Why the tears?

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

― Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how successful we become, doubt will occasionally crawl into our minds and refuse to leave, like a song you don’t like but can’t quit hearing. It will haunt us in quiet times and in inopportune times, and it often seems that the harder we try to rid ourselves of doubt, the stronger it takes hold.

When doubt is confirmed by its partner failure, it starts to attach itself to our souls and can be as debilitating as the strongest virus. At those times, it takes a Herculean effort to destroy it – like it takes a Herculean effort to escape the almost-certain pin of a very strong opponent. That’s what happened on the mat a few weeks ago, with my son in his final state wrestling tournament.

Two years earlier, as a sophomore in his first year of varsity wrestling, he had stepped off the championship platform at the state wrestling tournament with a third-place medal around his neck. Standing above him were a senior and a junior, and with five consecutive pins to close out the season, the future looked bright. The very next day, we were in the gym, trying to climb two steps on that platform in 364 days.

Eight months later, he suffered a knee injury in the final football game of his junior year, causing him to miss a crucial season of development. Twenty-one months passed between wrestling matches. Still, he had never lost to anyone in his weight class in the state, and thought that he could have an undefeated season. That, and a state championship, became the goal. Sadly, the goal of an undefeated season didn’t make it past the first tournament of his senior year.

After three first-period pins, he lost the championship match in overtime to a wrestler from another state. Still, it was only one loss, and it was to a wrestler he wouldn’t face for the rest of the season. Then, the next tournament happened. He came down with a pretty bad cold and wrestled like it. Three more losses – all to wrestlers rated 1 or 2 in their respective classes. Though he avenged one of those losses later in the season, because all three opponents were either in different classes or from different states, they wouldn’t be obstacles in his quest for a state championship. He just couldn’t lose to anyone in his class. That happened three times in the next month.

Several times throughout the season, he reset his goal to “no more losses,” and each time, a loss followed. All told, he entered the pinnacle tournament of the season with ten losses, never winning a tournament until the district tournament in the week prior to the state tournament. With each loss, doubt became louder and stronger. We didn’t want to talk about it, but it was there, and he was going to need that Herculean effort to silence it.

When the state championship tournament came around, the no-more-losses goal intertwined with the state championship goal. You can’t lose in the state tournament and win a state championship. That wasn’t going to be easy. Two wrestlers in the tournament had pinned him earlier in the season. If he made it to the semi-finals, he would likely face a wrestler who had pinned him twice in the past six weeks. We didn’t want to have doubt, but logic wasn’t on our side. We were going to have to depend on faith instead.

Faith was rewarded in the semi-finals, when Patrick pinned the wrestler who had pinned him in their two earlier meetings. On the very next mat, almost simultaneously, the wrestler who had pinned Patrick in their only meeting was qualifying for the finals with a pin of his own. The semi-final pin helped to quiet the doubt, but with a talented wrestler who had already pinned him waiting in the finals, logic wasn’t on our side.

When Patrick was flipped to his back in the second period of the championship match, it looked pretty grim. Even the television commentators said that it was all but over. Somehow, in that moment however, he finally killed the doubt that had been haunting him all season, completing an improbable move and winning the state championship he had worked so hard to earn over the course of six years.

Unlike his dad, Patrick doesn’t often cry, especially out of happiness. This time, though, the emotion got the best of him, and the tears flowed almost immediately. Doubt literally had him on his back, but he didn’t allow it to win. The realization that he had beaten doubt and won a state championship had him bawling like a baby in front of 15,000 in the arena and many, many more on television.

We’ve talked about it several times in the days since, as the exhilaration of victory has faded into appreciation for the experience. Looking back, we’re able to see that three things helped him win that championship: 1. faith in the process, 2. not accepting less than his goal, and 3. never quitting. If he had waivered even a small bit in any of those areas, he surely would have been beaten.

Wrestling is now behind him, but its final lesson was a powerful one that we can all learn from: don’t EVER give up on your goals. Doubt is merely an obstacle, and it is only as powerful as you allow it to be.

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What I Learned as a Wrestler’s Parent

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I vividly remember watching my son wrestle for the first time five years ago (pictured above). He was a seventh-grader, and I had no idea what to expect. Would he struggle mightily to win a handful of matches, as I had in my brief, unremarkable wrestling career, or would he find success on the mat? Would I watch one season of wrestling or spend the next several winters running around to meets?

Later this week, he’ll wrestle in his final state tournament. The last time we were at the state tournament, at the end of his sophomore season, he stepped off the championship platform with a third-place medal. A junior and a senior occupied the two higher spots, and he beamed with confidence and anticipation of the two seasons ahead of him.

After a football injury forced him to sit out his junior year, we hoped he could pick up where he left off. The first and second place guys had graduated, and he had never lost to anyone in his class. We hoped it would be a year of relatively easy victories, but that’s rarely how wrestling works. We know that now.

We also know that wrestling not only develops athletes, it teaches their parents some pretty remarkable things as well – things I wish I had learned much earlier.

  1. We are there for support. Unless you have experience as a coach, leave the coaching to the coaches. Instead, focus on keeping your wrestler healthy and motivated. Remind him to sleep right and eat right. Give him the fuel he needs to compete. Kids will often default to convenience and impulse. Make sure that his pre-competition meals don’t look like movie theatre snacks and that his sleep routine has him rested and alert for competition and practice.
  2. We are there for encouragement. Because of the physical nature of wrestling, we tend to focus on our wrestlers’ physical health, and often neglect their emotional health. It’s important that parents encourage their wrestlers through the dark days when their egos are as bruised as their bodies. A friendly, accepting face can be invaluable after a brutal practice or heart-breaking loss. Lastly, above all else, it’s important that we encourage effort, because effort is all he can control. He might face superior talent, but no one has to face superior effort.
  3. Remember that there is a parent on the other side of the equation in every match. They experience the same struggles that you do. Treat them and their sons like you want your son to be treated. Talk to them in the stands. Your shared experiences will often make the conversation easy. I’ve had great conversations with parents whose sons my son has beaten, as well as the other way around. We’ve even sat side-by-side while our sons were on the same mat.
  4. Enjoy the moment. This is perhaps the toughest one, because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the anxiety of competition. Wrestling is an intense microcosm of life. Hundreds of hours of sacrifice and dedication are tested by relatively few moments on the mat. As a wrestling fan, you have the privilege of watching the drama unfold. Don’t waste that privilege by focusing on your bleacher butt and complaining about the length of the tournament. Even when things don’t go well and your son walks off the mat in defeat, be thankful that he was able to compete and learn from the experience.
  5. As the parent of a senior in his last month of the sport, I’m down to his last two tournaments, and they are big ones – the state tournament and the state dual tournament. His team is undefeated and in a good position to win the title. He is not undefeated, but could still win an individual championship, though it won’t be easy. Nothing in wrestling is easy, and that’s what makes is so special.

Patrick won that first match six years ago. I have no idea if he’ll win his last match, but I’m glad that I was along for the ride.

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Patrick in 2017

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Will You Be Doing THAT Next Year?

Traditionally, I start the new year off with a New Year’s resolution column, but I didn’t do it this year. Not that I don’t think resolutions aren’t important – it was a resolution that started this blog – it’s that very few people seem interested in those columns. Those that I’ve written rank near the bottom in page views by my readership. It seems that not many want to think about resolutions. Why’s that?

Resolutions reflect change, and that makes most of us very uncomfortable. Even though we know that we have room for growth, and most of want to grow, nearly all of us want to avoid the discomfort of change. This makes it difficult for us to even start the process of living up to our New Year’s resolutions. It’s like we’re standing at the base of a beautiful mountain that we’ve always wanted to climb, but fear of the journey keeps us from taking the first step.

I’ve found that the best way to motivate positive change is to project a year or so ahead. To follow the mountain analogy, picture yourself either at the top or nearing the top of the mountain. Then, picture yourself looking down at your former self who still hasn’t moved. While you might be sore and a little tired from the journey, your former self is in even worse condition – filled with envy and regret – seeing where he could have been if only he had started the journey.

Take that thought to your professional situation. Are you where you were last year, standing at the bottom of the mountain? Is it where you want to be? Is it where you want to be next year? For most of us, the answers to those questions are yes, no and no, but that reality is not easy to admit.

Every day, as a recruiter, I talk to people who are dishonest about their career satisfaction. Although employment surveys tell us that nearly half of all employees are considering a job change, few will admit to it and even fewer will pursue the change, because they don’t want to invite that discomfort into their lives. It’s a lot easier to stand at the bottom of the mountain and watch someone else put themselves through the discomfort of the climb. If they slip and fall, you can pat yourself on the back for standing still. The problem is: standing gets you nowhere.

We can choose comfort and regret or discomfort and growth in almost all aspects of our lives. For several years, I planned to join Toastmasters to work on my public speaking. Months and years passed with me standing at the bottom of the mountain before I sought out a club near my office. The pain of regret finally overtook the allure of comfort, and I decided to give up one lunch per week and the hours needed to prepare my speeches, in order to achieve the personal growth that I desired. Less than a year in, I was able to look down from that mountain and be thankful that I wasn’t still standing at the bottom.

Try that with something that you have been intending to do. Send a resume to that company you’ve admired for a position you’ve desired. Enroll in a college program that you know is key to your professional goals. Join a gym and start sculpting the body that you’ll be proud to see in the mirror. When next year comes, be standing ON the mountain, not at the bottom.

 

Note: This entry marks the sixth year of my commitment to writing a monthly blog. For 60 consecutive months, I’ve written at least one column, publishing it on the Monday closest to the 15th. I’ve truly enjoyed the exercise, and the encouragement that I get from readers keeps me banging away at the keyboard. Thanks for the support.

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Where’s my name?

allstate

All-state, all-conference, all-district, all-American . . . as sports seasons draw to a close, recognition lists start to appear. The recognition is great for those who receive it, but what about those whose names don’t appear on the lists?

That happened to my son last year. He had a great football season – better than his sophomore season when he received honorable mention, but his name rose no higher during his junior season. Naturally, we looked at the list of honorees, and just as naturally, we felt he belonged. It was frustrating and heart-breaking, but just like all of the other frustrating and heart-breaking experiences of the past couple of years, it taught us a lot.

Most of all, it taught us how to deal positively with disappointment, which is important, because disappointment is part of life. This is especially true if you challenge yourself with risks. The higher you reach, the more you expose yourself to a gut punch like disappointment.

For athletes:

First, you have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Voters often have limited data when they make their selections, and they rely on what others have said about your performance. That can be your coach, an opposing coach or the media, and they all have biases, even though most try really hard to suppress those biases. Furthermore, inclusion on many of the lists is dependent on your team’s success. The better a team does, the more players are included in post-season honors, but even that has a limit. Voters are reluctant to include too many from a single team or even a single region, so if you are in the shadows of super-stars, it’s hard to shine. This is even more challenging for underclassmen, as seniority seems to figure in the calculations. Sometimes, those factors work in your favor, and sometimes, they work against you.

Second, it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. My son feared that a lack of all-state recognition during his junior season would hurt his college recruiting in the following year. It didn’t. We can’t recall a single instance where it was even mentioned. Recruiters don’t rely on others to do their evaluations, and things turned out just fine for my son when the recruiters had a chance to do their own evaluation of him. Plus, not everyone pays attention to sports news. Everyone who appreciated your performance still appreciates your performance.

You are not alone. Hundreds of athletes felt slighted when they saw the lists, and many were justified in that feeling. Not every deserving athlete will be included. In fact, there are probably better athletes than you who were left off the list.

For the rest of us:

Throughout life, you are going to be evaluated and compared to others. Sometimes, you’re going to get that promotion, and other times, it’s going to go to the guy down the hall. Often, you can’t control that. The one thing you can control is your reaction.

Don’t let rejection get you down. Your peers and key decision-makers are watching your reaction. Be gracious, and then be silent in your resolve to prove that you belong. Now, when the iron is hot, is the time to make your mark.

Do an honest self-evaluation, once the pity and frustration subside. You might not be able to be objective immediately after disappointing news. When you can be objective, look for areas for personal growth. No matter where you are in life, there is always room for growth. Become a master at evaluating yourself. It’s never a good idea to leave evaluation to those who don’t know your potential.

Set goals for yourself. Write them down. Hold yourself accountable and celebrate your successes in reaching them. Goals affirm your progress, and unlike outside evaluations, you have complete control of them.

The mood in our house was markedly better this year when the football post-season awards were announced, but we know that last year’s disappointment won’t be the last. Next time, though, we’ll be better prepared to turn it into a positive. That we can control.

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When It’s Over, Coping Strategies for a Senior Parent

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My son walked off his high school’s home football field for the last time on Friday. Like 15 of the 16 playoff teams, his team ended their season in defeat. The fact that they were among the final four was little consolation that night, as the seniors shed their Gretna green for the last time.

Years ago, I’d bring him to the high school games at that stadium. He’d sit in the middle school section while my wife, daughter and I sat on the other side of the press box. Like clockwork, he’d show up at our seats at halftime, looking for concession stand money. After the game, he and I would talk about what we saw and about how neat it was going to be to play on that field with his friends in a few years. Those years went quickly.

He started in the first varsity game of his sophomore year and every game since. During the final games of his sophomore and junior seasons, I looked over at the senior parents and tried to imagine what they were feeling. In both cases, we suffered losses in the state quarter-final playoff games. There was no next game or even next year for them. It was over. Selfishly, I was thankful that there was another year for us.

For the past two weeks, I watched seniors on our opponents’ teams play their last down of high school football. For most, it will be the last down ever as a football player. For them, it’s over. If we had lost either game, it would have been over for us too.

When it’s over, it’s hard not to look back with regret, but regret doesn’t get us anywhere. When it’s over, it’s hard not to wish that it wasn’t over, but it’s pointless to wish away an inevitable ending. The end is going to come in almost everything.

These are realities that I will face several times in the next few months, as my oldest child moves through his senior year of high school, and then again in two years, when my youngest does the same.

To help me cope, this is the strategy I’m trying to use:

  1. It’s not about me. I’m a nostalgic guy, and because of that, my perspective is often skewed. Nostalgic people tend to get distracted by their own thoughts, and I’m no different. While my nostalgia is irrepressible, it’s also tied to my child’s experience. As much as possible, I have to let my child’s emotions guide my approach, and remind myself that I’m just support.
  2. Gratitude. A tremendously positive experience is the entire reason that there is sadness when it’s over. If we didn’t enjoy the ride so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much when it grinds to a stop. Instead of the sadness of an ending, I try to remember the positives and be thankful. Pictures, memories and spending time with other parents help with this. Don’t let the screeching of the brakes ruin the thrill of riding a rollercoaster.
  3. The end is part of a transition process. The end is also the start of something new. College doesn’t start until high school ends. A career doesn’t start until college ends. You can’t progress to the next stage until you draw the curtain on the previous stage.

I was mostly successful with these strategies on Friday night, but it wasn’t easy. I had to consciously steer my thoughts away from sadness and regret, and break from my typical post-game routine.

Normally, I rush to the parking lot as soon as the game ends. Not this time. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the seniors consoled each other under the bright lights, I stood up from the seat I had occupied for three seasons and took a few minutes to burn a picture in my memory. I should have done it earlier, but I was finally able to fully appreciate the moment, right before it was over.

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Looking Up from a Wheelchair

He walked right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to the stadium. I was on a recruiting visit with my son at a large nationally ranked football program, and though we had never met him before, the record-setting starting quarterback was extremely friendly and generous with his pre-game time. A couple of his coaches and teammates also stopped by or waved my direction.

I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognize that my wheelchair, rather than my good looks, probably attracted the extra attention. I’m certain that I wasn’t mistaken as a recruit.

There was a time that I was ashamed to use my wheelchair – I can walk, after all – but using the chair has more than the obvious benefits, like moving comfortably and quickly to places that would otherwise be impossible. From that chair, I see incredible kindness in strangers – kindness that few people get to see, like that scene in the stadium.

People rush to open doors, to greet me and to ask if they can help in any way. Strangers have bought me drinks and insisted that I cut in line.

Despite the discord that captures headlines, using a wheelchair has shown me that most people genuinely care about others. Last month, I wrote about an awkward exchange with a stranger in a Las Vegas elevator, but that happens far less than the other side of the spectrum. More often, people go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me, and I truly appreciate that.

I’m still not completely comfortable in the chair, and only use it for longer distances or challenging terrain. On short walks, like into the gym or church, I walk unassisted. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, I use my “stick.” (I still can’t bring myself to call it a cane, and it really is a shooting stick that doubles as a walking stick.)

Physically though, I’m much more comfortable off my feet. When I’m on my feet and moving, my eyes focus on the ground in front of me, as I scan for slick spots or impediments that might knock me over. Because my attention is elsewhere, I can appear aloof and unapproachable when I’m walking, making it hard for me to notice strangers as much more than potential impediments. Most strangers react instinctively to my body language and give me space. The chair changes all of that.

Psychologically, I’m getting more comfortable using the chair when I have to, because I’ve learned that people are far less bothered by the chair than I am.

Ironically, I was more anxious in the chair in front of friends and family than in front of strangers. Walking around with a limp for nearly my entire life has numbed me to the stares of strangers. It was harder for me to succumb to the chair in the presence of people who have known me for years. It’s not like they didn’t know that I had a handicap, but it was important to me to show that I wasn’t that abnormal, especially to people who I have walked beside for years.. Hell, I hunted, skied, golfed and ran beside some of these people before the wear and tear of awkward movement made that impossible. I worried that somehow my relationships would change with the new limitations. Fortunately, using the chair has only improved my relationships.

For the last few years, I would skip games and other outings, because the walking they required made me uncomfortable during them and miserable afterward. I don’t have that problem in the chair, and my friends and family realize that and they are thankful that I was able to set my ego aside and ride. I have even relented and let some people push the chair. That was a big step for me, especially with my childhood friends with whom I used to compete for male dominance. None of have them have shown the discomfort I feared, and they all are eager to help.

Again, I’d much prefer a life without the occasional use of the chair, but that wasn’t the fate I was handed. Accepting that fate with a positive attitude has been rewarded with an enhanced feeling and appreciation of kindness that I otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy and spread kindness, but you might have to consciously participate. Just slow down and take the time to be kind and appreciate kindness. In short order, you’ll find that kindness requires little investment and pays huge dividends.

 

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Looking Down on a Wheelchair

She looked at my wife, then at me and then at the wall before saying, “I don’t envy you.” We were in an elevator at Bellagio in Las Vegas, headed back to our room after an afternoon spent exploring The Strip. I was in my wheelchair, and Lynda was behind me. It was evident that it was Lynda who she didn’t envy.

Lynda did leave the door open for that comment when she said something to the effect of, “That’s a workout!” in regard to pushing the wheelchair. Still, the stranger’s comment was stunning, so much so that neither of us could manage a response. To her credit, the stranger probably wasn’t trying to insult us – she just let a thought escape her lips.

No man wants to be the source of pity for his wife, but I could understand the reason behind the insensitive comment. Pushing a wheelchair is a lot of work, and I would have much rather been walking side-by-side with my wife, but that wasn’t an option. Ironically, the wheelchair was Lynda’s idea, and the genesis for that idea came in Las Vegas. On our first trip to Las Vegas and for most of the second, Lynda mostly explored the city on her own, as the walking that it required was just too much for my legs. It didn’t bother me all that much to wait in the room while Lynda was out. As my friends and family know, I never want to get in the way.

On that second trip to Las Vegas, Lynda checked with the hotel concierge and discovered that they had a wheelchair for people like me to use. Even when she brought the chair up to the room, I resisted. I had never been in a wheelchair in public, and wasn’t eager to start. My wife is persistent though, and I’m glad that she is. Using a wheelchair allowed me to see Las Vegas in ways that never would have been possible otherwise. We were returning from just such an adventure when we encountered the stranger on the elevator.

I’m not a stranger to pity, and it really doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that genuine pity comes out of concern. People don’t want to see me struggle, and they feel sorry for me that I have to struggle. Plus, they don’t want the struggle for themselves, and are secretly afraid that they couldn’t handle it. I’m certain that the stranger in the elevator felt that way for Lynda and probably for me too. She just said what a lot of other people were thinking.

She had no idea that Lynda insisted on buying me a wheelchair and using it even when I don’t want to. Several times on that trip, I told Lynda that she could leave me in the room, but she always refused. (It’s hard to be stubborn around my wife.) She makes sacrifices like that all of the time, and I appreciate her immensely for it.

The stranger also didn’t know that my hands were blistered and bleeding from propelling the chair myself. There is a reason that experienced wheelchair users wear gloves.

Most of all, the stranger didn’t realize that people with ample experience facing adversity don’t pity themselves and certainly don’t want pity from others. In fact, we’re often happier than people without adversity, because we appreciate small things that a lot of other people take for granted. Pity doesn’t usually cross our minds, unless someone else brings it up, like what happened on that elevator.

Coincidentally, I read the book Tough as They Come by Travis Mills during that trip. SSG Mills is a quadruple amputee due to injuries he suffered while defending our country in Afghanistan. Like me, he has an incredible wife who adapted to a marriage that requires more from her than lesser women could handle. Initially, when facing his new reality and its limitations, SSG Mills thought of his wife Kelsey and what his injuries would mean to her. I’m sure that the stranger on the elevator wouldn’t envy her either, because that was SSG Mills’ initial feeling too. However, once he crushed self-pity, he found a new purpose that he could share with his wife, the Travis Mills Foundation.

I write all of this not to make you feel guilty for pitying other people, but to ask you to use pity as a prompt for kindness. When you feel the very natural feeling of pity, say or do something nice. You might surprised by the beauty you find in adversity, just like we are.

Tough as They Come

Next Month: It’s not all bad! Far from it! Hear about the good things in people I get to see from my wheelchair.

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