ESPN's Steele: The power of youth sports
By Greg Bach
Sage Steele – the face of the NBA on ESPN and ABC – spent her early years as a quiet, painfully shy child.
But thanks in large part to some incredibly powerful and life-altering youth sports experiences, Steele has emerged as one of ESPN’s most well-known and respected on-air personalities, comfortably and confidently speaking to millions while anchoring the network’s NBA coverage all season long.
“You don’t realize it as much when you’re involved in sports as a child but looking back it’s so powerful to be a part of any team,” says Steele, who spoke exclusively with SportingKid Live from her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I’m thankful that my parents made me get over my shyness and get over my fear of failure and get out there and be part of a team because it’s just priceless.”
Steele’s childhood was punctuated by constantly moving around the world, as her father served for 23 years in the U.S. Army. So the ever-changing environments – Belgium and Greece among them – didn’t help in conquering the shyness.
But participating in sports sure did.
“I was an extremely shy child,” Steele says. “My parents were worried about my lack of confidence and just being so painfully shy and then somebody recommended horseback riding. There’s something about these animals that bring out really neat things in all types of kids. For me, it gave me a sense of responsibility, that this animal needs me. And the instructors were extremely strict and expected a lot and I thrive on structure and tough love and hard coaching and that’s what they did.”
Soon she was competing in equestrian, experiences that delivered a sledgehammer to her shyness.
“I was big into show jumping, which is funny considering my dad was an army officer with three kids and not exactly raking in the money and we were part of one of those elite sports that we couldn’t afford,” Steele says. “They bought me a horse and that really changed my life athletically and just in every way.”
It marked the beginning of many valuable youth sports experiences that helped shape and define her through her childhood and teen years, as she played soccer, participated in swimming and competed in track all the way through high school.
“Being part of a team was so great and that’s what track and field really did for me,” Steele says. “I remember being in ninth grade and having a really bad race and being really down on myself, and people came over to cheer me up when I was favored to win a race and didn’t win it. They lifted me up. And then what did I do for them? I did the exact same thing for them and so you get over yourself pretty quickly and go down and cheer for your friends to make sure they feel good about themselves no matter where they finish.”
Steele ran the 800, the 4 x 400 relay and the 300-meter hurdles, and both the wins and the losses she experienced proved valuable.
“There were times when I had a hard time dealing with the nerves and that fear of failure,” she recalled. “And then there was that sense of accomplishment you feel when even if you don’t win the race you gave it your best and you finished it, and they’re all life lessons.”
Check out what Steele had to say in the first of our two-part interview with the NBA Countdown host and mom of three sports-playing youngsters:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Equestrian isn’t a sport a lot of kids experience – what’s it like?
STEELE: People don’t realize what a tough sport it is. It takes core strength, leg strength and arm strength to stay on, especially when you’re jumping. It’s physically challenging and you not only have to worry about yourself but also about a living animal as well. It was pretty taxing so I was in great shape. It was awesome.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How did being involved in a sport like equestrian help you as a track and field athlete?
STEELE: They actually really help each other a lot. My daughter is big into track right now and she’s an even better athlete than I was. She’s 13 and she’s pretty much good at everything, and the track and the dance that she did competitively helps the horseback riding, and vice versa.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is your job at ESPN as fun as it looks?
STEELE: My job is my absolute dream job. I have told the story many times but I announced when I was 12 years old at the dinner table that I was going to be on ESPN some day. The fact that I accomplished it is sometimes mindboggling and crazy for me since I was this shy kid with zero confidence. It’s pretty humbling. I knew at a young age I wasn’t going to be some Olympian so I thought ‘what’s the second best way to be around sports and around games and around these athletes who I just look up to so much?’ I’m completely humbled by it; it’s awesome. It’s still a job though and the pressures that come with it are indescribable in many ways, though some of them are self-inflicted by being a perfectionist.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Do you feel like you can be a role model for youngsters?
STEELE: I hope so, I really, really do. I hear it on social media a lot – “my daughter wants to be the next Sage Steele” or “my daughter looks up to you” and that again is just crazy for me because that’s not why I did it to be a role model. It was truly to be around the game and I am humbled by it. Therefore I know that I really need to do the right thing as much as humanly possible. I’m not always going to do it but I can be really, really honest and when I’m asked about it and asked about what it took to get here and what it takes to have staying power all I can be is really honest about the good stuff, the cool stuff that everybody sees, and then the other stuff that may be a little more difficult. I feel it’s my duty to be honest and to give back. You have to give back but I never feel like I’m doing enough.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Social media can be vicious at times so how important is it to remain confident in yourself and your abilities when you’re in front of the camera?
STEELE: It’s amazing to me the pressure that is put on us, especially on women. It is what it is and women know especially today what they are getting into more than I did back in 1995 before the Internet and before Twitter and people telling you how terrible you look and how ugly your clothes are and how terrible your voice is and how your hair is way too curly and big and you need to straighten it to look like all the other anchors. Honestly, the Mixed Chicks products have changed my life because now I know that even though my hair might not be traditional it works for me and these products have allowed me to – it kind of sounds weird but for young women out there – be confident because I know it looks as good as it possibly can and I haven’t changed who I am. I haven’t changed my look, so I am so thankful for Mixed Chicks.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Your father, Gary Steele, was the first African-American to play varsity football at Army, so how proud are you of that?
STEELE: I’m so proud but I didn’t fully recognize the magnitude of what he did until many years later because my dad didn’t talk about it. At one point in my final year at Indiana University Bob Knight was still there and I saw him and I was scared to death but thought this was my chance so I said, “Hey coach, can I ask you a question? He was in a good mood and he put his arm around me and we were walking out of Assembly Hall and I asked him if he remembered my dad. He said, “Who is your dad?” I told him my dad’s name and he stopped me in mid-sentence and said: “Gary Steele, 6-foot-6, 220 pounds from Pennsylvania, the best athlete Army has ever had.” This was in 1995 and my dad graduated in 1970. He knew his height, his weight, his prep school, his high school. So thanks to people like that who I happened to be around through internships when I was young and in college that’s how I found out how great my dad was. I was like, “Dad, I want to be a sportscaster. Don’t you think I should have known this?” But that’s who he is, he’s humble. And it’s not about him and that’s kind of the lessons we took on as parents as well.
Track and Field
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance