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‘Virgin Sport’ CEO Mary Wittenberg on Raising Strong Women Through Athletics

The following was produced in partnership with Chevrolet’s GoalKeepers Project. The Chevrolet GoalKeepers Project demonstrates the possibilities that sports can provide for girls worldwide. Inspire girls to #BeAGoalKeeper with this advice from Fatherly.

Mary Wittenberg isn’t afraid to try hard. Her work ethic is a character trait cultivated from childhood. She grew up as the oldest of seven in Buffalo, New York with a dad who coached softball, baseball, and basketball. Wittenberg didn’t have good hand-eye coordination. She wasn’t picked first for dodge ball.  Her teams didn’t win. But she never quit.

That mentality is what motivated Wittenberg to pivot from the role of first female partner at a New York City law firm to the position of president and CEO of New York Road Runners — the governing body of the New York City Marathon. She challenged herself and surprised others again this year as she joined Richard Branson in launching his latest venture: the fitness company Virgin Sport. But she will be the first to remind you that her impressive resume as a high-profile sports CEO, professional runner, and lawyer didn’t always look this way. “All those years of losing made me want to win.”

Fatherly talked with Wittenberg about the connection between sports and success in a woman’s life — namely her adherence to teamwork, persistence, and dedication.

As the oldest of seven, did you lead the charge with getting the rest of your family involved in sports?
Actually, no. Sports were something my parents enjoyed, and it was just how we spent our time. You’d open the front door and start playing dodge ball or kickball or tag with all the other kids on the street. With six siblings, it was almost like someone always had a practice or a game, and the rest of us would be there, too. The brothers and sisters were all doing the same thing — we were all hitting the ball at the baseball diamond with dad. It gave me a “you’re gonna play too” mentality because we had fun together and it was woven into who we are as a family.

What lesson from your active childhood do you try to pass along to girls today?
What’s key is helping girls try a number of things. I was naturally good at gymnastics and cheerleading, and bad at baseball and basketball. And I did it all. With kids, you have to let them do what they’re good at and have fun, but at the same time, try out for the team and the sport that you have to try to get better at. Get your daughter on these teams and she becomes part of the combined goal, the effort, the team. We spend so much time on how good we are instead of focusing on the good that we can create.

Don’t let a girl quit. You can learn so much about yourself if you just don’t quit.

Why wouldn’t we encourage our kids to stick to sports that they excel in?
We live in a world where we get our food in two seconds, we get our entertainment in two seconds — we get whatever we want almost instantly. Sports and work and relationships and growth aren’t like that. You just gotta keep at it and grow year after year. Later, when the success comes, you learn that it had to be that way. You can’t jump ahead five years and skip the hard work and effort. It starts on day one. You have to work really hard for a long time and take joy in that journey—not just the championship.

What’s the most important thing you can do for your daughter participating in sports?
Don’t let a girl quit. You can learn so much about yourself if you just don’t quit. You learn that you have the will to continue on. Then, when someone or something down the line tries to stop you, you won’t allow it. If you get cut from a team, you try a new sport and find something you’re good at that you would’ve never known otherwise. You get laid off from a job, you start a new venture. You learn to push through or to find a new path, and that pays off.

That’s fairly counterintuitive.
Not making a cut is the best lesson you can learn in your life. Those challenges lead to those choices that create grit. They make you ask yourself, “do I care enough to go on?” and then you do whatever it will take to keep going. The harsh reality and the political nature of a cut is a great example for life. We are all victim to subjective decisions — sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest or strongest. Sometimes the dynamic means that you’re out. And the ability to emerge stronger is huge.

When things get tough or you run into a wall in our careers or our relationships we don’t stop completely or abandon our lives. We reset and go on. Sports teams help prepare us for what’s inevitable in life. We can’t protect our kids from the hurt of life so we have to give them the opportunity along the way to learn to recover from it.

You can’t learn to have grit if you never put yourself in the situation where you need it.

What is one example of that hurt-turned-to-triumph in your life?
Oh my gosh, my marathon trial. I was the first one to drop out of the race — at mile two. There I was sobbing in Pittsburgh on live television. But that led to me leaving my law firm and joining NYRR to continue to be a part of the running community and making it better. Twenty years later, I hosted the trials in New York City. I was in charge of the same race that I dropped out of eight years ago. That pain and the benefits that came out of that failure ultimately brought me success. Had I not been there I wouldn’t be here, doing what I care about.

Hold on, the kid who was “no good” at sports became a competitive marathoner? How did that happen?
All those years of losing made me want to win. I wanted to be the one who knew what it was like to be at the top. I’m not the natural athlete — I’m not the Thoroughbred — but I can work hard. I always had the work ethic.  I just accepted that I might have to take a different path to success, but I know hard work goes a really long way.

Do you think that work ethic and perseverance like your own is innate, or can it be learned?
I think we all have the ability to learn to persevere and grit can be trained. It’s innate to some of us but you can’t learn to have grit if you never put yourself in the situation where you need it. Athletes are out there in the pouring rain or in triple overtime and they learn to stick in there and they do it. Those moments teach you that your mind can be stronger than your body. I think it’s so important to prove to yourself than you’re stronger than you thought you were. But there has to be a risk in order for you to prove it.

How can parents teach that to their daughters?
We still cater to girls too much when they’re young. We just came out of a generation that was given consolation trophies and coddled and that’s a real disservice to girls who are going to become women. We have to give girls chances to fail. Give girls the chance to experience. Tell them they can’t drop the ball. Be a coach that says you have to try harder. Tell them that they aren’t fast enough. Otherwise, they’ll never have anything to prove to themselves. We have to give effort a purpose. When you prove something to yourself—you work hard and it pays off—it builds self-confidence. It builds self-confidence in a way that nothing else can—not Instagram likes and not dates.

Being an athlete has given me a sense of possibility and an understanding that nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is a given.

But being a kid is hard as is. Can the added efforts required for sports help?
I was so close with my girlfriends in grammar school and high school because first and foremost, they were my teammates. Regardless of the petty drama, we were ultimately united with the same goal: to win. It was about the team. Our identities were not rising and falling with a different boy every week. Our identity as a team came first and the years of teammates and friendships and games were our bond. I think the best identity builder in high school is being part of a team. High school is not a moment where most kids want to stand out — but they still want to be a part of something. Teams allow for that perfectly by giving kids identity, purpose, and common goals.

What has being an athlete done for you, as a successful woman, which no other area of your identity could have contributed?
Being an athlete has given me a sense of possibility and an understanding that nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is a given. It’s given me patience and perseverance in my relationships. It’s given me candidness. You compete against your buddies to leave it on the field. None of it is about being healthy and strong — that’s just the beautiful byproduct of being an athlete.