Tag Archives: lessons

Thunder From The Heavens

I’m a bit of a loud guy from a loud family. I try to catch myself from being inappropriately loud in the wrong place at the wrong time, but hell… I can’t monitor myself that closely all the time. That would be impossible… and really no fun. So screeeeewwww that.  Let the decibels ring forth!

However, there are many ways where I am decidedly quiet.  Certain things I deem more important to be private or quiet about.  If I were to try and give you clear guidelines about what falls onto this list, I think I would come up woefully short of an apt description.  Just something about being so out front about these things can just feel… I dunno… unseemly.  That’s the word that best captures it.

I think that’s why this image I saw recently (and I wish I could remember which friend posted it to give them proper credit), it struck me so powerfully.

I’m not really one to tout my own praises or merits or great successes, although I have certainly done it a few times in the moment.  Lord knows when I finished Tough Mudder in 2012 I was all kinds of fired up and proclaimed that loudly and proudly on my Facebook wall.  But that’s very much an exception to the rule for this more retiring cowpoke.

It’s just that this image captures so many great messages, but in sticking with the most obvious, it’s about what you do and not just what you say.  Of course what you say can have a positive impact on people – some can inspire others to spectacular feats with their words.

But more often that not?  Be more about the doing than the speaking.

I’ve had people come to me for various kinds of career advice and this is usually my #1 piece of feedback.  The questions tend to be about networking and who they should set up meetings with and who they need to get to know and what teams and titles they should have.  I admire their passion, their desire to advance themselves forward.  Passion is a beautiful commodity and if you have it, hold onto it and nurture it (positively).

My response always tends to be the same: “Those things are all good… but you know what gets you noticed most?  What gets you furthest in life and work?  Consistently kicking ass at what you do.”

Occasionally my remark gets a blank response back as if to say, “Thanks Captain Obvious… I already knew that.  I needed something else…”

Except… you didn’t need something else.  You really needed to get down to putting boots to backsides.  It’s a good reminder for me as well whenever I begin to think about where I want to be going.  If I cannot answer… in detail… about what I am trying to do to kick ass for whatever definition of success I am seeking, then I’m clearly not on the right track.

As the bard of our era… Usher, of course… once sang “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”  And as horrified as I am to quote Usher, it’s a succinct way of seeing it.

In the end, Mr. Ocean puts it even better.  As loud, passionate and eloquent as your voice may be, your methodical daily grind of work will always produce a sweeter song.

What Motivates The Motivator

Gratuitous photo of my dapper self. Why? Well, why the hell not?

Thursday AM this past week was a conditioning day and instead of my typical fun with the Prowler, I thought I would change things up and do some 50 yard sprints at the football field of my town’s high school.

On the drive over to the field, my mind gently wandered about a little bit and I began to think about this blog and the overall message of it.  I think this was motivated by a book I am reading on blogging that advises bloggers to develop their “elevator pitch” to easily explain what their blog is all about.

Then I got to thinking about others I’ve seen who have motivational style posts… except… well… there was something about their message I couldn’t quite shake.

The solution?

Make a video about it.  Put it on the YouTubes.  Boom.  Go time.

If You Think It, It Will Come

Careful planning. Fierce execution. Totally sweet lighting.

Let’s chat for a minute about improving yourself.  Sure, that’s most of the theme of this blog in general, but let’s talk about it in a seemingly unique and obvious concept.  Yes, unique does not often go with obvious, but damn it, tonight it will.

Suppose for a moment you wanted to improve your health, fitness, well-being or some other part of your physical being.  Would you just sort of amble about through the day and hope that after a while, you were better off than when you started?  Wait… you wouldn’t?  Come on… seriously?

Seems pretty straightforward.  You don’t tend to get better by accident.  There is effort, focus, determination, planning and execution of that planning.  It’s not even that complicated – it just takes actually putting into motion a half-decent plan.  Not even a great plan necessarily – just something semi-good that you give strong effort to.

Everything you’ve read up to this point is the obvious part.  Here is what is a little unique: Why is it so damn few people, including me, take that same approach when it comes to their “inner” development?  It’s as if the path to being a better person lies in just saying one day, “Hey, I want to be get better…” at some positive personal quality (listener/thinker/more caring/more resilient/better empathy/stand up for themselves) and one day, BOOM!  There it is!  Glory, glory hallelujah!  Sing unto the heavens for I have raised myself up to new heights!  Can I get an amen?  AYYYYYYY-MEN!

I am a bit taken aback by the extent to which I swing and miss on this very point.  My approach to physical training is focused, planned and borderline obsessive (I prefer meticulous, but then again, I am powerful sweet and don’t see this as a bad thing).  I know I need to do certain lifts to get stronger in particular areas and I need to work conditioning to stay in shape.  I know if I just blow them off, nothing happens… well, nothing good at least.  But what about wanting to be less distracted and more thoughtful/focused?  Don’t I need to have a plan for that?  Don’t I need to spend actual time on getting better at that?

It’s as I act like these things will just be taken care of because, hell, my mind is going all day long so… umm… it must be working on something.  Maybe it’s working on my being more thoughtful too!  WOO!

Horrible, horrible plan.  And especially galling considering how perfectly clear it is to me that a lot of work goes into my physical development.  It’s borderline silly I don’t have time set aside to think about my personal development.

Until now.  Finally got that booked into my calendar on a daily basis and what now becomes important is this: Will I do it?  Will I guard that time and treat it with the same level of care I do my training?  If I do, good things will come.  If I don’t… well… then I will just be back to knowing that a very good intention married to a non-existant plan is a sure bet for a looking utterly dopey.

And this blog is not about sheepishly sitting idle.  It’s relentlessly pushing myself forward.  May I not just write it, but live it.

 

Present Pain. Future Payoff.

A little slice of personal joy

A funny thing happened on the way to my soccer game this past Sunday.  Not like literally during the drive over, but in the time leading up to the game and it all happened without me specifically noticing it.

As I mentioned a little bit in my post yesterday on potential, my experience at Tough Mudder really opened my eyes a bit to what I can and cannot do.  Going through such an unbelievably challenging event like that (probably the hardest physical thing I have ever done) made me reflective in the weeks that followed.  If you asked “How so, you charming devil?”, well… then (1) thank you for the compliment you kind and observant soul; and (2) let me tell you.

Between work busy-ness and life busy-ness and all the lifting and physical training I do anyway, I’ve sometimes been concerned about overdoing it.  As Saint Mom Kuzia has always said about me, I tend to be either all-in or all-out.  I’m not terribly good at finding that smooth, even-keeled middle that some other people tend to have as they navigate the waves of life.  I’ve gotten a little better in this regard, but certainly not great.  So I have had times where I felt rundown or tired or unmotivated as I pushed through my training sessions.  I would chalk this up to life catching up with me and just being way, way, waaaaay too overstretched.

After Tough Mudder, I suddenly wasn’t so sure.  I certainly have more stress than I would care for, but was that really what was limiting me?  Or, as I wrote yesterday, had I created an artificial boundary around my own potential?  I decided to say “Screw it” and see if I couldn’t get a little more juice going for myself by pushing a little harder in each training session I had.

Lo and behold!  I play soccer this past Sunday, switch to more of a midfield position versus my typical backfield defender position… I need to run a ton more… and probably played the best game I have had in YEARS.  I am no by NO MEANS some kind of talented soccer wiz – quite the contrary.  I picked up the game seriously 10 years ago at 29 and have loved it ever since, but I will never be the guy to dazzle you with my deft footwork and majestic shots on goal.  I’m a worker.  A scrapper.  A hustler… and boy did I hustle this past week and had a ton of fun doing it.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t get myself out of that preconceived notion of my own boundaries.  That’s the beauty of finding moments to really get out of your own comfort zone – the time in that awkward experience is likely terribly unpleasant, but in many ways, you aren’t doing it for that moment, but for ones that follow.

Present pain.  Future payoff.  An excellent personal transaction.

Life Shall Give Thee No Mulligans

Bonsai ballGolf is a delightful game.  Sure, it’s completely maddening and harder than almost any other sport I can think of, but when approach with a good attitude, it is treeeemendous.  And yes, that’s how I am spelling that word right now.  You want to spell it differently?  Start your own snappy blog but on this blog, we sometimes like to mess with English.  Just because we can.  We also like to use the pronoun “we” even though this blog is the effort of one person… me.  Again, see previous disclaimer on getting your own damn blog.

I got to play for the first time this past season on Good Friday and what a good day it was.  Granted, my level of play varied from “Sweet mother of God… don’t look straight at that shot since you may turn to stone!” to something akin to transcendent beauty (at least in my eyes).

One of the things that came up with the guys I was playing with was whether we would be using any mulligans since it was the very first round of the season.  For those of you not steeped in the rich tradition of golf parlance, a mulligan is just an exceedingly fancy word for a do-over.  Yes, besides being an utterly challenging game, golf thoroughly enjoys a language all its own that conjures up all sorts of snooty country club images.

The decision was to allow one mulligan per 9 holes.  I ended up using one after a drove one into some godforsaken part of the course from which the ball would never return, but my honestly?  I tend to hate mulligans.  HATE them.  I let one slide this time, but even then I didn’t like it all that much and for one simple reason:

When you give yourself do-overs, you never know where you really stand.  And that makes me crazy.

Perhaps I should explain.  If I am going to play a sport, I really don’t like shortcuts… because at some point and in some place, I may be competing… and there are few things worse than an inflated sense of self.  When I play golf, I want to count every single shot and I want to putt out every putt to completion.  When I lift weights, I don’t want to do partial lifts just so I can brag about all of the Interwebz about my  gargantuan strength (hence my vlog post on “Many Steps Back” where I talk about rebuilding one of my lifts after hitting an all-time best).

Maybe this is just part of my job as an ethics officer rubbing off on everything else I do, but I want to know how good I am as precisely as possible… not so I can measuring myself against others, but really so I can measure against myself.

And for one more reason – life gives no do-overs.  Ever.  The moments that slip past you will never return again.  If given the chance, do I want to half-ass it just so I can brag about an empty accomplishment?  Yeah, not so much for this handsome kid over here.

Are people who use mulligans somehow weak or bad people?  Oh hardly at all.  If it makes you enjoy golf all the more (and it’s not being used to cheat against others), go crazy.  You won’t find me playing morals police with how you choose to enjoy the game.

I just never want to fall into a habit… in anything… of relying on a second chance, especially one I created to give myself an insincere pat on the back.  I’m OK with less-than-perfect or even fall-on-my-face failures the first time around since even when ugly, they are all mine.

I will take owning my own failures every time over faking my own successes. Every.  Single.  Time.

What I Learned at My Obstacular Trail Race

I’m someone who likes finding some new challenges for myself every now and again.  I like new stimuli since I can otherwise stagnate, so when my friend, Jason, let me know he was putting together an obstacle trail race to benefit The Wounded Warrior Project, I was 100% game on.  OK, maybe more like 99% game on.  I was there in attitude for sure… but I suppose actually doing a whole bunch of running BEFORE the race probably would have been a good idea and a finer example of 100% game on.

But I was able to recruit my brother (the gentleman with his eyes closed below) and our friend Tom (who ran a half marathon the day before this) to venture forth for 5 miles and 15 obstacles worth of mayhem-filled fun a few weeks ago.

The Spigot Warriors... a team to be reckoned with. Now if my brother can just keep his eyes open.

And I even learned a few things along the way.  What, pray tell?  So glad you (and by you, I mean me) asked!

1) Keep your head down.

I’m not great at endurance style exercise.  This is a combination of not really training that way and not being terribly well-built for it.  Both of these things can be overcome (the first by different training and the second through not letting this become an excuse).  So when I was in the midst of this race, there were a lot of moments that were difficult for me.  If there was one pretty useful trick I used to keep myself moving, it was to keep my head down.  This is actually a big part of why I wore my baseball hat and pulled that sucker nice and low.

If my head was down, I was only focusing on what I could control at that very moment: my next few steps.  Looking ahead to see how much was left to run did me absolutely no good.  Heck, it would have probably discouraged me if I thought about it all that long.  But those next few steps?  I could do those and I could do those every single time until I was done with the 5 miles.

This happens in life all the time.  If you have a daunting task in front of you… especially one that could take quite some time to address… it will never help you to look too far ahead because the only thing you have some semblance of control over is the here and now.  So crush the here and now and move onto the next step.  Keep… your head… DOWN.

2) Stronger teammates = stronger you.

Unless you are some kind of Shaolin monk with keenly-honed powers of self-mastery, the environment around us has a big a effect, both for good and ill.  If you work in an office full of people who are horribly negative and whose chief hobby is complaining about anything and everything… I have a hard time believing you will be all that productive (at least not without listening to your iPod all day long to drown them out).  If you lifts weights consistently with people a lot stronger than you are… lo and behold, you will get a lot stronger too.  I would contend you will also get a lot stronger than you ever would have on your own.

On our team of 3, Tom was the strongest on the endurance front BY FAR.  It wasn’t even close.  He could have left my brother and I in the dust multiple times, except many obstacles required a team effort to complete.  That being said, Tom was still at the lead of our little pack at all times… and he ran a freaking half-marathon the day before.  I kid you not.

The big positive is that Tom always being there pushed me and Chris to keep running just a little bit more and pressing just a little bit harder.  If Tom could keep running, so could we, damn it.  And ran we did… for 5 miles and for a total of 1 hour, 11 minutes.  I have never run that far or long in my life and if Tom wasn’t there, I cannot really say I would have done all of that.

3) It takes all kinds.

Dress the part. Or at least dress part of yourself.

I cannot imagine why anyone would have run this in purple short-shorts… shirtless… and with double pierced nipples.  I kept imagining the potential to be hurling yourself through an obstacle in the woods and there being that one branch sticking out  juuuuust the right way.  *shudder*  But hey, he was probably through that course in half the time I was, so who am I to judge?

4) I want more.

It’s sometimes the things you least expect that can interest you the most.  I finished this race, felt like my legs had been beaten severely by a gang of Muay Thai fighters… and yet I wanted to do another one.  As I noted above, I am in no way well-suited (at least not currently) for this kind of activity… but if there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I need challenges to bring out my best.  This was something new… something hard… yet something ultimately fun that I can do with a team (and I like team stuff quite a bit).  I am already looking up 2012 events for things like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash and so on.  I know I will need to rearrange how I train, but I enjoy the chance to do so.  Sometimes a little forced evolution is good for the soul anyway.

In the end, the entire event reproved something I’ve long known to be true: competitive sporting events are never just a moment of physical activity, but are often very pure opportunities for learning a lot more about yourself.  I would definitely encourage you to give it a try.  You don’t need to be a hyper-competitive monster to enjoy these kinds of things, but until you’ve pushed yourself past a moment after moment where you wanted so badly to quit, I don’t think you will truly know yourself.

Keep your head down.

Nor’easters and Forced Perspective

It’s a lovely day here in New England… well, I mean it’s lovely if you look past the massive power outages, electrical wires draped across road, trees smashing into cars and the prospect of no electricity for up to week.  But beyond all that, it’s a lovely day in… October.  I need to re-check my calendar… huh, it really is October?  Hmm.

Snowtober damage
You mean your Octobers aren't like this too?

This above photo is a taste of what awaited me when I sojourned out of my house to see how things were today.  As extreme as that looks, it was not terribly unusual during my travel of about 1.5 miles to the highway.  Seriously.

This is the second time in the last several months that severe weather has caused a power outage which is supposed to last days.  Yesterday I made the best of it as the power went out during my lifting session in my home gym.  As my previous post shows, it’s amazing how you can get in a darn fine workout by candlelight.

But what all of this also does is force perspective upon many people yet again.  Sure, there is the initial levels of outrage over events out of the control of we mere mortals – just look at Facebook for anyone you know in my area for proof of that.  But then at some level, you are immediately forced into thinking about what is truly essential: food, warmth, shelter and the well-being of those you love.  Those rise to the top of the list in an eyeblink.

It’s also an interesting lesson in how far removed we are as human beings from truly having to rely on our own wits on a daily basis. Hell, we are so far removed from that kind of pure self-reliance that we create reality game shows to mimic that experience so we can watch it unfold in the comfort of our own homes.

Believe me – I have bitched a bit about this power outage too.  I think it’s natural.  It’s a horrible inconvenience… but it will go away and I will return to First World living.  However, I am hoping to get myself to step back and appreciate what I have a little bit more because I am only experiencing a few days worth of what far too many people experiencing constantly.  If the worst thing that happens to me today is my inability to watch the NFL, then that’s a fairly high class problem to have.

And if you are wondering how I am able to even get this blog post up given the state of power in the glorious Constitution State… my place of work still has power… and I am completely unsurprised by that. Nothing seems to stop this place. Ever.

Lessons Learned: My First Strongman Competition

When I first began lifting weights, probably during my freshman year of college, it was really about aesthetics.  Unless I completely miss my guess, I think I was getting out of high school at around 145 lb. or so at my robust 5 feet 7 inches of dominating height.  The rather small weight area at Fairfield U. was not glamorous, but it seemed liked it would get the job done for my purposes.  I never had a plan or a clue back then and I’m wholly surprised I never did anything to damage myself permanently.

In the ensuing years, I became a little more knowledgeable, put on a few respectable pounds (currently up over 50 lbs. from my high school weight), read up on the subject more and began to create a semblance of a philosophy when it came to my own physical strength and conditioning.  In fact, I truly believe… wait, scratch that… know that my best days are ahead of me in my lifting career.

The most interesting development of all is less about my physical state and more about my mental state for training.  I tend to think of my physical training a lot more as it relates to my mind and spirit (and vice versa) than I ever have before.  Lifting is not simply a physical act for me – it’s testing myself against my own preconceived ideas of what is possible… it’s seeing if something I once thought as out of reach (a weight, a kind of lift, a time sprinting up a hill) is really something continuously on the horizon or right at my feet, ready to be conquered.

DSC_0062.JPG

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t stroll down the stairs into my home gym, put on Yanni and lift as if I were some kind of mild-mannered poet.  Hardly.  The philosophy is more for the time outside of the gym and is used to then drive the motivation inside of it.  So when I walk in, I’m looking to bring intensity to each lift and attack whatever the exercise is with abandon.

Where am I going with all of this?  Well, as the title of this post suggests, I did my first strongman competition a few weeks back.  For those not familiar with strongman events, they are similar to those Met-RX World’s Strongest Man competitions you see on ESPN… except that’s the elite level of the sport with weights and events far beyond what I was experiencing December 5th up in Paxton, MA.

The event was Paxton Strongman 6 and was comprised of 5 different events:

  • log press (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • tire deadlift (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • front hold (holding a weight out at arm’s length for as long as possible)
  • farmer’s walks (walking 40 feet with some serious weight on long handles, turning, and walking back 40 feet)
  • barrel and sandbag medley (carrying a barrel/keg a distance, running back, carrying a sandbag the same distance, running back and carrying the final sandbag to the finish)

I compete in the lightweight novice class which was for guys who have either never done a strongman competition or have only one done maybe one before.  The funniest part is that for novices, they want to include as many people as possible so the weights used are lighter than “open” competitors and the size of the weight class is much broader… 230 lb. and under.  I have no idea where else in the world 229 lb. is lightweight, but hey, there ya have it.

I finished in 9th place out of 12 competitors, which I guess is OK for my first ever competition… but in the end?  It’s not as much about placing as what I learned from it all and how it’s generally applicable to a lot of every day situations.  So here are my lessons learned from my first strongman competition:

You will be humbled. Embrace it.

The picture above was from the first event of the day – the log press.  The weight is 170 lb. and must be cleaned up off 2 tires and then pressed overhead to a lockout position as many times as possible in 1 minute.  I got 4 or 5 and the winner got around 11.  When I was prepping for this event, I was closer to around 8 or so reps on this lift… but a funny thing happened on the way to this event for me.  I was the last possible person lifting for this event out of everyone competing.  See, they run all the weight classes side-by-side on these events so that 4 or 5 people go for the same minute within their class… but my class was last and I was the clean-up person in my class.

Technically, that’s an advantage because I know exactly how much reps I need to come in first place… but there is a wee bit of a snag for me because I had to wait longer than anyone else and I had never done this kind of thing before.  To say I got anxious would be akin to saying a marathon is a brisk little jog to shake out the morning cobwebs.  I was convinced I was going to puke when I was setting up to start this event.  That’s not going to help anyone be focused on performance.

So what happened?  I performed poorly and it made catching up later in the competition harder than it should have been.  I saw guys who I am fairly certain I am better on this lift (and others) do better than me… and kudos to them for stepping up and performing well.

All of this taught me something important: when you get your ass kicked and do so in front of a whole bunch of people, accept it.  It doesn’t make you less of a person or a failure or a loser.  Being humbled like that is part of the fire that now drives me to do even better in my training because I want to do this again and really crush it.  I’m not sure I would be pushing myself quite like this if I finished with an overall solid performance – I might have felt a little too self-satisfied.

This was not failure, my friends… this was a lesson in where true motivation is born.

Nike said it best: just do it.

DSC_0107.JPG

When I first contemplated doing this contest, I was in touch with Matt Mills, owner/trainer of Lightning Fitness.  I decided to sign up to train over at Matt’s place in addition to the lifting I do in my beloved home gym, Fierce and Mighty (which you have hopefully found as well on Facebook at the Fierce and Mighty page).  Matt has done a few strongman competitions, winning a few along the way as welling as setting a national record for the log press (210 lbs for 15 reps in 1 minute… that’s absolutely sick).  I hemmed and I hawed about doing a competition that was less than 2 months away and kept saying I wanted to be more prepared before I placed myself into the white-hot crucible of competition.

Matt relayed to me the same advice he had gotten before his first powerlifting competition: if you are thinking about competing, sign up and compete.  It won’t be about where you place, but about what you learn when you compete (as this entire blog post is about).

And beyond that, there are few things that will focus your attention like an impending goal with a lot of public attention.  All of my friends and family knew I was doing this and quite a few of them showed up to cheer me on.  I really didn’t want to let them down and I think that, despite my own lack of satisfaction on my overall placing, it really made me push harder.

For people not interested in carrying around 170 lb. sandbags or deadlifting 370 lb. for 1 minute straight (which I hit for 19 reps, thank you very much!), you can use this same tool as well.  Going on a diet?  Book a trip to someplace warm where you want to wear a bathing suit.  This can hone the focus of many, many people.  Even beyond that, make public whatever your goal may be so your friends and family know what it is.  That alone will make it far more challenging to give up on.

But regardless of what it is, do something to get yourself moving and started.  Rare is the time in life when inaction is better than action, so take steps… however small… and get yourself going.  Small steps make momentum and progress until you find yourself pleasantly surprised to look up and find yourself in a better place than where you began.

Press on, press on, press on…

I’m not normally one to quote the Bible, but there is always one passage that’s stuck with me (partially because one of my best friends from high school picked it as his senior quote).  It’s Ecclesiastes 9:11 and it reads, in part

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…

There were some very strong guys and gals competing that day in Paxton.  None of them were are gloriously handsome as me, but I’m used to that… happens everywhere I go.  Umm… wait, where was I?  Oh yes… the competitors.  But you know where I think a lot of people separated themselves from their competition?  By how willing they were to push themselves just a little bit harder than everyone else.

For instance… when you are doing one of these events where you need to lift something for a minute straight, you feel like death by the end.  No one walks away from that feeling fresh as a daisy – it’s hard as hell.  But in the course of that minute, your mind begins to rebel a bit and wants to tell your body “Hey!  HEY!  Meat sack!  This is your brilliant intellect up here!  What in the name of all that’s holy are your DOING?!?!?  This HURTS!  STOP!”

The people who come out on top of these events are either able to make that inner voice quieter or push past it entirely.  See, even if you keep lifting until they call time, if you give into that voice just a little, you might lose a few reps… and that might mean the difference between 1st and 8th.

You want to win?  Step up to whatever your challenge is and never, ever, EVER lose sight of what you are looking to achieve.  Keep saying it to yourself over and over.  When you practice and prepare, say it over and over.  Make it such a habit because when it’s game time and you feel nervous and everyone is watching… it will pay off.  I wish I did more of this because I know I would have placed (and I kid you not) at least 3 or 4 spots higher than I did.

The longest of any of these events was a minute.  That’s it.  One, single, solitary minute.  Your challenge may not be a minute, but for 99.99999% of the population… your challenge will NOT last forever.  Press on.

So, those are the big 3 takeaways I had from all of this: (1) Embrace being humbled; (2) Action is always better than inaction; and (3) Every hard situation you will ever face will pass.  Be courageous until it does.

And if there is a lesson #4 in all of this, it would be that blogging is good for the soul and I probably shouldn’t wait 4 months between posts.  Press on.

Things I’ve Learned from Coaching Youth Baseball – Part 2

After writing yesterday’s post on the things I’ve learned as a youth baseball coach these last 4 or 5 years, I got to thinking (which should worry all of you… it certainly scares the bejeezus outta me)… there’s probably more than 3 things I’ve learned.  Sure enough, as I drove into work this morning, KA-POW!  More things popped into my dome.  Thankfully, I use the super handy Evernote program on my Android phone to record some voice notes to remind myself later.  If you have not read a bunch of my posts before, I am fully lovestruck for Evernote.  If you have an iPhone, Android phone or Blackberry, I highly recommend it.  I will also point out that if you have not read a bunch of my blog posts before… umm… I kind of go on tangents.  Strap in tight – I am all over the place, my friends.

Anyhoo, I came up with three more things I’ve learned and that I hope are generally applicable to more than just coaching a bunch of snot-nosed little… *ahem*… I mean angelic little darlings who would never, ever (a) goof off on the bench; (b) be looking at their shoes when a ball is hit at them; (c) care more about gum than seemingly anything in the world; or (d) thinking that wearing a cup is the funniest thing of all time.  Seriously… they will not stop trying to tell you “Coach!  Coach!  I’ve got my cup on!” and rap the cup with their knuckles so I can hear it. *sigh*

And now the points to ponder:

1. At some point, you will “live through the kids”. This is not nearly as bad as it sounds, at least not in my case.  We all know those coaches who are hellbent on turning little Johnny or little Jane into the all-world superstar that they never were able to be (which of course was due to dumb coaches, rotten luck and the entire world conspiring in a grand Machiavellian scheme to prevent their athletic happiness).  That’s not what I’m thinking about here.  This is more wanting those kids on your team to get even a sliver of a shining moment because either (a) you have had it and know what that can mean to a kid or (b) you have never had it and know what THAT can also mean to a kid.

I will use my own athletic career as a case in point.  When I was at the same age as the kids I coached, I was definitely not very confident in myself athletically… at least not in an organized sports sense.  Screwing around with my friends was one thing because it was just fun and without pressure.  But in a game with uniforms and umpires and parents and concessions?  That’s a whole different matter.  I can so distinctly remember being up at the place during a Little League game at Sperry Park in Avon, Connecticut with a kid on the mound I was intimidated by.  I just wanted him to strike me out to get the at bat over with.

So for me, “living through the kids” is wanting absolutely none of the kids who play for me to go through that – it was awful for me as a 4th grader to feel that way.  Baseball is a game that, certainly at this level, is meant to just be fun.  Period.  As a coach, I want them to improve their skills, but that’s secondary to them enjoying playing the game itself.  There is an aspect of practice and discipline that goes along with this, for sure.  I want them to have fun playing baseball, not being obnoxious sitting on the bench and trying to jam gum up their noses.  This is not about my dreams or ambitions or desires or any of that – this is first, foremost and solely about the kids and their enjoying a game with memories I hope they always keep with them.

2. Your own personal success will be 10X less interesting than the success of the kids and the team. One of my big sport loves is playing soccer and I am the captain of a very competitive co-ed soccer team that plays around the Hartford area on Sunday mornings.  While our team has fun and we enjoy hanging out together, we play hard and play to win.  When we don’t, we don’t much care for that… at all.  This past Sunday, our team lost a 5-3 game on a very weak effort on our part.  There was absolutely no fire, no hustle and it was as if we decided before the game we were going to lose, so why bother the next 80 minutes anyway?  Needless to say, my outlook is not terribly chipper following a game like that.

But you know what?  That afternoon, the Dodgers went to work and racked up an 8-0 win (which I only found out yesterday was a shared no-hitter between our 2 pitchers).  The excitement of our kids to put together such a good game was enough to wash away any bad feeling I had about what transpired earlier in the day.  I can barely describe how great it felt to watch my nephew absolutely rip a double and be the first base coach pumping my right arm to send him to second base.  So.  Damn.  Cool.

Colin at Bat - 2010 Minors.jpg

I think that’s when you know you are working at and leading something that matters – when you really don’t care about a single accolade that could possibly come your way, but you completely immerse yourself in the joy the team feels for doing well.  I love being a part of teams (whether when I was in school or now in sports and at work), but it’s rare to taste almost transcendent moments like this.  If you do… and certainly if you are able to do this in a place where they actually PAY you… hold onto that with all you’ve got.

3. There is a deeply transformative power to athletics… and it’s amazing when used properly. This probably one of my favorite things about sports or fitness or any kind of athletic endeavor – when done properly, there is a tremendous opportunity for transformation that is completely life-altering.  Sound far-fetched?  Then take a little stroll with me as I explain.

As I wrote above, I was not always the most confident kid athletically.  Sure, I played baseball through high school and had some moments, but I never felt relaxed enough during game situations (certainly not at the varsity level in high school) to do my best.  I would hammer the ball in batting practice, but only show maybe one-tenth of that in a game situation.  You know when I began to blossom a bit in terms of my own athletics?  When I started lifting weights seriously.  Why?  The magic of weight training (and why people who start it and get into it never, EVER want to quit) is that it gives you back what you give it.  Lift smart, rest properly and eat well?  You will get in better shape… and you will feel pretty damn good about yourself.  I know it helped me a ton.

And that brings me back to youth baseball.  I am actually seeing some of this same transformative effect taking place a little bit as well.  I will keep this as vague as possible, but there is a kid this year who I think is beginning to have a few of these moments himself.  He’s a fairly quiet kid and I remember him playing youth baseball a few years before.  When he came into the team this year, something was a little different.  We would practice some hitting off the tee and there was some extra pop in his bat.  Then, during practice one day, one of his teammates complimented him on making a nice play in the field (kids can amaze you sometimes with how kind they can be – I was there to see it happen and it was very cool).  Then, during our big win on Sunday, he steps up to the play and completely rips a line drive for a hit.  As quiet as he tends to be, you could not mistake the enormous smile plastered on his face as he stood on second base.  Now, I notice him looking a little more relaxed with his teammates and joining in with them as more a part of the team than he was before.

Look at that timeline for a second – piece-by-piece and moment-by-moment, something has built a little bit.  I have no idea or expectations where that will go from here… but you know something?  Right now, he really seems to be having fun and feeling pretty good about himself.  Will this push him to become a confident and charismatic captain of industry one day?  President of the United States?  A professional luger?  No idea.  But these are the exact kinds of things that can be the catalyst for something pretty wonderful for him and I hope that’s the case.  And personally?  Kids like this and moments like this can often be much cooler than having some kid who is a complete ringer come in and blow everyone away with their superior athletic ability, making it look so easy.  I like those moments too… well, if that kid is playing for me, mind you… but I am a sucker for that underdog making good.

And that’s why playing sports matters.  May we never lose sight of that and if any of you catching me getting adrift of that, consider this license and permission for a swift smack upside the head… figuratively.  None of you people better be tryin’ to place a hand on me.  I have mongoose-like quickness and ninja-like skills.  You’ll regret it…

Things I’ve Learned from Coaching Youth Baseball

I still remember it like it was yesterday… the day I got the call from my older brother to inform me I was now the assistant coach for my nephew’s tee-ball team. Let’s bear in mind that this was never something I actually asked for – it was more like, “Look, Sue signed me up for this without asking me… so I did the same to you. First practice is on Saturday.” That was a few years ago (I honestly cannot remember how many… 4? 5?) and thus began my saga into the world of youth baseball.

It was all pretty simple at the start. When dealing with 5 year old kids playing baseball for the first time, there really is not much on the finer points of the game. You do your best to prevent a rugby-like scrum on every single groundball because everyone wants to be in on every play… plus 5 year old boys think nothing is better in the whole wide world than a dogpile on one of their buddies. Good times.

Fast forward to today. My brother and I are now the coaches in the Minors for one of the town’s baseball leagues and this is potentially our last shot at coaching my nephew. Next year he may be in the Majors where there is a set group of coaches year after year, so our chance may be gone (unless we switch leagues entirely… which is possible).

I think I’ve learned a few things along the way and I’ve been thinking about how these lessons may have more general applicability than how to wrangle 8, 9 and 10 year old boys into line for 2 hours of practice or games. At least I hope I have… because making kids run or giving them bubble gum to quiet them for 5 minutes might not be the kind of thing your average person can use in their daily life (unless they are part of the same youth coaching fraternity).

So here’s what I’ve learned over the last few years:

1.  Keep them engaged.  Always. I list this as #1 because as a youth baseball coach, this is easily the biggest challenge.  In soccer and other constant motion sports, you can have everyone running around and staying active.  Baseball practices can involve a lot of standing around… and I think y’all can guess how well that works with 3rd and 4th grade boys.  Can you picture it?  A lot of chasing each other around and trying to swat your buddy’s hat off with a glove or looking at planes flying overhead and such.  *sigh*  In the same way, I think anyone who needs to lead a team has to do the same.  Everyone needs to feel they have a role and a purpose to play, whether they are 10, 20 or 50 years old.  If you feel stuck in the proverbial right field of batting practice all the time (i.e. the spot where the fewest hits tend to land), your mind will wander to 1,001 other things.

2.  Remember the eye-black.  Yesterday our team (the Dodgers) pulled off their first win of the season to even up our record at 1-1.  The first game of the year was ugly… just so very ugly.  It’s never good when the furthest you advance a runner is second base and of the 18 outs recorded against you in a 6 inning game, 17 were by strikeout.  That’s gonna leave a mark, people.  Well, Saturday night I was at Dick’s Sporting Goods and I saw they had eye-black sticks, so I picked one up.  I popped out the eye-black just before the game started, called out “Who needs eye-black???” and boom!  Kids were ready to rock.  I eye-blacked almost all of them up and one of the kids would only do it if I put it on.  As someone with zero fear to looking a little goofy for the sake of the team effort, I readily complied.

All smiles and eye-black after a big win

We ended up winning the game 8-0 on a huge 6th inning rally.  It was awesome.  The kids were going nuts, I was going nuts, parents were going nuts, etc.  Nothing like winning to get everyone on the same page.  “So what in the name of all that’s holy does eye-black have to do with anything applicable to life outside of baseball???”  OK, if that was truly your reaction, you need to take it down a few notches.  Like pronto.  Don’t ruin the mood of the emotional and moving photo of me and my nephew above with your negativity.  Sheesh.  The nerve… umm… where was I?  Oh, right.  General applicability.

While it was probably (although you never know) not the eyeblack that brought home the victory, it was something that got the kids to feel like real baseball players and to do together as a team.  I was more than willing to do it as well because: (1) I totally dig eye-black.  No joke.  and (2) I am a very firm believer that no good leader will ask his troops/players/employees/etc. to do anything he himself would not do as well.  That’s a sure-fire way to come across as an elitist fraud… and believe me… kids can root that out about as well as anyone.  For anyone else in a team environment, little goofy things like this can bond people together a bit and that should never be underestimated.  I was a supervisor at one time in my career and my team was just begging and pleading to have our staff meeting off-site.  While a small thing to do, everyone was so excited to do it.  Small things matter.

3.  It’s youth baseball.  Repeat that over… and over… and over. I feel really fortunate as a coach with the parents of the kids on my teams.  Truthfully, they’ve been really good about their kids, they come to the games to cheer and have always been really appreciative of the efforts my brother and I in coaching their sons.  That’s the good side of the equation.  The bad?  Hoo boy… where to begin?  While generally speaking there are a lot of good, committed coaches I have encountered, there are also some people that actually disgust me.  Seriously… not just annoy me or make me perturbed, but cause genuine disgust.

I’ve seen coaches who, when playing against us and are up 10-0, actually try to get extra players up in an inning beyond the maximum hitter count per inning allowed… and then made it seem as if they didn’t know the rule.  Really?  It’s a new one to you eh?  That’s odd given the fact you were the first place team and had not allowed a single run in your first 5 games.  Gentle reader, let that fact soak in for a second… 3rd and 4th grade boys who are prone to all sort of tomfoolery, yet his team had not allowed a single run in 5 games.  It’s almost impossible to conceive.  Huh… and I thought the teams were supposed to have a fair distribution of talent.  Silly me.  So we get the unusually loaded team (and this is not the top division of the overall league, mind you) that is looking to get pile it on while being up by 10.  Classy.

Or the coach who when his team is leading 6-0 argues about the one good play our team makes that game to throw one of their kids out at the plate from the edge of the outfield.  He complains that same kid making the throw interfered with his runner (umm… what?) and so he yells out onto the field, “OK guys… just be sure that next time you knock him over.  That’s baseball!  That’s baseball!”  Again people… 3rd and 4th graders.  But hey, this is the same coach who, after a few of our kids did not pay attention about where they were walking as his pitcher warmed up, told his pitcher “It’s OK… just hit the next kid who walks in front of you.”

It took all of my willpower not to get into this guy’s face after the game.  It’s bad enough for him to teach these things to his own kids, but our players hear this too and wonder, “Is this what we’re supposed to do?”

Bottom line: It’s youth baseball… it’s not high school and it’s not college and it’s not the minors and it’s not MLB.  The kids play to learn and have fun.  I coach because I enjoy teaching kids about baseball and I especially enjoy coaching my nephew.  If you cannot step back at times and gain perspective, you’re a lost cause.  And we all do this in our own lives in so many different capacities.  We have a report to do for work that is certainly important, but it’s not worth coming home aggravated and stressed about and acting like a beast around your family and friends.  I do that, you do that, we all do that… but that never makes it right.  I like to use the “When you’re 85 years old” analogy in these cases.  It’s simple and effective – when you’re 85 years old and chilling out on a rocking chair on your front porch, just watching the clouds roll by… is it going to matter to you more that you more that you were a really good technical program manager at your company or that your family and friends adore you?  It’s an easy question (good God… I HOPE it’s an easy question) for anyone to answer and yet how many of us don’t take that into account in so many daily decisions we make?  *raises hand*

I could go on and on about all of this, but these are the 3 big ones I’ve seen.  If you’ve never coached anything, I definitely urge you to give it a shot.  You may not feel qualified, but you’ll learn what to do and the kids will have fun… and in the end, isn’t that the most important lesson of all?