Respect the CAC

Between you and me, there is one thing in this world that annoys me more than it probably should – lazy, pick-up basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those guys who treats pick-up hoops like it’s the Celtics-Sixers, but I do like some hustle. It makes it more fun. Get your butt back on defense. Hit the boards. Call out the screens. Generally…just care.

And probably for the same reason that I hate bad pick-up, I…LOVE…NESCACs. Everybody brings their absolute best. Everybody cares.

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The victory is only as sweet as the competition is good. And in NESCAC the competition is epic.

In some ways, I’m offering this up as a personal thank you to each athlete at Middlebury, Bowdoin, Bates, Tufts, Hamilton, Wesleyan, Conn, Trinity, Amherst, and Colby. Everyone scrapped this weekend. And that made it all the more fun.

It’s the communal drive to be our best that makes NESCAC great. It’s more than the team’s going for the win. It’s the squads battling for their school’s best finish. Or even an individual chasing a PR. Regardless, every single person at that meet is absolutely bringing it.

In my youth, I was myopically focused on winning it. Now, I’m driven by something bigger.  My obsession with just throwing down. And that’s NESCACs. It’s both. We all want it. And we demand each other’s best. You better absolutely bring your A-game on the last Saturday in April because people are willing to do some pretty incredible things to have their teammates’ backs.

When I was a senior, I convinced myself we could win. I begged my coach to enter me in seven events. He did.  And, as a squad, we threw down from the first event to the last. Sure, we got trounced by 100 points. But, I’ll tell you this, it was a successful NESCACs. And I’ve never regretted that day for moment.

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Since then, I can’t say that I’ve entered anyone in 7 events, but I have witnessed some even more impressive performances. Individuals and teams that I tip my cap to. People who’s selflessness allowed them to truly challenge their limits. Men and women who appear on the brink of absolute exhaustion, seemingly fueled by nothing more than the screams of their teammates, mustering one final PR after 8 hours of competition.

This year marked my 20th NESCAC T&F Championship. And I can say that we’ve thrown down at every single one of them. I’m proud to say that. By the points, I’ve lost more than I’ve won. But NESCACs isn’t about the W.  It’s about pursuit and passion. Winning has never been, nor ever will be, the metric by which I measure a successful NESCAC.

A successful NESCAC is something you feel. It’s the knowledge in your gut that you left it out there. That you threw down with every fiber of your being and made them take it from you. If someone wants to take the title from you, that’s fine, you just better make them pry it from your clenched hands.

Otherwise, it’s just lazy pick up. And, at Williams, we always get back on defense.

Philadelphia 76ers Julius Erving

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I celebrate Caster.

Today, the IAAF is expected to announce their updated “guidelines” for hyperandrogenism.

Here are the Cliff’s Notes. The IAAF plans to create a separate female classification for women with Differences of Sexual Development (or DSDs). Women with high levels of naturally occurring testosterone will be required to undergo hormone therapy to artificially reduce their levels of circulating testosterone. That is if they wish to compete internationally.

They’re updating their rules to account for (and restrict) athletes like Caster Semenya and a handful of other women who are dominating a few events. And at first glance, I have to say that it doesn’t even remotely pass the smell test. Full disclosure – I have the personality to distrust organizations or large corporations like the IAAF, NFL, Exxon, etc. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I feel like history has shown that these organizations rarely have the best intentions at heart.

Also, I don’t put much value on the use of science in this decision. I’m pretty disappointed that this has become a numerical, scientific discussion at all. I’d be happy to have a conversation with someone who is up-to-date on the science that the IAAF is using, but I don’t believe that it would alter my outlook on its relevance.

Red flag #1: This new classification only applies to track events from the 400m to mile. Caster Semenya’s, and a few others, range of events. It’s not an advantage in the 100m? Shot Put? Heptathlon?

Red Flag #2: No one is even debating whether this is a naturally occurring situation. This is how Caster Semenya was born.  And people are making decisions on how to use chemicals to artificially inhibit her performance.

Red flag #3: The IAAF/IOC has shown for about 90 years to be in the business of trying to define what it means to be a woman and an athlete. Just stop. Take it back to the 1928 Amsterdam Games when women finally  were given the opportunity to run the 800m at the Olympics. One fell to her knees in exhaustion at the finish line. The IOC felt it overly fatigued them and was too dangerous and un-lady-like. So they cancelled the women’s Olympic 800m until 1960.

And now, in my opinion, here they are again trying to define what it means to be a woman. And they’re very public about it. While working for the IAAF, Pierre Weiss was quoted referring to Semenya that “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.”

I’m not debating that Caster has a heavy advantage. She does. Her physiology gives her increased muscle mass and increased hemoglobin levels. That seems pretty obvious. But why isn’t this being celebrated.  She’s the best at what she does.  Why is she being punished?

No one was clamoring to run genetic tests on Usain Bolt when he dominated the world for years. Yeah, people wanted to be sure he was “clean” but no one wanted to artificially regress him to the mean. People wanted to see what he was fully capable of. And how about David Rudisha, who dominated the same event as Caster? He was celebrated for doing exactly what Caster did.

I personally feel that this moves the sport one step in the direction of boxing, wrestling, or MMA. We now have “weight classes” in track and field. Are we going to start having “testosterone classes” with which we all compete? Seems only fair, right? (That was sarcastic.)

Walking to work today, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I was born with a DHD (or Difference of Height Development). It was a huge advantage to me as a hurdler for 10 years. I beat a lot of hurdlers who were only 5’10” fighting to get themselves over (and through) the 42” hurdles. Maybe I wouldn’t have beat them if I had to go over 45” hurdles simply because I was taller than them. Isn’t this what we’re talking about?

Someone was born with a naturally occurring competitive advantage. Then they worked their butt off for years and became the best in the world. To me, that’s just being an amazing athlete. I’m sure the women in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place don’t like it, but that’s life. That’s sport. I’m sure that Richard Thompson was pretty upset in 2008. Who’s that? He’s the guy who was silver to Usain’s gold. But he didn’t try to change the rules to bring Usain back to him.

Dropping a class

So I had to drop a class. I didn’t want to but it needed to be done. If you’ve read this blog at all, then you know that I started auditing Korean classes here at Williams last semester. It was amazing. I loved activating that part of my brain again and doing something purely for myself.

But I bit off more than I could chew. We all do it from time to time. The season kicked into high gear, I was still teaching my classes, we got pregnant, I was trying to exercise regularly. There just weren’t enough hours in the day.

The classes kept me out two nights a week meaning that between my classes, the one my wife teaches, and track meets, we were lucky if we had a family dinner only 2-3 nights a week. That wasn’t something I’m ok with.

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I also found my happiness waning. The added time commitment of both class and studying was seriously impeding my ability to sleep and exercise the way I need to in order to be content. And that scared me. If I’m not rock solid then I’m not able to be that for my kids, wife, or team. That is something I’m not willing to budge on.

It was in no way an easy or quick decision to drop the class. In fact, I ran through everything else in my life first. I loved taking that class. But when the decision was made, it felt right. With that said, if I’m being 100% honest, I also felt significant shame. I felt weak. It’s always hard to admit that a situation is bigger than you. That you weren’t fully able to handle everything you wanted to do.

In my life, I’m typically on the other side of this decision. I’m the one helping my students process the emotions of choosing to move away from a commitment that has overloaded them. I personally believe that it’s even harder for them. Most of them are reaching this point for the first time. I’ve been there before and know what’s on the other side of the decision. It doesn’t make it feel better emotionally, but it makes it easier to make the healthier choice.

Prioritizing your happiness can be hard. It can feel selfish and guilty. But when you start to feel the quality of “your other selves” go up, then it’s all worth it. I quickly became a better dad, better husband, and better coach. My battery is still nowhere near 100%, but is any parent’s battery ever at 100%.

I’m sure I’ll hit my limit again. It’s in my personality to push it. It’s the athlete in me. I like pushing myself to the edge each day only to step back.   And then turn around and go back to the edge again tomorrow – hoping I can go a bit farther. Sometimes I don’t just go to the edge, but I go over. I don’t see it as a failure to learn my limit or need to step back. It’s a learning experience.

On to the next.

Change doesn’t have an age requirement.

1929. Martin Luther King Jr was born in 1929. And so it was, that in December of 1955, a 26-year-old  helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Let that sink in. He was 26-years-old. He wasn’t 45. He wasn’t even 35. He was 26-years-old. And he changed the world.

I reflect on this a lot. In fact, it’s one of the things I talk with Echo about when we watch MLK videos every January. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that our school system is an utter failure at one thing above all else. There is one thing that is disregarded and ignored for sake of the SATs and preCalculus. We have stopped empowering and motivating youth to create change. We’ve stopped making them believe that they are good enough, smart enough, and capable of creating positive change.  Right now.

The whole system is built on an idea of not-yet. This idea that you’re not good enough…yet. Maybe when you finish this next chapter, you’ll be ready.  Go get your high school degree, maybe then. Nope, sorry. You must need a college degree.  But I bet after that, you’ll be all set.  And then after that, it’s your masters or your PhD.

Here’s a secret for you.  At no point in your life will you ever get a letter in the mail telling you “Congratulations, you’re ready.” Ed McMahon will not be showing up at your doorstep with balloons to tell you that you’re good to go.

And you know what, good. Screw this system if it ever makes you feel like you’re not good enough. I don’t care if you’re 14, 24, or 84-years-old, what degree do you need to create change?   What degree do you need to be a better person? To treat people right? To do the right thing? What degree do you need to see something that isn’t right, get up, and do something about it?

Nothing. You need nothing.

And please, this train of thought isn’t meant to shame anyone or make you feel guilty if you’re not actively battling for social change.  It’s meant to empower.  It fires me up and I hope it does you. It tells us that even if you don’t think you’re ready…you are.

I’m 38 with a wife, 2 kids, a dog, a house, and a job. And there are still days that I don’t think I have my stuff together. And I have to believe that Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t sure of anything either back then. He just woke up every morning and did the best he could and hoped that it would be good enough.

Take a moment and think back – when was the last time someone looked you square in the face and said “you’re ready for this” or “you’re good enough.” Has it ever happened?  Well it should.

Cause it’s true. Know it.

Feedback Thoughts (part 2)

What if I told that you would never be able to communicate directly with your athletes ever again? Sure, you’d still be their coach, but every single conversation had to go through an assistant coach who would serve as your intermediary.

Picture it. You watch your athlete do a drill, make an attempt, or run a race. And in order to give them some feedback, you have to tell it to your assistant.  That assistant then runs over and tells it to the athlete. If the athlete has any response, they too have to tell the assistant who then runs back to you and tells you. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

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But pretend you found yourself in this situation.  Where would you put your time?  What would you adjust about your coaching style?  How would you make it the most efficient, effective process? And what/who is really the most critical aspect in this messed up game of telephone. Personally, the assistant coach is the linchpin.

That assistant coach needs to be one of the world’s best communicators. They need to be able to simultaneously hear what the coach is saying (in coach-speak) and translate that into information that the athlete can incorporate. And then they need to listen to what the athlete is saying (in athlete-speak) and impart that to the coach in a meaningful way. If that assistant coach isn’t seamlessly able to do this, then nothing matters.  Who cares how knowledgeable the head coach is because it’s never getting through the athlete.  Who cares what the athlete thinks?  No one is getting told anything.

If I found myself in this situation, I would put an incredible amount of energy into developing, training, and nurturing that assistant coach.  They are our sherpa to our goals.  I would build an unbreakable trust there.  Everything hinges on that assistant coach.

Because what if that assistant listened to everything you said, but thought you were wrong, and told the athlete something completely different? What if that athlete said that he was injured, but the assistant didn’t care and told you everything was good to go? What if you designed a race strategy to go out smooth and close hard, but your assistant said “screw it” and told the athlete to go out insanely hard?

What if I told you that this is exactly the situation that we’re all in right now?

It’s the truth. And when I realized it, I made some adjustments to my approach as a coach.  How I talked about things and where I put my energy changed immensely.

It’s pretty simple. You just have to realize that your athlete is really two distinct people. Your athlete’s brain – that’s your assistant coach. Your athlete’s body – that’s your athlete.

Everything you want to tell the athlete needs to go through your assistant coach first.  You never actually get to talk directly to the athlete.

Your athlete’s brain (aka your assistant coach) is the single most critical link in the chain.   And everything I said about that hypothetical assistant coach is exactly the same with respect to your athlete’s brain.

It needs to be able to fully comprehend the cues or information that you are imparting. And then, additionally, it needs to be able to impart that knowledge to the body. Even more critically, that brain needs to be able to process what the body is doing and then express it verbally back to you, the head coach.

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That assistant coach brain needs to be one of the world’s best communicators. It needs the mindfulness and self-awareness of a monk. The kinesthetic feel and spatial sense of a dancer. The lexicon and eloquence of a speech writer. The willingness to fail of a two-year-old and the resilience and stubbornness of a 90-year-old.

If all you’re thinking about is moving tonnage in the weight-room or adjusting techniques, then you’re missing the boat. You need to be developing the versatility and capability of that assistant coach. That coach brain is everything. Figure out what skills it needs and then figure out how to train them.

Your feedback is useless unless you and that assistant coach speak each other’s language and completely trust one another.

Feedback Thoughts (part 1)

She finally did it. Last night, my professor edited my dictation workbook. I was so excited when she finally marked up my page.

To give you a little more context, this semester, I’ve been auditing our Intro Korean class here at Williams and I’d yet to have my dictation notes corrected by our professor. Not in a bad way. More so, I don’t think my scrawling even resembled Korean enough to be amended.

For different reasons, I started the class 6 weeks late. (That was epically scary, but a story for a different time.) I was so thankful that the teacher and students welcomed me half-way through their first semester. Needless to say, I was significantly behind the rest of the them.

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For weeks now, as our professor reads incredibly basic sentences aloud, I’ve been frantically scribbling in my dictation notebook any and all syllables I can make out. Meanwhile, my classmates seem to be effortlessly penning exactly what she’s saying.   Then we hand them in and, at the following class, we get our corrected work back.

Re-Realization #1 – Being a student is fun.

Re-Realization #2 – Everyone made mistakes. Everyone does.

Re-Realization #3 – Learning is hard.

Re-Realization #4 – Feedback is addictive.

I finally got corrected. Yay, me. For a month now, I imagined my professor opening my notebook wondering if these hieroglyphics that she’s looking at are, in fact, meant to be the Korean language. But last night, there it was – red ink. It felt good. It felt really good. It was like a mini commentary on the effort I’d put in over the past month.

And so, it was with moderate shock, that I found myself having such a powerful reaction to my professor’s feedback. Intellectually, I knew my Korean was improving. I knew that my work was paying off and I was catching up to the class. Yet it still felt amazing to hear it. Or in this case, see it in the red ink.

And then I realized that it wasn’t the red pen that really meant so much to me. It was her effort and her time. My work. My effort. She deemed that they were of a caliber that was worth her time and effort. And is there anything more meaningful for someone to give you than their time and effort? I can’t think of anything.

But this is a reversal for me. In 99% of my life, I’m the professor. I’m the one providing the feedback. I’m the one giving of my time and effort. And, personally, I’m not comfortable that feedback and “time & effort” are so perpetually linked in our minds. It’s a constant struggle to sever this tie.

Yes, feedback indicates caring. If you care about someone and their progress, then you provide them with feedback. But the temporary absence of feedback does not imply an absence of caring. This is hard for a lot of us process. Being left alone to struggle with a task mostly feels like we’re just “being left alone.”

But knowing when to stand back and just let someone toil is a huge part of coaching (and parenting). It doesn’t mean we care any less. In fact, I’m not actively helping you…for you.

I care about all my athletes. I give them all my time. Most of it is silent time. Sitting at my desk watching film. Walking to work visualizing their technique. Brainstorming a path to get to our goals. Silently standing on the sideline as they frustratingly work to integrate a new concept.

As a stoic, reticent person, I constantly and consciously operate to ensure that my athletes know I care about them and their goals.  I hope they all know it. Similarly to my house, where you will regularly hear my wife or I telling our kids “you can do hard things,” I believe our teams succeed because our athletes hear “I know you can do this” and not “I can do this for you.”

Job Descriptions

The other day, I read an article about Tyronn Lue, the Cavs head coach, and how he handled moving Dwayne Wade out of the starting line up. And honestly, it made me sad.

Have we moved so far away from the idea that “we don’t coach sports, we coach people” that we’re now impressed when someone factors in human emotion to their decisions. Really?!?!  We’ve fallen that far?

I’ve always been amazed that so few professional coaches have been able to replicate Greg Popovich’s success at developing athletes, building culture, and minimizing drama.  He’s right there.  You see him doing it.  Is it that they don’t value the human element of their job or they do, but it is too complex to factor it in.

Here’s what gets me. I work at Williams College, an NCAA DIII school, and I fully believe that every coach in our department is able to excel at the X’s and O’s of their sport as well as the psychology of individuals and groups.  These are not mutually exclusive concepts or abilities.  The most basic standard of a coach should be that you’re able to establish quality training and game plans as well as being able to build a positive culture that cares for and develops people.

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Why is it then that as you supposedly move “up” the scale, that this human element gets abandoned or lost?  Either coaches consciously choose to prioritize the theory and technique on a level above human development – making athletes replaceable, anonymous elements – or the system they coach in forces them to do so.

Honestly, I don’t really care. I just know that I never want to coach in an environment where I ‘m forced to prioritize anything above human development. Maybe we need to create more titles for coaches. Maybe it’s that the term “coach” has different definitions in different worlds.  Perhaps we should be more comfortable delineating between trainers, technicians, mentors, directors, etc.

For me, inherent in the word “coach” lives a required versatility and adaptability that I don’t always see in people with that title.  I strive to be a mentor and a teacher. I use sport as a medium to teach concepts that may be less tangible in the confines of the classroom.

Is winning a part of those lessons. 100%. But it’s not the goal. The goal is working to become our best selves. The goal is self-evaluation and improvement. The goal is sacrifice, altruism, and empathy. The goal is deferred gratification. Winning is never the goal. It becomes an end product. And when that result doesn’t occur, the goal is getting back up, dusting ourselves off, and evolving to make another run at becoming our best selves.