Cal’s Wesley Mallette on helping student-athletes “find their voice” and prepare for the next chapter

Just a few months after Cal’s Jared Goff was selected as the number one pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Golden Bears forward Jaylen Brown became the school’s tenth Top-10 NBA draft pick when the Boston Celtics selected him third overall.

Both gifted athletes, Goff and Brown share something else in common: they went through a rigorous curriculum of communications training throughout their collegiate careers and on the biggest days of their lives, they were ready.

Media training is often characterized as something negative – that it reduces authenticity and is an attempt to control what athletes want to say. For Cal Associate AD Wesley Mallette, the purpose of media training is precisely the opposite. Media training — and helping student-athletes understand the important role they play in managing the Athletics' brand as well as their own — is meant teach them how to bring out their authentic selves and communicate the things most important to them with confidence, competence, and purpose.

 mallette (r) leads press conference as jaylen brown announces he will enter the 2016 draft (M) with men's head basketball coach, cuonzo martin (L)

mallette (r) leads press conference as jaylen brown announces he will enter the 2016 draft (M) with men's head basketball coach, cuonzo martin (L)

Mallette joined the University of California’s Athletics Department as Associate AD of Strategic Communications nearly three years ago and has made media and brand training a cornerstone of Athletics’ culture. His philosophy revolves around empowerment:

“We help our student-athletes find their voices, help them understand how to convey what’s important to them and encourage them to embrace their influence.”

Mallette recently sat down with SportsPR to talk about how he and his team at Cal work behind-the-scenes with student-athletes and why media training is so important for the program. 

On preparing top athletes for the big moments

When you have student-athletes like Jaylen Brown, Jared Goff, Brittany Boyd, Missy Franklin, and others, you can’t take too much credit because these are amazing men and women who are incredibly bright, savvy and gifted.

Our job is to listen and help all of our athletes find their voice, and by that I mean help them convey exactly what it is they want to convey and stay on message no matter the situation.

They understand the platform their position affords and recognize when they step in front of a microphone, they’re not just talking to a member of the media, but talking to the millions of readers, viewers and listeners who are consuming that media. They’re talking to potential sponsors; they’re talking to front office people at the professional levels; they’re talking to future employers outside of sports; they’re talking to families; they’re talking to young fans; they’re talking to prospective recruits, and more. They understand how much more of an impact they can have if they communicate effectively.

We want to give all of our student-athletes the skills to do that regardless of what their big moments will be. Whether it’s preparing for the Draft in their respective sport, a venture capitalist meeting, or an interview, it’s the same principle: understand the audience you’re talking to, know what it is you want to convey, and be able to convey it in the clearest way possible.  We tell them to think about what they would want people to take away from any interview. What are the 3-5 things you would want people to learn about you?

On Cal’s investment in media training

In terms of how much time we invest in media training for our student athletes, in short, a lot.  Our approach to media training is comprehensive and is focused on brand. It isn’t one focused on ‘you say this, don’t say that, here is your messaging, good luck.’ It’s built around (1) understanding our philosophical approach of how we as a department work with media — how we engage, how we interact, and how at the end of the day, our athletes are some of the most important forward-facing representatives of not just the Athletics' brand, but the university brand, the Pac 12 conference, and the NCAA.  2) Helping the athletes understand that role, what it means and how to manage through it. (3) Helping them find their voice and give them the tools to communicate in a way that’s authentic to them.

We prep our athletes with extensive mock Q&A sessions where they hear any and every question that can come their way. People will ask anything under the sun, often times out of left field, and our athletes understand the importance of already putting the thought into their responses. In the process, their messaging platform becomes apparent as they realize what it is they want to convey and begin to work on how they want to convey it. When they’re communicating with the media, they know they have a job to do. They know in every interaction, they have an opportunity to communicate to the key stakeholder groups and they want to do it as effectively as possible.

On what it takes to connect with student-athletes and get buy-in on media training

It’s built around trust and most importantly, helping them understand why it’s important from a strategic and philosophical standpoint. When they engage on social, why are they posting what they’re posting? How does it align with who they are and their overall strategy? We help them see the bigger picture of how it plays out in their lives and how much more their careers can be enhanced by effective communication. 

Our student-athletes are an elite group of kids — they’re in the number one public university in the world — they’re an exceptionally smart and gifted group of athletes who are going to have opinions on issues. We don’t silence their voice. We help them understand how to get their message out in a productive manner, so they don’t become a lightening rod on the issue, but rather a point of insight. We help them understand their influence so they don’t take it lightly. Once they understand their role and the value of what they’re doing and saying, we see an incredible shift in their ability to tell stories and share ideas on whatever the subject matter may be.

We have 900 plus student athletes and, in the three years that I’ve been here, I’d say close to a third of them have at one point or another spent a significant amount of time sitting in our office talking about issues, or things they want to have a voice on. And we empower them; we don’t police them. But it’s easy to empower a group that really, really gets it. It’s not to say they don’t make mistakes, but when they make mistakes we don’t punish them, we help them understand “Ok this is how this could potentially play out, and this is how you could have been more effective in making your point.”

It’s an ongoing process, it doesn’t start and stop in one shot. It’s evolving, it’s fluid and we’re always working with them.

On his advice to student-athletes who do go on to the pro ranks

Draft night is the culmination of years and years of hard work. This is the realization of a dream come true. But young athletes in this privileged position are also moving into a very high profile, visible position in the professional sports world and in society. That microscope is even greater, the lights are even brighter, and everything they learned becomes so much more important. My advice to them is to keep doing what they’ve been doing and give them the confidence to know that when they leave us, they are armed with all the tools they need to maneuver through what’s ahead. 

On the most satisfying aspect of the job

One of the most beautiful and gratifying things for me is having the opportunity to be a resource to our student-athletes. Just watching the success our athletes achieve in their sport, in the classroom and in the community before they go on to the professional sports ranks, the Olympics, into business, etc., is the best feeling in the world.