Friday, August 4, 2017

Taught My First Full Sports Management Course – No Longer Just the “Fun Uncle”

Anyone who is in my life or has been reading this blog for a while knows that teaching is something I am deeply passionate about.  I am not sure if it is because I’ve been blessed with extraordinary education, professional experiences and mentors and feel that I should pay it forward or if I just love being the center of attention. Most likely a little of both, but regardless I do get a high not just from actually delivering a lecture, I enjoy spending hours researching while I prepare my notes, practicing my lecture in front of my wife or any other poor soul who meets me within a week of my lecture and analyzing myself after the course to see how I can be more effective the next time I have the opportunity to teach.   

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to realise my passion as I’ve been invited to deliver lectures in the US, Europe and all over India.  However, up until now I always consider my teaching engagements to fall within the “Fun Uncle” category.  A “Fun Uncle” in the family sense is the guy who just shows up every now and then with gifts, tells some interesting stories, does a magic trick or two and takes off while the parents are left doing the hard work. I’m used to being the “Fun Uncle” to most of my friends’ children especially the ones who live in the UK or US as I see them 1-2 times a year. I arrive with gifts in hand from India (mainly different versions of elephants or the Taj Mahal) and stories about all the monkeys and cows that I’ve seen on the road.  Needless to say, the kids are always excited when “Uncle Neel from India” is coming to town.

It’s not that different when I’m delivering a guest lecture anywhere in the world. Given my deep connection to Major League Soccer – a case study for how to establish a model football league, the fact that I headed up MLS’s Fan Development department – an area of the industry that many young people are interested in and now that I’ve been developing football in India for the past 8 years, I become an interesting specimen for sports management students from any walk of life.  And, I definitely know how to package my background and experiences to ensure that my lectures are educational, engaging and inspiring. 

Most guest lectures last about 2 hours and do not have any set structure since these lectures fall outside of the required course curriculum.  Hence, it is easy to put together a guest lecture presentation and fill 2 hours as long as I have some experience with the topic.  Then it’s just a matter of showing up, building a connection with the students, creating a context and finally delivering the content.  I always leave these sessions feeling fulfilled, slightly egoistic and contemplating a career change into education so I can feel this way every day.  But then I remember that there is a massive difference between being the guest lecturer and actually teaching the course and quickly put my dreams of being a Professor on hold and go back to being an Executive in the football industry.

But now things have changed. As CEO of DSK Shivajians FC, I’ve been interacting with a popular local University, which happens to have India’s first and only Sports Management MBA programme, for the past year and have had a number of positive experiences with the programme and its students.  At some point earlier in the year I even drove to their beautiful campus up in the hills and delivered a 2 hour guest lecture on the Indian football industry.  The students were dressed in full suits, attentive and fully engaged – a wonderful experience that left me enthused about teaching as well as optimistic about the future of the Indian sports industry. 

Given this positive experience, I was happy when the Programme Director requested that I teach a full course the following year.  I said yes without fully knowing what I was getting into but excited about the opportunity.  Then about a few weeks back I found out that I would be teaching a course for 16 hours over 2 days to a batch of 42 students and then the same course the week later to a batch of 62 students.  It seemed daunting at first but I was up to the challenge.  

In preparation, I spent days reviewing sports management courses from around the world and eventually put together a solid syllabus.  From there, I spent weeks researching everything I could find about the history of football, football governance, commercialization of football, etc… and finally ended up with 150 slides of content, diagrams, videos, exercises and discussion points.  All I could think about during my free hours in between work was how I was going to deliver 16 hours of course materials without causing any student deaths due to information overload or boredom. This fear drove me to work extra hard to make my presentation informative, engaging and fun.

Once I had prepared the materials, I was ready to deliver the course. It was like I had perfectly packed a bag for a long trip and now I couldn’t wait to get on the plane.  Like any good Professor, on the first day of my class I showed up to the institute 30 minutes early assuming that all the students will arrive at least 5 minutes before class started dressed in their suits.  Instead I found that half of the 42 students had made it and the other half were slowly trickling in – and the attire of choice was jeans, t-shirts and sandals.  At first I was shocked and angry, but then remembered that I am now considered faculty and not “Neel Shah – CEO.” Also, I was quickly taken back to when I was attending my MBA in Sports Management programme at Seton Hall, University (NJ, USA) in 2002.  I also used to show up to classes late, in shorts, and sit in the back corner of the room so I could text my girlfriend who was living in Brooklyn at the time.

Anyway, after getting over the initial shock of not starting class exactly at 9:30am with pure silence in the room and 84 eyes enthusiastically staring straight at me as I had envisioned for the past few days, I calmed down and eventually began the class with my introduction.  After the introduction, we moved over to discussing each of the students’ connection to football which established the context for the course and shifted the energy in the room. Then for the next 8 hours I just taught and taught and discussed and shared and listened and taught and disciplined and debated, etc… The hours went by and I constantly had to catch myself from going too far into my head when I saw a student dozing off or leave the room too many times as I would go back to the same phrase over and over, “I am visiting faculty, not a guest lecturer” and also the fact that I shouldn’t take things personally as over the course of 8 hours humans do get tired or have to go to the bathroom from time to time. 

The next day was much better – I was quickly learning how to manage my own expectations, manage time and manage to keep the classroom full of energy and engaged.  I ended the 16th hour feeling high on life, a feeling that I carried with me throughout the weekend. And it was a different feeling than leaving a course when I’m a guest lecturer as those days I feel satisfied but like I’ve barely scratched the surface in sharing my experiences and myself with the students. I’m always heading home wishing I would have had more time to really get into certain topics or divulge more of the golden nuggets of wisdom that I’ve uncovered over the years.  But when teaching a full course, you really build a relationship with the students and share yourself in various ways. So by the end I was empty yet somehow felt complete.

I used the week to revise some of the slides and notes of my course materials and showed up to teach the 62 student batch the following week mentally and academically prepared.  These students were fantastic.  It was only the first month of their 2 year programme and they arrived on time and were pulling the course towards themselves. The 16 hours were extraordinary and by the end I felt full and knew that I had touched the lives of 62 young Indians who are dreaming of securing positions in the global sports industry.  When I left the campus on Friday night, I couldn’t stop smiling as I knew that in teaching I had found another passion or calling – as I can always identify one when it comes naturally and fills me with energy rather than leaving me drained. 

I am 100% sure that I will deliver more courses in India, abroad or wherever students want to learn about the sports industry from someone who has lived it for the past 20 years as an athlete and 15 years as a sports management professional. And because I love lists so much, I’m sharing my list of differences between being a Guest Lecturer (aka Fun Uncle) vs being Faculty:
  • As a Guest Lecturer, your presentation will be mainly filled with life experiences, case studies and some general information about the specific topic while as Faculty it’s critical to put together curriculum that covers theory, formulas, objective information, case studies, discussion points, class exercises and homework which forces one take out their academic hat from the bottom of the closet and put it in on for awhile
  • As a Guest Lecturer, you typically expect the students to behave in a somewhat similar manner as the audience when you deliver a keynote lecture at a conference: remaining in their seats for most of the time, paying close attention to the content and asking questions.  However as Faculty, not all the students want to be there but have to in order to satisfy attendance requirements so some of the class is mentally and physically present and some begin tuning out the second you start speaking as they clearly just want to do enough to get the three letters – M – B – A – on their CVs.  The trick is to first not take this behaviour personally and second know how to deal with students tuning out in a positive and empowering sort of way. 
  • As a Guest Lecturer, especially in India, you are treated like a celebrity before, during and after the lecture.  Students sometimes garland you when you arrive, everyone laughs at your dumb jokes and then you get some type of cool gift when you leave – typically a symbolic plant. Also, when you are leaving, no one lets you go as students, staff and others just surround you and start asking questions, request your business card and take selfies.  As Faculty, you are just as important as the person serving tea around the campus – actually he or she probably gets more love and attention.  You show up, students quickly say Hi and then try to avoid you so they can squeeze in the last bit of socializing before they have to sit in the classroom. You even sometimes have to go out and tell the students to hurry up and take their seats, calm them down when they are talking too much and make them understand the importance of respecting others when they are speaking.  During the breaks and after class, only the studious ones will stand around waiting to ask a question while the rest will bolt out the door trying to maximize the time they can get away from the judging eyes of the lecturer. 

Oh and something that helped keep the students interested in all the group discussions was creating a boardroom context and making them feel as if they were the employees charged with discussing these critical topics. Thankfully, I had a number of experiences like this during my interactions with FIFA, AFC, AIFF, Premier League, MLS and a handful of other industry influencers.  

So there you have it. Hope this helps those out there in the industry that are transitioning from the "Fun Uncle" to Faculty. I'm looking forward to taking these learnings and putting them into my next teaching opportunity. 

Picture taken after the 16th hour of class over 2 days. The smiles are either because they loved the class or the fact that it finally finished

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