I’ve been very fortunate to be a coach for some really amazing sports teams and meet some really amazing individuals over the past (nearly) 10 years. Unlike approximately 90-95% of coaches, I don’t work for the school system as my full-time job. I didn’t go to graduate from college with the goal of going into coaching. One of the greatest things outside of my family that I’ve got going for me almost didn’t happen.
I started working for the local telephone company working internet help desk phone support. I only was a part-time employee working 24 hours a week. Since my income was relatively (incredibly) low, I choose to live at home in my parents basement. Since I graduated at least a year ahead of most of my classmates and didn’t have many peers my own age living in Perham, I had an incredible amount of spare time to fill up. A lot of that spare time was consumed by sleeping, playing videogames, watching television, and working on my then new website (wait… why did I ever grow up again?!?) I also had picked up the hobby of jogging and was planning on running my first full marathon that fall.
By chance, my best friend Cory also was living in Perham after Christmas of my first year back. I was about 6 months into my new job and he had just finished up an internship in Washington, DC and looking for some steady work in the television news industry. Even though we were best friends, we almost by default spent a ton of time together since neither of us had much better to do with our spare time. In an effort to be less bored, he started helping out coaching 8th grade basketball with our former 7th (and 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th) grade basketball coach. One day, I tagged along and started helping the remainder of the season and into the spring. While helping, I was introduced to the (then) 7th grade basketball coach Jeff Morris. I had no idea who he was at the time, but I found out he was also a cross country and track coach. We learned that we had a common love of running and that spring, we started running at 6 AM before he went to work. I worked from 1:30 PM – 10:00 PM and was used to waking up at the crack of noon, so getting up at 6 AM was no small feat. I enjoyed running with him and just absorbing his knowledge of running until he decided to have hernia surgery. I ran with his wife Kay until he recovered, but I started hanging out with Jeff & Kay all the time.
A year later, their cross country numbers grown from 20-30 to 50-60 runners. Around the same time, my job switched to a more normal 8 AM to 4:30 PM full-time gig. Jeff came to me asking if I had any interest in coaching. I went to my supervisor to see if it would be at all possible to switch my hours to 7:00 AM to 3:30 PM to allow me to coach which was approved. I was in.
Since then, every boys and girls cross country team that I’ve been apart of has made it to state. I’ve been apart of four state champion teams, coached two individual XC champions, countless all-state runners, and a now – a national champion. While accolades are wonderful, the lessons I’ve learned while coaching cross country in Perham have proved valuable. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned (mostly from coach Jeff Morris who is a genius when it comes to inspiration and motivation) that can be used in athletics. As I reflect, though, I’ve realized that these things I’ve learned are things that could easily be implemented into your workplace to make for better employee relations or even into your family.
1) A family is stronger than the any individual
This is the number one thing that our runners learn from almost day one. It would be really easy to focus on runners that seem like they might someday have varsity potential. We emphasize treating one another with respect and making sure everyone feels included. We have many organized activities including the entire team (7-12) or the entire boys team or entire girls team. At first, it may feel almost forced, but most of our runners build a strong, family-like bond with their teammates. The sooner that you can learn that it’s not about you individually, the more successful you will be in life.
2) Hard work is… hard
We live in a culture of looking for shortcuts. We want to find the easiest path to success. The best way to get anywhere you want to go in life is likely that long, bumpy road that nobody ever seems to want to go down.
The hardest thing about working hard is that it often (excuse my French here) really, really sucks. For our runners, it means hitting the pavement when it’s 20 below or 90 degrees and humid. It means waking up early on a day you’d much rather sleep in. It’s about pushing yourself to run faster when your mind is telling you running slow feels a lot more comfortable. It means drinking water and Gatorade and eating a whole wheat bagel even though pizza and Mountain Dew are a whole lot tastier. It’s consciously not taking the easy route time and time again. A saying that was used all year and wound up on the back of a t-shirt this year said “If you want to accomplish what few have accomplished, you have to be willing to do what few are willing to do.” One of my favorite hip hop artists – Macklemore – has a song (“Ten Thousand Hours”) with a lyric that I absolutely love: “See, I observed Escher / I love Basquiat / I watched Keith Harring / You see I study art / The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint / The greats were great cause they paint a lot”
Nobody ever got great by accident. Any big accomplishments require a tremendous amount of hard work. If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, you are going to be miserable and likely fail.
3) Taking ownership is critical
Many coaches – even great coaches – can error on the side of being micro-managers. By giving athletes ownership of the team, they tend to be more invested in the success. If each athlete (or employee) is invested in the success of a team (or company), you are likely to get their best efforts. In the early days of cross country, the coaches used to do a lot of summer runs with the kids. Now, our captains organize a couple different runs each day (often a morning group and an evening group depending on work schedules). We rarely run with the kids. The kids keep each other accountable and get on one another if they are missing summer team runs. Plus, they know if they want to reach their individual and team goals, it’s critical that they be a committed team member.
4) Yelling and scare tactics work… but not in the long run
The first time you yell and threaten, you will get your desired response. After a while, though, kids will grow tired and numb to your disciplinary methods and eventually tune you out. Strong leadership doesn’t necessarily have to mean ruling with an iron fist. It’s important to be a disciplinarian. It’s important to have rules and enforce them (ask our kids how many extra pushups they wind up doing for talking when the coaches are talking, swearing, etc). There is a reason most autocratic forms of government don’t work in the long run. It’s important to listen… believe it or not, you aren’t always right. If you disagree, you still can do things the way you believe they should be done, but you will gain the trust of your athletes who will feel listened to.
5) Being a good person is the most important thing
It’s awesome to be really good at whatever you do. People are envious of others with talents they don’t have. I watch Galen Rupp run and an completely envious of his speed. Seeing Kevin Durant’s silky smooth jump shot makes me infinitely jealous. Watching a Martin Scorsese films makes me jealous that I was born with whatever it is that he has. However, if you aren’t a good person, nobody is going to like you at the end of the day. Look at people like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. They were world class performers, but also world class jerks. Once their day in the spotlight was over, nobody cared about them. There are a thousand reasons to be a nice person starting with the lesson I’m currently teaching my 2-year old daughter (“It’s nice to be nice”). Who wants to be remembered negatively, though?
6) The little things are often what separates the good from the great
Coach Morris tells the kids all the time that during the season, every other team in the state is doing exactly what they are doing right now which is working hard. During any given week during the cross country season, there are maybe 10 hours where the kids are at practices or running races and another 158 hours where they are doing something else. If the kids aren’t taking care of all of the little things (proper rest, nutrition, doing homework, and so much more) during the time we don’t see them, they aren’t going to perform at anywhere near their best. Same thing applies year round. If you don’t log a mile all summer and come into cross country season out of shape, you are likely to wind up injured and/or under performing.
7) Set the bar high
There is a lot more inside of you than even you think you are capable of. If you are a runner, think of the best race that you’ve ever had. Likely, you pushed hard. Once you saw the finish line, you dug down deep and tried to give it everything you had (which is awesome). But what if I ask you why you didn’t give that same effort 100-200 meters earlier? You may have thought you were pushing as hard as you can, but if you were able to kick in another gear at the end, your body obviously had some more but your mind was limiting you. This is a long, convoluted way of saying you don’t know what you are capable of. I think we constantly underestimate what we are capable of accomplishing often times because we haven’t seen it done before. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that their is no way they could ever run a 5k, half marathon, marathon, etc. Yes you can. I’ve seen people that weigh close to 300 pounds run a half marathon. I’ve seen 80-year old compete a full marathon. I’ve been beaten in races by 60+ year old women. How can you possibly say “I can’t do…” if you’ve never tried.
8) It’s not important how much talent or skills you have
What is way more important is how close you can get to your potential best. Let’s not kid ourselves. We aren’t born equal. Some people are born good looking. Some people look like Clint Howard. Some people are born athletic. Some people can’t chew gum and walk. Some people are born with a thick bone structure and they gain weight if they smell a Dorito. Others have 2% body fat and complain they can’t put on weight even if they try. It’s also important not compare yourselves to others because you are not them and they are not you. At the same time, it’s important to recognize your own strengths, but not use your weaknesses as a crutch, but instead as a motivator. Sure, you might not be as gifted as someone else, but you can outwork them. In the end, you may not get the results that you want. You may get beat. You can take comfort in knowing that you did everything to the best of your abilities. And in all honesty, you will be rewarded because in the long run, hard work trumps talent 100 times out of 100. Remember, high school sports is not about pumping out future college or professional athletes. If you think that is what it’s all about, you are doing it all wrong. High school sports is about having fun and learning the value of hard work. If you work hard, you ultimately may not win. The lessons you learn, however, make you a winner.
On the same note, it is important for a coach or supervisor to recognize everyone that is working hard… not just the elite performers. If you have a less-than-talented athlete who is squeezing every ounce out of themselves, they are more valuable to your collective unit than the talented athlete who gets by on talent and sometimes-but-not-always hard work. If properly encouraged and rewarded, hard work spreads throughout an organization like a hyper-infectious disease.
9) You can’t drive 110 miles per hour all of the time
Checking Twitter in the morning has become part of my daily routine. Not a day goes by that someone I follow doesn’t post some hashtag involving grinding (#riseandgrind). While some of it is comical (I’m curious as to how a random D3 college basketball coach feels like he’s “grinding” every day), it also reminds me that you can’t go hard 100% of the time. In theory, it would be great if we could work hard 24/7/365. In reality, though, is eventually it is going to feel like a grind. You are going to burn out your mind or you are going to beat up your body. It is important to plan the occasional relaxing day. In your life, this might be “accidentally” forgetting your cellphone at home when you go on a family vacation. In coaching, this might mean a random day off or an unsuspected “fun” day at practice as a reward for all the hard work they’ve put in. Plus, it is possible to work really hard and have a lot of fun at the same time. On workout days, we’ve got a portable boombox that we’ll let our kids use. They are in control of the music with the expectation that it’s got to be appropriate. Can the music at times be distracting? Sure. Do we wind up listening to a lot of music that I find annoying? You bet (sorry kids, but it’s true!) Music on workout days can also can act as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
Think about how you can bring this into your workplace. Allowing employees to listen to music at their cubicle, wearing casual clothes on Fridays, or occasionally allowing them to work flexible hours is the kind of thing that can boost employee morale and increase loyalty.
10) It’s about the journey…
Setting goals is good. I’d even argue if you aren’t setting goals in life, you are doing something wrong. However, if you have a singular goal, you are missing out. As someone who coaches basketball as well, I’ve seen firsthand the negative impact AAU basketball is having on that sport. For a large number of AAU players and coaches, AAU is about nothing more than getting exposure to helpful move up in the coaching ranks and/or earn a college scholarship. So much effort is put into earning a scholarship so you can play for a team that, in all likelihood, most of your classmates in college won’t care about nearly as much as they did your high school team.
We set goals at the beginning of the year, but a much bigger emphasis is put on enjoying the journey. It’s incredibly more likely that, at the end of the day, the close friendships and the family bonds will be much more memorable than the ribbons, medals, and trophies. All of the trophies and medals are going to be meaningless if the process of earning them was miserable.