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.

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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.

Recruiting reflections

Honesty time. I have such a love-hate relationship with recruiting. On one hand, I absolutely love the act of getting people excited about your program. I like building a strong future. And I feel it’s a way for me to pour some effort into the team.

I’ll never get to hold a baton again. I’ll never take a 6th jump or explode out of the blocks. Those days are long past. But I can put some extra effort into making sure we find the right guys to carry our torch and defend this track.

Those are the aspects of recruiting that I love. What I hate is that it robs me of the present moment. At it’s core, recruiting pulls me away from the ‘now’ and forces me to imagine any number of possible futures. It makes me spend all spring, summer, and fall in search of people to help replace our graduating seniors. Let me say that again – all spring, summer and fall. In other words, during the spring of someone’s junior year, life is trying to ask me to imagine a program without them. That I hate.

But, I guess it’s like all things in sport. It’s a constant pendulum swinging between being “happy with what you have” and “driven to want more.”

The Goal Keepers

I like my job. I take it pretty seriously. And as a result, I have somewhat high expectations and standards for myself. A lot of that stems from what I interpret my actual job to be. It’s not my job to win track meets. It’s not my job to get athletes to PR. It’s not even my job to teach technique or PE classes.

I am a Custodian of Goals. People bring me their goals and then trust me to guide them towards them.  In some cases, I’m helping people chase down life goals for them up to this point. Honestly, it keeps me up nights. It feels a lot more stressful to be responsible for a person’s goals versus just training them to PR. Admittedly, sometimes the weight of it gets to me.

Over the years, I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had some pretty great assistant coaches to help share the load.  By signing on, they all knew it meant getting held to the same standards and expectations that I hold myself. I don’t expect perfection from them just as I don’t expect it from myself. But I do expect their best.

I expect them to be the hardest working individuals on the team.  We should be unflappable and resilient. We need to be the foundation that athletes can build their career from.  We must be motivated by the never-ending puzzle that is chasing a PRs.

And every time we hire a new assistant, the process begins anew. Obviously we hire coaches with incredible talent and immense potential, but you never truly know a person until you’re in the trenches with them.

This summer I learned a lot about one of our assistant coaches. And it wasn’t from anything at the track. I needed some help getting our house ready for sale. Nothing huge, just some painting, yard work, new bathroom, etc. Setting out, I didn’t expect each of us to put in 80+ hours that week. It just happened.

But what made it all the more impressive was that we were “squatting” in my empty house. No bed.  No couch.  No nothing.   Actually we didn’t have running water for a few days.  Wake up, work. Lunch, work. Dinner, work.  It was in one of those post-dinner “works” where I realized this coach was truly up to being a keeper of goals.

As we walked back into the house at 10pm, his first instinct wasn’t to head to bed or read a good book. The first thing out of his mouth was “So, we gonna paint that banister or what?” He got to work on the bannister and I tackled the bathroom.  In that moment, this man’s work ethic, sacrifice, and loyalty rang true.

Here at Williams, we strive to build teams rooted in Passion, Trust, and Respect.  We have a number of more tangible values that we focus on, but the ultimate goal rests in those three.  Obviously work ethic, sacrifice, and loyalty are always key ingredients.

Being a coach isn’t a 9-to-5 job. (Just ask my wife.) And being a coach isn’t even about simply doing the jobs on your to-do list. It’s about searching out the things you haven’t yet written on your list.  You’ve got to be motivated to scour for ways to make your athletes, your program, and yourself better.  You’ve got to know your own weaknesses and double down to overcome them.  If you’re not willing to take a hard look in the mirror or you just want to tread water, then maybe you’ll be a coach, maybe you’ll even win a few track meets…but you’ll never be a Custodian.