Do Setbacks Build Character?
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
It seems a bit ironic to be writing about setbacks in the middle of what is promising to be the biggest economic setback of our generation. With the Coronavirus shutting down businesses and schools, and killing people all over the world, we are facing something so serious that I'm not sure any of us can imagine what the other side of it all is going to look like. I'm also not sure how volleyball could tell a story of any sort of setback that could compare to what we are about to face, but hear me out.
I was in the 6th grade. I was playing soccer and had been the leading scorer on my club team for three years in a row. When you are in the 6th grade, you can't see past the end of your own nose. You live in the moment over and over and over. Being naive is part of the beauty of being a kid. Well, in the 6th grade I hit my first setback. You see one soccer tournament in Phoenix began a chain of events that would end up shaping my life. I just didn't know it yet.
We had played all of our games in the tournament but another team from the local club was playing so my parents wanted to stay and watch. Loving the game as much as I did, I immediately got into a pickup game. There were a bunch of kids playing and we were having a great time. Then the moment struck. Just by chance, the little brother of one of my best friends slide tackled me and I fell to the ground. My ankle was in a lot of pain. I don't really remember much except for my dad coming over and scooping me up and taking me to the car. We went back to Flagstaff and I ended up in a cast with a broken ankle. Of course, I rehabbed and got right back out there as soon as I could! I was way too competitive to let someone else, even on my own team, take my scoring title!
I made it another two and a half years with no more setbacks. I had gotten back to being the leading scorer on my team again. I had gotten a tryout with the Olympic Development Team and was incredibly excited to see where my path was going. I was finally seeing past the end of my own nose. I had goals. I wanted to play in college. I was running a ten mile course in my neighborhood every day. I was running stadiums at the NAU Dome. I was practicing 4 days a week on top of that. I was really set on my goal of playing the sport I loved at the next level. I was excited to start high school, and was doing everything I could think of to stay on track.
The first day of my freshmen year came and I was really excited! I mean what kid isn't excited to start high school? I got through the first day and then went to practice for my club team. It had been an awesome day and all of us were excited to be there. We were all going super hard. My buddy Jimmy laid a ball into open space and the fast break was on. Just me and the goalkeeper. I pushed the ball out ahead and was outrunning the defender. The keeper came out, one last touch and I would be around him and on goal all alone. As I planted my front foot for the touch and he slid there was contact. My full force against his full force. My shin against his cleats. That was it. That was the moment that would change my life forever. That one touch goes past him. I time it right and jump over like I had done a million times. That moment doesn't happen and I'm celebrating another goal and soccer goes on. Instead, my shin is broken in half, and I am done for.
I was in a cast from the hip down. I rolled around school for months in a wheel chair. I was teased, bullied, and got pushed out of my chair more times than I can count. The dream wasn't dead though. I did my time in the cast. I did my time in the chair, and when I got out, I was right back into rehab, and then got out on the field as soon as possible. No sooner had I been back to playing than lightning struck again. This time is was my wrist. It was still my freshmen year and there I was, in another cast. Cool part was, all I had to do to be able to play was to pad the cast and wrap it. I was still out there. I was still training. It had been a setback, but I was used to setbacks at this point. I kept going. I was still trying to reach my goal.
I got the cast off and with a month left in school things were looking promising. I was playing well and although I had not played a large portion of the season due to my broken leg, I was sitting in second place for scoring on the team. i was back to playing all sorts of sports in P.E. and the jokes about me being fragile were finally subsiding. Then, as luck would have it, playing basketball in P.E. I jumped for a rebound and someone took my legs out from under me. I stuck my hand down to break my fall, and pop, I broke my other wrist. One year, three different casts. Three broken bones.
My spirit was broken. My dreams of playing in college were fading. My body was just not holding up to the physicality of the sport. Anyone who knew me back then knew how skinny I was. I had tried everything to gain weight. I was drinking terrible tasting weight gainer shakes. I was eating a ton of food. I even went in and had tests done on my heart to see if perhaps that was causing the issue. I just couldn't seem to fill out. I will never forget my last game. The final whistle blew and I knew in that moment that the sport that I had dedicated so much time to, so much of my life to, was done for me. I fell to my knees and cried. I had no idea what I was going to do with life now. It had been my only goal. My only dream. The only thing I had ever truly given all of myself to. And now, it was over.
Much later in life after I found my new passion in volleyball and went through sprained and dislocated ankles. I hurt my pinkie one day. It dislocated and I popped it back into place. It felt like it was jammed and so I pulled on it. When I did, I separated the tendon from the bone. To this day, it is really crooked. In fact, when I go to give high fives, the kids all stare at it. I have to admit, it's pretty ugly.
I have been asked more times than I can count, why I don't fix it. Most of the time, I just tell people that it's a pinkie, it doesn't hurt, and it would just be too expensive. The real reason is this. Every time I look at it, every time someone comments on it, I am reminded of all of the injuries I had. I am reminded that those setbacks built character in me. I am reminded that the best laid plans don't always work out. I am reminded that we can work as hard as we can for things that we want in life. We can pour our heart and soul into things sometimes and those things still don't always work out. I am reminded also that just because things don't work out how we planned them to or how we truly dreamed that they would, doesn't mean that there isn't something amazing out there for us. You see, if I had jumped over the slide tackle that day... If I had not broken my wrist... If I had just not jumped for that rebound that day... You wouldn't be reading this blog. I would never have played volleyball. I would never have formed all of the amazing relationships that I have gotten to through the sport. I would never have made all of the memories that inspire me to write all of these things down.
So that tiny little crooked, bent, and ugly pinkie is my reminder to face each setback with the knowledge that when I get through it, there is always something there on the other side. It isn't always going to be the way we plan it. Heck, with all that is going on in the world right now, I can pretty much guarantee that for ALL of us the other side of this worldwide pandemic is going to look a lot different than how we went into it. For me, the setbacks in life are what created the life I live and the life I love every day. As a teacher and coach, I have heard form a lot of my kids over the last few weeks. Some are scared. Some are angry about all of the things they are missing out on. One of the boys in one of my classes expressed to me how sad he was that he had finally gotten up the courage to ask a girl to prom and now it was canceled. These are uncertain times. I only hope that, when this is over, we can all find our new normal. That we can look in the rear-view mirror and see that these setbacks that put us onto another path are what gave us the life that we will be living.
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