An Interview with John Amaechi OBE
What skills from your career in the NBA have helped you in your later work in psychology?
I’m not sure many of the skills from basketball directly apply, but if there were one, it is the ability to be totally focussed and in the moment. The same mental skill that made me able to block out an insane audience of 30,000 people screaming for me to miss a crucial shot really does make it easier to focus on clients and on the audiences with whom I speak.
How did you get into corporate speaking?
I actually started off speaking to groups of students as a student-athlete myself playing basketball in the US (at Penn State University.) The response from educators was a real clue that many of the themes I speak on were as applicable to the working lives of adults as they were to the academic and social lives of students. I gave my first corporate speech in 1996 and never looked back, people tell me that it is the combination of good story-telling and accessible use of up-to-date research that entertains while passing on useful takeaways.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
I left home at 18 in order to pursue a dream - that everyone outside of my family thought impossible - to play at the highest levels of basketball. I had a lot of catching up to do, to compete with the Americans, in large part because I only started playing when I was 17 and most US players start as soon as they can walk! Less than a year into starting my journey, I went on a biology field trip with my school to Angelsy and on that trip I fell through a plate glass window and almost completely severed my right hand - every nerve, every tendon, every artery on the top side of my hand was detached… six years later, I was playing in the world’s best basketball league, the NBA.
Why do you enjoy being a speaker?
I think the ability to influence a room of people in the hope they will leave that experience better able and willing to positively influence their worlds is truly addictive. As a psychologist, I regard speaking to audiences as a kind of group therapy. When I do my job in that instance and really engage an audience, a connection is made not just between the myself and the audience but between audience members and that connection is where real change has a chance to flourish.
If you could speak at any event, past or future, what would it be?
There are plenty of historical events I would love to have witnessed first-hand, but even as a former athlete, my ego is not so big as to think I would have been a good replacement or even a good accompaniment to Dr. King in Washington or Obama in Berlin! However, I went to my son’s college graduation - and blubbered the whole way through - and I do wish I could have spoken to his class on that occasion.
Who would you most like to share a platform with?
I’ve shared a platform with some amazing personalities from Oprah to previous Prime Ministers. Whoever, I share it with, I like it to be an opportunity for robust debate rather than a ‘love in.’
What organisation or type of organisation would you love to make a difference in?
In education and schools as well as the corporate world, I strive to help individuals feel empowered, but also responsible for their own necessary skill improvements to become 21st century leaders. I have seen that activating as little as 15% of an organisation as organic leaders, rather than leader-by-label you can radically transform performance and engagement whether that be in an office or in a school.
What do you do to ensure your presentation has a lasting impact?
I weave in research (in an accessible way) that gives the points I am making some rigour and helps people understand this is not one man’s opinion. More importantly, I illustrate my points by telling stories and that is how you make sure that points stick in the brain rather than float away. As a species, we have been telling stories to pass on important messages, ever since primitive man was drawing on the walls of caves. We are evolutionarily programmed to hold stories in our heads - using them well, ensures that points remain memorable long after the presentation.
Who is your sporting hero?
I don’t really have one - I am generally either disappointed or underwhelmed with today’s athletes. Not everyone needs to be a John Carlos (who protested racism at the 1968 Olympic games) or even a Muhammed Ali, but most athletes I see today don’t seem to realise or embrace the idea of being a role model, even when they have 3 million literal followers on twitter. I keep my eyes open although I don’t follow sports too closely, but I’m still waiting for sports knight - or dame - in shining armour!
What’s your favourite way to spend a Sunday?
If I’m at home, I do an odd combination of listening to Radio 4 upon waking, watching cartoons as I eat breakfast and read the paper (everyone needs a bit of levity!) Then politics shows (Andrew Marr and the Sunday Politics) followed by BBC Parliament for the weekly Parliamentary recap. If it’s sunny, I’m outside on my balcony overlooking the river the moment the politics shows are over!
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