A Former Player Spurs My “Why”

It is distressing when I read how academia is redefining excellence. Admission standards are dropping, failing a class is almost impossible, homework is being deemphasized, and teachers and coaches need more support to do what they were trained to do.

As coaches, we often question if the values we encourage and preach will last beyond a player’s athletic career. Values such as discipline, work ethic, dealing with disappointment, or being a good teammate are essential to the team and individual success. Do these ingredients that are so critical for athletic success benefit the athlete outside the athletic arena? No definitive study would suggest that these essential ingredients for athletic success assist an athlete in their post-athletic career. So, it is common for a coach to question if their methods and the demands they make on the athlete will have a lasting impact on the athlete and if it is worth the effort. Any coach making significant demands is going against the societal grain.

I had the good fortune to meet a former player for lunch recently. This particular athlete was a non-starting captain on a conference championship team, which might indicate leadership abilities that overshadowed on-court talents. She always exhibited the drive, determination, and motivation to excel in any venture she pursued. The type of person any coach would want in uniform on their squad. Example? What kind of person completes the Cleveland Marathon on a Sunday, then attends a team strength training session at 7:00 the following morning? Regardless of her soreness and fatigue, the thought of missing a team function never crossed her radar. What is normal behavior for some is unusual behavior for others. For her, this would be considered normal behavior.

It was an enjoyable reunion that fostered many memories and much laughter to be shared as she recalled stories containing, I’m sure, outrageous embellishments. The following day, I received a note from her extolling the virtues of being a part of a team that was asked to venture beyond individual and collective athletic comfort zones.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me in Denver. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up, and our conversation made me reflect on why my volleyball experience was valuable and how I still use what I learned all those years ago.

First, extended periods of hard work allow one to connect to self and others. Hard work is a process that involves struggle, failure, success, elation, accomplishment, decision-making, doubt, joy, thought, reflection, and communication. It is a playground where we test our ability to cope with the skills we have and obtain new ones.

Second, the drill that I hated was precisely what I needed because I could hate something and still find my way through it. This is called being an adult. I have been up all night with my children, had a job I didn’t enjoy, lost someone close to me, seen tragedy, and failed miserably. But eventually, that drill ends, and the next time I find myself in similar circumstances, I do better.

Third, leadership takes many forms. You can be a leader because you are great at what you do, which has never been the case for me. You can be a leader quietly by observing what needs to be done and doing it. You can be a leader when you know what you are good at and work hard to become great at it. You can be a leader when you recognize what someone else is good at and encourage them to be great at it.

Fourth, be humble. No matter how good you are, there is or will be someone better. You will never know all there is to know about anything. The more you learn, the more you understand how little you know.

Finally, never compromise your character. You may be offered many lovely things, including money, in exchange for poor decisions. When you know how strong you are, how to work at grueling tasks, and how to enjoy the outcomes, you won’t be sold on decisions that are not in your best interest. I could go on, but these things come to mind tonight. They are the things I am grateful to you for offering me the chance to learn.”

I’m happy this young lady discovered her “why” for pushing herself beyond the norm. Even though there may not be a definitive study that traces the positive impact of athletic participation, I prefer this type of testimonial to encourage coaches to continue challenging their players to pursue excellence. Despite performance standards being lowered around you, dare your players to pursue greatness and take on all the inherent challenges that go hand-in-hand with pursuing excellence. The compensation for your efforts may not be in wins or championships. But, twenty years from now, you’ll get the warm feeling of having impacted somebody’s life positively. I’m grateful that notes such as these help me to embrace my “why.”