Greatness is a Choice
I got a message from the mom of one of my former players recently. I love that the families of the kids I have worked with still feel like they can reach out. It’s always awesome to hear from them! In the middle of our conversation she said something to the effect of that she tries to give her kid advice without telling her what to do, but that kids don’t necessarily listen to their moms sometimes.
If you’re reading this, you probably want to know what my thoughts are when it comes to the title of this post. Parents, I know you want what is best for your kids. It’s all any parent wants! Trying to guide your kids to make a certain choice that you know, from your experience, will be good for them only to have them do the exact opposite has to be maddening. I mean after all, what do mom and dad know, right? Somewhere down the road they end up figuring it out but you always feel like you could have helped them to avoid so much pain, frustration, and struggle if they had just listened or paid attention in the first place. The saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” comes to mind. Though I am not a parent myself, I have been working with kids for nearly two decades now as both a coach and teacher. Believe me, I know your frustration.
So how do we guide kids away from some of those frustrating things then? After all, as parents, your kids are at school and at practice for most of their waking hours and then you get them at home before they go to bed. Well, it’s the people you end up trusting with your kids. It’s doing your homework on what school they are attending. It’s guiding them toward activities where other kids are driven. It’s choosing coaches for your kids who coach your kids in a manner that sets an example for how they should allow themselves to be treated in the future by bosses and authority figures. Parents can’t do it alone. They say it takes a village for a reason! Greatness is a choice, but just like the secret menu at In N Out, if you only see the options in front of you, the only greatness you will ever see comes from those options. How do we help our kids to choose greatness? We help to surround our kids with greatness. No one person you can put into your child’s life can show them all the greatness that can be out there, but one person sure can come along and show them all the other stuff that is.
As a teacher I would see kids pushed into honors and AP classes who were probably not honors students. Not once did I ever tell a parent that their kid that was getting a C in my honors class didn’t belong in that honors class. You see, someone along the way had explained to me that many parents will put their kids in honors classes so that they can be surrounded by students who are more driven. Is that the path for everyone? No! Do I blame those parents for trying to put their children in a position to be surrounded by others that are driven? Not one bit!
Teachers and coaches can be HUGE influences on your kids. I know my Spanish teacher in middle school had an incredible influence on the path I took. I also had coaches along the way that influenced me to become who I am today. My mom and dad were incredibly diligent about finding out who the best teachers bd coaches were along the way and trying to put me in their classes or to get me to participate in their camps or tryout for their teams. Looking back, I was absolutely guided toward people who exuded qualities of greatness so that I could see what true greatness was like.
Along my coaching journey over the past couple of decades, I have seen a lot of different styles of coaches and I have worked with or coached against many different styles too. I once heard a quote that said something to the effect of “we can never truly know the beauty of the light without the contrast of the darkness.” Many of us take good things for granted every day because we haven’t experienced the contrast of those good things.
Just as there are incredible coaches who show greatness to their athletes. there are those that do not as well. I’ve seen the coaches who belittle kids, talk down to them, talk poorly about them, and make them feel like the only way they will ever be successful as athletes is to hang on their every word and do exactly as they say. I have seen coaches who coach through fear and are very open about normalizing it. Is greatness telling a kid how bad they are? Kids stay with these coaches and parents allow their kids to stay with these coaches. They are trapped by that normalization of that behavior and it’s only after they are long gone that they look back and understand that it wasn’t right.
So where am I going with this? Well, In my opinion the best thing we can do as adults is to model what greatness is, help to paint a picture of it, and then allow kids to choose it. When someone does something great around them, take the opportunity to recognize it. It's not winning the medal but the way the medal was won. Help kids to understand the work that went into it, or the way they treated their opponent as they went about it. Don't feed into the conversation of, yeah, well if I was 6' tall I would win too. That may be the case but is that the narrative you want to build?
Hailey Harward was on a podcast recently and she talked about "the story I tell myself on the court" and just how important that story is to her and to her game. Her narrative is important to her.
As a coach, you can wait for the captain of your team to do something wrong, get on them about it, wait until something else goes wrong, get on them about that too, and continue the cycle. A better course of action, though, is to help that captain to choose greatness. In order to get to make that choice for themself, they have to know what greatness is. I use the captain of a team as an example because, in my opinion, a captain needs to be the most well rounded. They don’t have to be the best player on the team, but they need to be the person that sets the tone for your program. If you elect a team captain and never sit down to have a conversation with him or her, how can you ever expect them to become a great captain? Here’s where the choice comes in. You can’t just dictate the conversation. You have to guide it. You can’t just put the rules in. It goes back to that whole thing of telling a young person what to do and having them do exactly the opposite. You have to ask the question, “what qualities do you think make a good captain?” If you as a leader have demonstrated an authoritarian, demeaning, manner in the way that you coach, how can your captain ever be great unless they too are authoritarian and demeaning. Those comments aren’t funny and demeaning kids or talking poorly about other kids in front of kids is not normal and should not be normalized.
If you coach with knowledge of what you are doing and show your players that you care about where they go and what they do off the court, then the on court stuff takes care of itself. Ask them the question, “what qualities do you think make a good captain”? They will list some basic ones. Then go deeper. If you are a positive coach, they will say things like “positive, hard working, dedicated, a good teammate, someone who sets a good example.” Those are all great things, but what do they mean? Let’s take “someone who sets a good example” for instance. Ask them what that means to them. They will likely repeat some of the same things they already said. Help guide the conversation. Ask them what kinds of things are a good example in their opinion. Help them to define these characteristics. Is it someone who shows up early and stays late? Is it someone who works on their game outside of practice? Is it someone who always shags more than their fair share of balls at practice? Is it someone who partners with the kid that might need a little more help? Is it someone who listens? If these things aren’t in YOU as a coach, how can you expect them to be in your athletes.
In the world you see how much influence our environment can have. I mean heck, there are people who look just like their dogs for goodness sake. Parents, coaches, peers, they ALL have an influence on how a child turns out. If a child is put into a negative environment where talking trash, finding all the flaws and exposing them publicly is tolerated, how do you think the child will ultimately turn out? If you continue to put yourself on a position to be successful over and over and over, you are much more likely to find that success. If you continue to put yourself into a position to not be successful over and over, the success won’t come. In the end, in my eyes, the national championship wins, the college commitments, the individual and team awards are all awesome but at the end of the day if you got through all of that and aren’t a great person, then you failed along the way anyway.
Case and point… Last week I wrote a blog post about mental health. Hours after I posted it and without even reading the post, I got a text message from Sarah Sponcil. She must have been feeling like people in the world need a little help just like I was because she asked me if there was anyone I know that could use a little pick me up. While Sarah has pretty much every accolade you could want in her sport, the reason she is truly GREAT, in my humble opinion, is because she genuinely cares for people. She takes the time out to understand that the sport of volleyball is just a platform that can be used for helping others to be great.
So whatever it is, school, friends, work, your sport, your community… Whatever environment you are choosing to put yourself or your kids in, just understand that you are helping to shape their view of greatness. So parents, just when you thought that your kids weren’t listening and that they were doing the opposite of what you told them to do, remember all of those times you fought to put them into the right environment even when they didn’t want to be there. Think of all the influences in their lives that you purposefully put there and the ones you pulled them away from even when they hated you for it. Think of all of the Al examples of greatness that you have strategically placed in their lives for all this time. You have done an amazing job! Trust the job that you have done! It may take time, but they will get it right, they’ll choose greatness in the image that it was painted for them.