At the beginning of each season, our team sets goals together; some have to do with winning – games, conference, playoffs – while others are more abstract – great team chemistry, mastering team defense. The truth is that goals like great team chemistry, mastering team defense, or any other abstract qualitative goal is because we think it will lead to winning (which it should). As I wrote earlier, winning is a noble goal, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. We also should never be satisfied with losing.
I pride myself on the fact that our teams have the ability to think in both the abstract and concrete. I want my players to judge their success off of more than the scoreboard. I want them to see the value in picking up a teammate, giving maximum effort, showing up early to practice, putting extra time into workouts in the offseason. I also want them to have amazing memories that they can cherish after their sports career is over.
A well-timed gift
Recently, I received a package in my school mailbox from someone I’ve never met, with a documentary about someone I’ve never heard of. The film started with the words of Maya Angelou scrawled across the screen:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
The documentary tells a short story of Jim Tucker, the man who (until very recently) held the record for the fastest triple-double in NBA history. He was also part of the 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals, an important, but mostly forgotten NBA championship team. Tucker is in the early stages of Alzheimers, so there are gaps in his intriguing story, but the focus of the film is on the impact he had on the lives of those he met. One memorable moment is that, on the day he recorded his record setting triple-double, he also escaped a fire in his apartment building, saving a little girl on his way out. He remembers almost nothing of his record setting performance, but he remembers saving that little girl. He remembers what mattered most.
The film ends with Tucker quoting his mother (again, remembering what matters most):
Never walk in to someone’s life and not leave a memory, a good thing that you’ve done or said to that person. Let them know that you were there.
Competitive sports naturally have a way of leaving memories, whether the coach says anything or not. My most memorable moments, however, of athletics were the result of a great deal of preparation. Preparation I took for granted at the time. Preparation by my coaches that I never saw, or cared to see, but happened nonetheless.
If I left my player’s positive memories up to the nature of sports and luck, I wouldn’t be doing my job. My job as a coach is to leave as little to luck as possible, to prepare my team for the opportunities that will inevitably arise. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to play for and work with coaches that understood the importance of preparation and I hope to pass that on to my players.
When I think back to my greatest memories, my initial thoughts are about the play, or the players around me, not a great play call by the coach or them saying the perfect words. The truth is, most great moments in sports feel a little lucky (ask Auburn or Virginia about last night). That is how they feel, not how they are created. Two of my greatest memories were completely broken plays that went our way. Within those plays however, there were a million little things we had worked on in practice – blocking, receiving routes, staying in the pocket without panicking, boxing out, knowing time and situation. The only thing we hadn’t practiced was how to celebrate, which of course looked a bit clumsy and awkward, but made them slightly more enjoyable.
I hope that in my time as a coach, I have left a positive mark. As someone who got into coaching, I can now recognize the preparation that went into it. My guess is that most players won’t, and that’s perfectly okay. More important is that they have positive memories that help them remember the important lessons of the game – a culture of support, the importance of staying focused and positive, a sense of belonging and ability to contribute in many ways, the individual and collective pride and accomplishment that results from hard work.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love for a player or two to recognize my role, but to expect that from teenagers is a bit of wishful thinking. As a coach, though, I can leave them with a great memory, I can help them remember a great thing they have done or they have said that led to success. When I look back at this season through that lens, I feel great about what we did. I am confident that almost all of my players can point to at least one moment in the season that they helped us to be successful. I am confident that most of them will take their memories with them and remember the impact they had as well. I think I will, too.