Friday, July 8, 2016

Just keep paddling


Yesterday we took our high school wrestling team down the Kinnikinnic River on a what we planned on being a quick trip.  With several newbies, it lasted twice as long as expected.  I like putting our student-athletes in new and challenging situations because it's part of developing the Total Athlete - Body, Mind and Soul.  When they're out of their element, they're forced to think quickly, make adjustments in order to adapt to their surroundings and handle some unforeseen adversity.  It was an activity meant to "stretch" them.  I floated down alongside these teenagers, often getting out of my boat to help someone get back on track, and saw many valuable lessons right before my eyes.  I'm constantly on the lookout for teachable moments and our trip was full of metaphors that can help us through life.

After ruined iPhones, kayaks full of water, and lost glasses and sandals, here's what I learned while kayaking with a bunch of teenagers (who weren't very good kayakers):

Wear sunscreen.
In other words, be prepared.  Whether you have a kayak trip planned or something else that you're looking forward to, take the opportunity to do the little things in advance so that you can enjoy the journey.

Let the current take you where you're going.
Fighting the current seems to be the default for most first time kayakers.  Almost like a fact of life, when kayaking with a bunch of wrestlers, the first bend in the river brings the chaos of overturned and sunken boats and kids frantically looking for lost items or paddles.  There's an art to going with the flow or letting the current get you to the end of the route.  It takes a little practice on the river as well as in life.  Why make things difficult for yourself?

Avoid rocks, especially the ones that are visible.
Speaking of making things difficult for yourself...the water flows over enough rocks that are barely visible and will get you hung up, so you would do well to avoid the ones that you can actually see.  Often times we find ourselves, or see others, run directly into road blocks hoping to go straight through them.  Maybe it's unhealthy habits, toxic relationships or other things that we know full well are less than best and keep us from becoming who we're created to be or in contrast to our potential.  Still, we think we can go over them or through them.  The reality is those rocks don't move, do they?

Paddle through your problems.
On the lower Kinnikinnic River, you're bound to run into a rough spot where a tree is blocking the way down stream or the current takes you into a rock wall.  It's best to keep paddling through those rough spots.  Rookies panic and lift their paddle above their head and it ends badly, usually with getting wet.  In life, when things get tough, you have to keep moving forward.  You have to push and pull your way through instead of sitting idle and letting the issue get the best of you.  On the other side of the troubled spot is calm waters.  Just keep paddling.

Stay right...or left.
As the river meanders back and forth, our eyes play tricks on us when deciding whether we should stay right or go left.  Many times it's a lucky (or unlucky) guess.  We bottom out in the shallow water and have to scoot forward or even get out of the boat and give a little push to get back into the current.  There's no sense in looking back and letting one decision define the entire 3-hour trip, right?   In our lives, we get hung up on small mistakes and allow them to define us.  You should have gone right instead of left?  Okay, now move on because you'll get another chance in a few hundred feet.  Maybe you'll guess right and be right, or you'll be wrong again.  Keep moving because you'll begin to understand, but not if you keep looking backwards.

Use your oars.
If we sit back and let the river take us, it's possible that we'll eventually get to the end of the route, but we might get hung up along the way, too.  So, use your oars to keep the front of the boat facing down river.  We have access to a lot of great tools in life that are designed to keep us on the right path.  Take advantage of them.  Some of those tools offer wisdom in decision making, help us through an obstacle, or provide the balance needed to stay above water.

You'll always find someone else's sandal.
Spending a few hours on the river, you're bound to see "footprints" of others who have gone before you.  Remnants of previous trips like sandals, shirts, hats, etc. aren't uncommon.  It's evidence that you're not going through this journey alone.  You're not the first one to face the meandering river of life with unexpected obstacles or hidden rocks.  You're apart of something bigger and you're going to make it.

The river wins.
No matter what we have at our finger tips, how qualified we are, how prepared we are, or aware of our surroundings, the river will have her way.  We can't change what God has already set in motion.  We can fight the current or go with the flow.  Use our oars to keep paddling and miss every rock or crash into all of them.  We can lean on others and make the best decisions, or not.  However, when all is said and done, the river does as it pleases.  She might take us safely down stream or dump us several times. It's a humble reminder that we simply can't control everything.




Friday, June 17, 2016

What happened to sportsmanship?

I stayed up past my bedtime last night to watch the Cleveland Cavs play the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.  It's turned into quite the series and will conclude with a pressure-filled game seven on Sunday.  I glean so much watching the championship contest of major sports on television.

The best athletes performing on the biggest stage under the biggest pressure is top-notch entertainment in my world.   Several small factors become key components to victory that transcend all sports.  In spite of not being a fan of basketball, I can learn a great deal about competitive grit, mental toughness, individual and team purpose, motivation and cohesion, among other things, that helps me as a coach and leader.  I also enjoy the confetti-laced celebrations.

I have no ill will towards basketball as a whole, just so we're clear, and even if I don't completely understand the nuances of the sport or some of the most basic tactics, I do understand sportsmanship.  Sportsmanship is not sport-specific and I saw much to be desired in game 6 of the NBA Finals.  Sure, there's bad blood between these two teams.  I understand that.  Tempers can get the best of the best people at times.  I give a pass to athletes in that regard.  After all, when most of us are at our worst, it's not televised for millions of viewers.  We all lose our cool once in a while and athletes aren't exempt from that.

What I couldn't tolerate, though, is how disrespectful the players - all players - and coaches were to the referees.  In my book, under no circumstance is this permissible.  It doesn't matter if it's the most important game of the season, it's unacceptable.  It's clear that the NBA has allowed this culture to invade the sport.  In an 8 minute span in the fourth quarter, every single call made by the referees was disputed.  The athletes weren't just asking for a clarifications of the rules.  They had full-blown temper tantrums.  I have three children under 7 years old and I recognize a temper-tantrum when I see one.

On top of this, there was no accountability.  Not by teammates, coaches or the referees.  I would expect most of the world to hold a small child accountable to some extent if they demonstrated the same behavior as these grown-men.  Nothing.

I'm not sure if I'm bothered by the lack of sportsmanship or that it was tolerated so easily.  What are kids to do who watch this?  How can educators, coaches and leaders hold children accountable when the best in the world are not?  What are we teaching young and old athletes?

The NBA is not the only place that has a culture like this, by the way.  Its prevalence is unique in each sport.  

What can we do about it from the outside of professional sports and how should we respond from the inside of youth sports?



"How can a young man keep is way pure?  By guarding it according to your word." - Psalm 119:9

Sunday, June 12, 2016

You were made to soar

The first time I flew in an airplane, I could not believe my eyes.  I was 15 years old and, like most teenagers, my frame was very small.  I had a picture of life that had me as the center of attention.  As the plane climbed in altitude, I felt smaller and smaller.  It was my first time on a plane and it was the first time I understood humility.

Over 20 years later, air travel still has the same affect on me.  Every time my body feels the thrust of the plane on the runway, I get nervous.  I think: am I the only one who's wondering if this is really going to work? I mean, it just doesn't make sense that a gigantic piece of metal filled with people would be able to float above Earth's surface.  The plane speeds down the runway, thrust overcomes drag, lift conquers gravity and all of sudden our ascent into the clouds begins.  Bernoulli was right.  Newton was right.

Last weekend we took a small family vacation to Chicago.  We planned this trip around the airplane.  Once we were in Chicago, we took in the Navy Pier, Wrigley Field and Legoland, but it was about getting our boys to experience life above the clouds.  And they weren't disappointed.



They were excited through the entire experience from the off-site parking shuttle ride to waiting in the TSA line to how they store the luggage "under" the plane (they soon understood that the luggage was, in fact, still "on" the plane) to the flight itself.  It was question after question and questions about the questions.  They dug into the moment.

7, 5 and 3 year old boys possess a blind faith that gives them the assurance that planes just simply fly.  That's what they do.  It wasn't until we were 35,000 feet in the air that one of them asked how this could all be possible.  He wasn't looking for the scientific explanation behind it all.  He saw the ground far beneath us and he was trying to make sense of that feeling that was sinking in...the world is very big and we're very small.  God is big and we're not.

At 35,000 feet, our problems don't seem so big.  Storms don't cease to exist, however, at that altitude, we're able to see it much differently.  At sea level, we're pounded by the winds and the rains.  At cruising altitude, we're able to see above the thunderheads.  It's the perfect metaphor for a life in Christ.

Living life at the highest level often requires us to change altitudes.  When troubles drag you down, remember that you were made to soar.

"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." - Isaiah 40:31


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

She said she's willing to do whatever it takes

"She said she's willing to do whatever it takes."

This is what I was told about an athlete who had just suffered a devastating loss.  She was hurting badly and looking for anyone or anything to help her make sense of it.  She had committed her entire life to that single moment and fell short.  She had seen her dream as a reality for so long that she knew nothing of a life without it.

She had done everything she was told and worked harder than everyone else.  But it didn't work.  The sports community told her that if she prepared the right way, believed in herself and did her absolutely best, she'd accomplish her goals.  They lied.  Her best wasn't enough.

Talent can fool you into thinking you're prepared for something you're not.  She put all she had on the line and came up short.

When what you have isn't enough, you begin to wonder if who you are is.

She had so many questions and no answers.  She lost motivation, lost trust in the process and most of all, lost herself.  It didn't feel right; it wasn't her.  She didn't know who she was anymore.

She was broken and that's precisely where she needed to be.

She had arrived at a crossroads, one that will be a defining moment in her life.  Hard work and talent wasn't enough.  There was a new realm within the sports world that she had yet to explore.  Becoming the Total Athlete requires a commitment to the body, mind and soul.  It's as if the veil was lifted from her eyes for the first time and her paradigm was shifted.   Doing whatever it takes took on a new meaning and there was no turning back.

To reach her full human and athletic potential, attacking the mental and spiritual aspects of sport cannot be overlooked any longer.  Avoiding passivity and moving towards the fight in a wrestling match is imperative and obvious.  Now, she must go towards the fight inside of her.  Ask the hard questions of who am I? and why am I here?  The new journey is overwhelming and terrifying.  Without knowing where to start, she must do so immediately.  The same intensity needed to endure a grueling practice must be applied when confronting the condition of her own heart.

Identity Before Activity

When your guts are torn out and exposed to the world, vulnerability is not a choice and the only response is humility.  You're finally able to admit to yourself that athletics is about the journey and not the outcome.  You're forced to change your perspective.  The loss creates an opportunity to develop perseverance in a way that wouldn't be possible without it.

The setback becomes a set-up for something bigger than yourself.

There's no guarantee that a favorable outcome is waiting on the other side of vulnerability, but it's guaranteed that the outcome won't show up if you're not willing to be.  Digging deeper and deeper, finding out who you are beyond the wrestling mat is the new journey.  It's necessary for victory and it's necessary for who you are to become.  When you know you are, you know what to do.

Living Life at the Highest Level

Finding the strength to put her shoes on and step on the mat is the easy part.  Stepping away and examining what's in her own heart is not.  Courageously, she must stand face-to-face with who she's created to be - or Whose she's created to be.  Motivation, significance and value independent of sport must be her discovery in order to live her life at the highest level.  It's then, and only then, that she'll be able to compete at the highest level.

The pain is real.  The loss will hurt forever.  She'll never get over it.  She will, however, be able to embrace all of it because this is exactly what she needed.  All of it points to the one thing that matters most.

Without hesitation, she says she's still willing to do whatever it takes even though it's much, much more than she had anticipated.

"A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without the medal, you'll never be enough with it."

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My first youth wrestling experience as a parent

I've been sharing my opinions and thoughts about youth sports on this blog for close to 10 years and have been very open about how I feel.  It's lead to some harsh criticism in the comments section as well as on Facebook and forums.  However, there has been an overwhelming amount of support and it's very clear that the "silent majority" is extremely large and wants something better for their children.  Still, it's a big uphill climb to institute positive changes within the current youth sports culture.

During some of my first posts, many of the challengers questioned my credibility because I didn't have children of my own participating in youth sports.  According to them, I was just another person without kids trying to tell them how to be parents.  It's human nature to shift the blame when the evidence is too convincing to refute.  I distinctly recall one post asserting that my tune would change once my kids started participating in youth sports.

Well, we've come to that point.  Last Sunday, my oldest son chose to wrestle in our local youth tournament.  It was quite the experience for everyone and I feel like I have a responsibility to share what it was like for us.

Spoiler alert: I haven't changed my opinions about the youth sports culture.

I've been coaching at our local high school for the past three years and running the youth practices for the past four.  I've been a wrestling coach since graduating college and my children have seen my life as a coach from the behind-the-scenes.  Wrestling has been around them since they were born, but it's never been an expectation from Liz and me that they would participate.  I suppose there has been pressure from the community, friends, family and the idea that little boys want to do what Daddy is doing.  However, still to this day, I have never asked any of my children if they want to wrestle.  They asked if they could come to little kids' wrestling practices and last week Isaiah asked if he could wrestle in our tournament.  He's seven and several youth wrestlers have been attending tournaments since they were five, but it wasn't on his radar until now and I didn't want to put it on his radar before he found it.  Yes, I want my children to wrestle very badly, but I want more for them to discover what they want to do.  If anything, I've been more stand-offish about wrestling than any other sport.  I've asked them and encouraged them to try tee ball, soccer, swimming, etc. like other parents, but the wrestling gig is different for us.  There are just too many facets and layers to it here in our small town and I don't want to send the message that my kids are supposed to wrestle because of their last name or because members of their family have done it and are still involved in different capacities.  You could say I'm over-sensitive to all things wrestling when it comes to my household and no matter how difficult or intentional that is for me, it's what's best for our family.

We had youth practice on Monday and I mentioned to the parents and little wrestlers that we had our tournament on Super Bowl Sunday.  In an e-mail, I encouraged parents to be patient and let their sons/daughters ask if they can participate before asking them if they were interested.  How a question is framed by Mom and Dad can influence what a little kid is thinking because they want to please us.  Some of our youth wrestlers decided to wrestle and others didn't.  No big deal either way.  Isaiah asked his mom if wrestlers from other towns would be at the tournament and that was the deal breaker for him.  He said, "oh, well I'm not going to wrestle this year," which we had suspected and we left it at that and arranged for a babysitter.  Later in the week, he brought it up again.  We could tell he had been thinking about it and he had some questions, so we talked about it trying hard to be informative and not persuasive.  He slowly changed his mind and wanted to give it a shot.  The night before the tournament, he was pretty adamant about getting his gear set out in a special place and going to bed early.  It was fun for us to watch his level of focus change.

He was nervous.  I was nervous.

One of the things I often tell youth wrestling parents is to make the experience about their children and not about themselves.  It was easy for us to handle Isaiah and his nerves, but it was more difficult for us to figure out what to do with ours.  I think we did well to keep them to ourselves and not project anything on him, however, the truth is I was thinking a lot about myself, too.

I thought: Am I handling this the right way?  Am I showing enough excitement for his excitement?  Am I going too far in not making it a big deal that I'm not even making it a little deal for him?  Will I be able to act the way I expect good parents to act?  Can I keep it in perceptive?  Both privately and publicly?  I know people are going to be watching my kid and I know people are going to be watching me.  Can I pull it off?  I was thinking about me as much as I was thinking about Isaiah.

As much as my thoughts were bouncing all over the place, my focus wasn't.  It was all about him and he took precedence over everything else that day.  I removed myself from other tournament obligations and we had a great day together.  I enjoyed watching him figure things out in accordance to his personality.  He paced around the open mats before things started.  He looked around and soaked it all in.  We fumbled over trying to get his headgear to fight tightly, shared some snacks and found his name on the bracket - all little moments that could have been skipped if I didn't take the time to be in the moment.

When wrestling began, his anticipation level was through the roof.  I was happy standing alongside him and giving him the assurance that I was going to be there after he removed the leg band and walked off the mat.  He fought and tried hard and there were a lot of tears.  Whether if it's a 7 year old or a 36 year old, putting it all on the line, being vulnerable and doing our best inside those fears will bring with it a lot of emotions.  I had a new connection with my little guy and a new perspective on the tears at youth wrestling tournaments.  I've been very critical of the tears - not that children shouldn't cry, but that youth tournaments shouldn't push kids to tears.  I still believe this, however, in some cases, those tears are the result of someone giving everything they have in the moment and being completely vulnerable.  That's scary, but something that we should all strive for.

After his final match, he walked in his little Isaiah waddle towards me and cuddled his head on my shoulder.  I told him he did great and he asked in a very matter-of-fact tone if we could now go bowling.  Of course.  His tournament was over and shifting gears was on the agenda.  We didn't have to talk about the wrestling tournament, dissect it or explore his feelings.  It was over and we moved on.

Later in the day, he asked me about when I was a wrestler and about winning and losing.  My memory says this is actually the very first time he asked me about being a wrestler (I've always been just a coach).  I quickly told him that I don't measure wrestling with wins and losses, but only with smiles and hugs.  He thought that was pretty funny and we laughed.  Then we went bowling.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Coaching styles - what do you say from the corner?

Over the weekend I sat in the corner for over 50 high school wrestling matches as my varsity team competed in an 8-team scramble.  Each wrestler had 5 individual matches (pending forfeits).  Everything was ordinary for a tournament like this, however, I had a lightbulb moment when I heard instructions coming from a coach across the mat.

He was saying things that are very common at the beginning of the second period of a match at a wrestling tournament: "watch the leg coming in," "he wants to ride legs," "don't let him power half you."  These are the three that stuck out in that moment, but there are several other statements of the like in almost every position in wrestling.  This particular coach used a lot of them.  What occurred to me was the opposing coach was focused solely on my wrestler.  Never once in the entire 6-minute match did he make a suggestion to productively assist his his athlete in doing something.

Immediately, I thought hard about the things I say during wrestling matches.  I've been told by several parents, spectators and wrestlers that I'm not extremely vocal from the chair.  This is intentional.  I want to be careful that the words I use are helpful and valuable.  I believe "over-coaching" from the corner can simply turn into noise leaving it difficult for athletes to deceiver what's important in a moment of need.  I also believe that a good coach will do most of his/her coaching in the wrestling room or between matches and equip athletes to perform on their own during a competition.  If I indirectly create a dependency on my instruction or presence, I'm directly holding an athlete back from reaching his/her potential.  With all of that said, I concluded that the instruction that does come from my mouth during a wrestling match has very little to do with the other athlete.  It's almost 100% focused on actions that my athlete can take.  The instruction is meant to be informative in the moment and ultimately encouraging, empowering and positive.  I consciously try to avoid cliches or catchy phrases in exchange for relevant information geared for the moment.  Unfortunately, that's not all too common at wrestling tournaments.

Why is this important?

I believe that I have a responsibility to model the character that I desire to produce in my athletes.  Part of this is acting professional and with good sportsmanship and part of it is to demonstrate personal responsibility, the ability to set goals and have success in little moments.  Setting goals can be a difficult process for athletes, especially if the coach is constantly reminding athletes of what they do poorly, what they shouldn't do instead of what is possible, or comparing and informing them of what others are doing.  This creates a victim mentality and an opportunity for a teenager to avoid responsibility.  Anytime you define goals by what you won't do instead of what you will do, you'll undermine your development (one reason New Year's Resolutions tend to be unsuccessful).

Hearing that coach on Saturday has led me to take even more time to reflect on what I say as a coach.  Because it matters.  I ask athletes what their thoughts are regarding my matside demeanor.  I lean into other coaches and parents for input, too.  I know far too many coaches who are afraid to open themselves up to constructive criticism from those closest to them.

Coaches, watch video of yourself as a coach, ask for input on how you're doing and what others see in you.  You want your athletes to watch video of themselves after competitions and be coachable, don't you?  The same should be true for those steering the ship.  We should lead by example and constantly be looking for ways to improve.

I do my best to posture myself as a lifelong learner.  I'm thankful I was able to glean something from another coach over the weekend.  We should always be looking for opportunities to learn from everyone no matter what their role is.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sportsmanship, Canadian Style

Over the last several years, I've had the opportunity to watch some great displays of sportsmanship within our sport.  The wrestling community does very well to highlight these important displays on forums and social media.  Maybe it's because the nature of our sport is so physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, we're quick to honor others because we understand each other at the core.  Wrestling is also unique because those larger-than-life moments and superstars are very tangible.  We see them up close and know them personally.

One of my favorite moments of the year occurred at the WIAA State Wrestling Tournament when Zack Anglin stole the show on the North end of the Kohl Center.  For how impressive and inspirational his athletic accomplishments are, what makes him unique is bigger than his disabilities or overcoming them.  He's more of an impressive young man than he is an aspiring athlete.

At the World Championships in Las Vegas, there was an international sportsmanship that was global-sized taking place behind the curtains that many don't see.  Countries working together, sharing their stories and building genuine friendships in spite of religious of political differences and still trying to hammer one another in competition.  There were also indelible moments for me personally.  There's only one thing that I can imagine will top draping an American flag over the shoulders of one of my favorite people and I'll save that moment for 2016 in Rio. 

I could go on and on, however, a moment in time that has had a significant impact on me since it occurred took place North of the boarder at the Canadian Olympic Team Trials.  Most within the American wrestling community missed the incredible headline stories and wrestling action in Strathcona County on December 4-6.  I had a vested interest as I had been working with one of the athletes competing, so I watched closely online.  This event wasn't short on great displays of sportsmanship, which has always been my experience with Canadian wrestling events.  However, the one that everyone must know about happened towards the end of the finals when two training partners and dear friends squared off for the women's 48 KG spot.  Jasmine Mian and Genevieve Morrison both competed at the World Championships last year for Canada, but they were at different weights.  So, as teammates, they trained and sharpened one another.  Gen won a bronze medal in Vegas, which was a great moment for her and Team Canada.  At the Trials, Gen sat out until the finals and Jasmine climbed the ladder, beating a former world team member and a multiple-time world medalist, setting up the showdown of two wrestlers at the peak of their careers.

They battled hard and Mian won two straight bouts.  The fans understood the dynamic of these two competitors and I felt that tension through my computer screen a thousand miles away.  When the second match concluded, Dave Holland capture a picture for the ages that represents everything great and pure about Olympism and the sport of wrestling.  Two friends beat each other up in hopes of representing their country at the Olympic Games, but when the final whistle blew, only one could do so.  For both of them, their relationship was bigger than the outcome.   The frozen moment is history was incredible in its own right, however, what has transpired since it took place is what shows it was genuine.  Both have shared their version of the story on social media, blogs, interviews, etc. and only have admiration for the other.  It's refreshing when all of the things we hope wrestling teaches an individual is on full display on the biggest stage in the world.

My short explanation doesn't do justice to that moment.  Take the time to read about it from their perspectives.  Read Jasmine Mian's Blog, follow them on Twitter, etc.  They're great athletes and great human beings.

Well done, Jasmine and Gen.  The two of you are examples of what commitment, dedication, hard work and perseverance can get you in the sport of wrestling.  What's more is that your demonstration of honor, humility and integrity show us what living life at the highest level really looks like.  Character outlasts accomplishments and no matter the outcome, the human soul is always worth much more than gold because we're created in the image of God.