to boggle the mind further, consider this: He did it in one of the world’s most difficult stretches of land – the parched Atacama Desert in Chile.

It’s one of Bücher’s many running feats in recent years, including the completion a 100-mile run in India’s Himalayan peaks – an annual event so arduous that it typically only draws about 75 international runners.

A resident of Waldbronn, a town in the southwestern part of Germany (in the country’s Black Forest), Bücher joined Toastmasters three years ago so he could speak to audiences about his extreme adventures. He felt so good about his experience with Karlsruher Redeclub – a German-speaking club in Karlsruhe, Germany – that he quit his job as a consultant to become a professional speaker.

“Toastmasters took away my fear of speaking in front of people,” Bücher says. “I gained confidence – not only from giving speeches to the club, but also by filling in the club meeting roles.”

Bücher gives presentations about his endeavors, using video and photographs to highlight the stunning locales where he runs. He also delivers motivational speeches, applying life lessons from his athletic achievements. Speaking to companies, college students and other groups, he talks about developing mental strength and pushing through personal barriers to overcome challenges.

If a goal seems too overwhelming, Bücher notes, just take it one step at a time – literally, in his case. “I don’t run 100 kilometers,” he says. “I run one kilometer 100 times.”

Julia von Oertzen, a fellow member of Karlsruher Redeclub, says there’s a great benefit to having Bücher in the club: “We get to hear all his motivational speeches for free!” 

Jim Mecir, Former Professional Baseball Player
A daily ritual occurs after the approximately 160 major league baseball games that are played during a season: A circle of reporters gathers around the lockers of players, asking questions about the game. Handling this kind of communication – interviews with the media – was no problem for Jim Mecir, who played professional baseball for 11 seasons. The gatherings were small, the questions were brief, he usually knew the reporters and he knew baseball like the back of his hand.

“I could do that all day,” says Mecir, a successful relief pitcher for several teams, including the Oakland Athletics.

But once he retired from the sport, it was a whole different ballgame. The thought of giving a speech or a job presentation was daunting. Mecir joined Toastmasters to gain the communication skills to help him in his post-sports career. So far the effort is paying off.

“I’m definitely more comfortable,” says Mecir, a member of the Long Grove/Lake Zurich club in Lake Zurich, Illinois. “It’s getting a lot easier.”

When he retired from major league baseball in 2005, the ex-pitcher planned to work as a physical education teacher. However, the global financial crisis forced him to revisit that idea. To better support his wife and three kids, Mecir needed to pursue higher-paying work, possibly in business or sales, which he knew would require strong communication skills.

One of Mecir’s relatives was a Toastmaster who urged him to give the program a try. So he joined the Long Grove/Lake Zurich club. Mecir gave a recent speech called, “Where is the Parenting Handbook?” that dealt with the often-befuddling process of raising kids.

“I think my writing skills, as far as preparing a speech, are better,” he says, adding that he’s also become more comfortable speaking without notes. 

Jacques Curtis and His Shaw University Basketball Team
“There’s nothing worse than seeing an athlete being interviewed on TV and they can’t communicate,” says Jacques Curtis, the women’s basketball coach at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In a nutshell, that’s why Curtis started a Toastmasters club for his team. His players speak at fundraisers, interact with school officials and members of the public, and are interviewed by local media (especially since the team is very good, having won several championships in recent years). Curtis wanted the athletes to feel confident in such settings.

“I wanted them to represent themselves well,” adds the coach, who has led the women’s basketball squad for 10 seasons.

Curtis started the team’s Legacy of Champions club four years ago. All of his Shaw players are required to attend the Sunday evening meetings. At first, many of the players were resistant to this idea; however, they soon embraced the Toastmasters program.

“The Toastmasters club has done a lot for them,” he says. “I’ve seen them really grow, in their confidence and in their interactions with people.

“They’re a lot more comfortable, a lot more engaging.”

His enthusiasm for Toastmasters comes from personal experience. Curtis joined the Cardinal Toastmasters in Raleigh in 2006, and found that the club significantly improved his own abilities as a communicator – a crucial quality for a coach.

Curtis stresses to his players that, by improving their speaking, leadership and impromptu thinking skills, Toastmasters will help them in real-world situations after they graduate. “One of the key things I tell them,” he says, “is that if you want to interview for a job, you have to know how to have a conversation with the person interviewing you.”

Paul Sterman is an associate editor of the Toastmaster magazine and a member of Le Gourmet Toastmasters in Costa Mesa, California.