Athletes to Architects: How Playing Competitive Sports Helps HKS Designers Excel

Image above: HKS Project Architect Meggie Meidlinger prepares to throw a pitch for the USA Women’s National Baseball Team.

College students are beginning to matriculate back to their respective campuses, and that means the start of the fall athletic season is right around the corner, too.

For years, athletes in college and beyond have parlayed the skills, strategy, and emotions they once used or executed on the field of play into successful professional careers in a variety of non-athletic fields, including architecture and design. That is true at HKS where several current employees now use their athletic backgrounds to help them win at a different – but no less competitive or intense – type of contest.

“The idea of teamwork, preparation, focus, perseverance, poise, leadership, character, come into play,” said Fred Ortiz, Principal and Global Practice Director Sports and Entertainment, who received a football scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington before that school eventually dropped the sport. “When you translate that into architecture . . . someone has to call the play. Someone has to execute the play. And in the end, you hope to score.”

Principal and Senior Project Architect Michelle Stevenson, who played soccer at Rice University and still participates on tournament soccer teams around Los Angeles where she is based, agreed. She said that the camaraderie and esprit de corps she picked up by participating in sports easily translates into her job.

Stevenson said that “sports is a fantastic way to learn how to grow as a person and a leader and how to work with others.”

She said playing soccer taught her two things in particular that she says are essential to success in her career: time management and the ability to listen to and value others.

Principal and Senior Project Architect, Michelle Stevenson (#21), with her Rice Owl soccer teammates.

She said playing soccer taught her two things in particular that she says are essential to success in her career: time management and the ability to listen to and value others.

“People might not think that time management is important but playing soccer and then fulfilling my academic duties; time management is very important to my balance,” she said. And she honed her listening skills from her time as a soccer fullback, where she had to heed the directions of teammates behind her.

“When you’re on the field, I am listening to my goalkeeper behind me who is telling me, ‘Shift, left, shift right,’ there’s an open person. On projects . . . you’re listening and you’re reacting. And when you’re in interviews and something may resonate differently when you’re with a client, there’s two ways to proceed; you can either dig in your heels and say, ‘we’re doing it this way no matter what you say,’ which usually doesn’t go well. Or you can go back and take another look at it and see if you can find a different way to make it work. Whether at work or in my own private life, I want to be able to hear people and react to people.”

Ortiz and Stevenson said quickly adapting to unexpected changes is crucial to overcoming obstacles to victory whether those changes or shifts happen on the soccer or football field, or during a high-pressure client interview to secure an important project for HKS.

“The other day, I was in the middle of an interview, and my screen went blank,” Ortiz said. “So, what do you do? You pivot. You go back to what you do on the (football) field. If you call a play and you get up to the line and realize the defense is in a different formation, you have to respond quickly, rely on your training, and make an intuitive move. And that’s what I did, and we were able to continue with the presentation and finished strong.”

HKS Principal and Global Practice Director Sports and Entertainment, Fred Ortiz, as a University of Texas at Arlington football player.

Meggie Meidlinger, a Project Architect in the Atlanta office, certainly knows a few things about closing strong. She is a longtime closer on the Gold Medal USA Women’s National Baseball team — that’s right, baseball not softball. She features a blazing fastball that approaches 80 miles per hour, and a devastating curveball that has her “breaking people’s knees” that she uses as her primary “out” pitch.

Meidlinger said that many aspects of working at HKS mirror what happens when she is playing baseball. In both cases, she said, everyone must work as a team to achieve success.

“So, in the situation like a (project) pitch, everybody has their part to play,” Meidlinger said. “We’re on the team, and like baseball, you know when you need to pick a teammate up. We’re all in this together, I’m not going to leave anyone hanging. That can be with other HKS people, working with our consultants. Our contractors. Our end goal is to make our client’s dream become reality.

“Within HKS, everybody is so supportive and a team player,” she added. “On any project, everyone has each other’s back, and we work together to get it done.”

That support was on full display most recently when Meidlinger spent two weeks in Canada playing with the National team. Even though she had her work laptop with her, the trip still meant that HKS teammates back in the States pinch hit for her at times to help fulfil some of her obligations for the firm.

It’s a balancing act and teamwork,” said Meidlinger, who regularly travels to Uganda to promote women’s baseball among young people there. “I have incredible teammates who back me up and support me. Especially with our HKS community, everyone is so supportive of both our work and personal life.”

Meidlinger, who always wanted to pursue careers in both architecture and baseball, said that as a high school player in her native Virginia, she became the first female in that state to win a varsity game and to pitch a perfect game — both as a member of the boys team.

And how can she reach that plateau in her professional life?

Meggie Meidlinger and her USA Women’s National Baseball Team teammates share a post-game moment.

“If we can take the thoughts and dreams of a client and put them into reality and they’re happy with it, to me, that’s a perfect game in architecture,” she said.

Meidlinger, Stevenson and Ortiz said that their sports backgrounds provided them with another essential element that they use in their professional lives, one that many people might not immediately think about – how to deal with defeat.

All three acknowledged that it is inevitable that that they will not win every bid and when they don’t, the three said the key is how they and their colleagues respond. That is where they said their sports backgrounds come into play.

“Sometimes we don’t win,” said Ortiz, whose two sons followed his lead and played college football. “And that can be really degrading. But as long as I know we left everything on the field, or in the conference room, I’m good. If I know we were as prepared as we could be, we’re good.”

Meidlinger said that in her baseball role as a closer, she understands she can’t dwell on a bad outing because it’s likely she’ll have to come right back the next day and try again for success. It is the same attitude she uses to deal with losing a project bid.

“To me, it’s all in how you recover and react after that,” she said. “Baseball is a game of failure. If you bat even .300, that’s considered a great batting average. But that means that you fail seven out of 10 times. Sometimes in baseball, you can execute your pitch perfectly, but the hitter just gets a good hit. It’s learning how to bounce back from failure that’s key.”

Stevenson said that losing soccer matches, in some ways, taught life lessons that were every bit as beneficial as winning, if not more so.

“We’re taught in most sports that you can do your best; you can do everything right, and still not win,” Stevenson said. “And when you don’t win, you can either go back and sulk in the locker room, or you can go back out and come out to practice and work on the next game. And that’s how it is with what we do. We may not win a specific sports project, but then you go back to the drawing board, and you modify, and you resubmit. And if there is (still) a loss, you learn to pick up your britches, and move on.”