Posts Tagged sports
Last month, I watched a Virginia basketball player step to the foul line with less than a second on the clock and his team down by two points in a national championship semi-final game. I was astonished to watch him coolly sink all three free throws to put his team permanently in the lead. That astonishment became complete amazement when I learned about the battle that the young man was fighting.
In the previous year, Kyle Guy played a key role in a season that culminated with his team in the NCAA tournament with a #1 seed. In the history of the tournament, no #1 seed had ever lost to a #16 seed, but that’s exactly what happened to Virginia. Fan outrage was intense, and Guy took the loss especially hard. Though he had battled anxiety privately for years, the loss and his ensuing emotions prompted him to take action. He met with a psychologist and began taking anti-anxiety medication.
The pressure on Division 1 athletes is intense. Not only do they face the academic challenges of a typical student, their athletic talents put them in the spotlight, where their performances are highly scrutinized. The more success that they and their teams experience, the higher the pressure. This is especially hard on male athletes who are expected to be “tough.” Unfortunately, struggling with anxiety and asking for help are not considered tough by some fans.
Not only did Guy admit that he needed help, he did so in a very public way on social media. Furthermore, he made public appearances in order to encourage others who might privately be waging similar battles. He didn’t need to expose himself to further scrutiny, but he did, and was better for the experience.
It’s not easy to ask for help or to expose your weaknesses. It’s even more difficult when you are battling anxiety. I might argue that what he did a year ago, when he sought help, was braver and more impressive than sinking those free throws as the world watched.
Many of us ask for help only as a last resort. While personal accountability is certainly laudable, most of us take it overboard, and we let pride keep us from getting the assistance we need to live life to its fullest.
Readers of this blog know that I’m one of those stubborn people who didn’t want to acknowledge my weaknesses, let alone ask others for help. Even as my physical abilities waned, I resisted opportunities to make life easier for myself. Instead of applying for a handicapped parking placard, I quit going to events that required a lot of walking. Instead of asking for an easier route into an unfamiliar building, I would send my family to celebrations and other occasions without me.
When long walks became virtually impossible, instead of taking a ride in a wheelchair. I simply stayed home. Only when my wife insisted that I quit letting pride limit my life did I finally break down and get the parking permit and then the wheelchair. I don’t have to imagine what I would have missed had I let my world continue to shrink. Because I admitted that I needed help, I was able to enjoy life in the way that it was meant to be enjoyed.
I have to wonder if Kyle Guy would have made those free throws if he still bore the weight of his anxiety without help. I suspect that he wouldn’t. Fortunately, he took action at a crucial juncture in his life, and now he is a national champion.
If you are struggling with something, whether it’s mental or physical, take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself if your stubbornness is part of the problem. Then, take a good look around you and notice those who would eagerly help. You might be surprised at how much your world can open.
Just outside my office is a golf course that provides amusement and distraction during my work day. When the windows are open, I can hear golfers smack the ball. Occasionally, I hear them use interesting combinations of four-letter words to convey their enthusiasm for their performance. I’ve even heard a window or two break.
Though few golfers impress me, I admire all of them, because they are doing what they should be doing – enjoying the opportunity to golf.
I used to be one of them. In fact, I was a varsity golfer on my high school team, mostly because there weren’t very many good high school golfers in my hometown. When I competed, it was best to start at the bottom of the results, if you wanted to find my score. For a while, I thought that I was the inspiration for the term “handicapped scoring.”
In an odd twist of fate, that forgettable golf career earned me a job coaching high school golf, when I graduated from college and became a teacher. Just a few years removed from stinking up the courses in Central Nebraska, I was leading high school golfers, most of them far better golfers than I ever was. Due to no fault of my own, those teams were largely successful, mostly because I was sufficiently self aware to get out of the way. That and the fact that I never drove the van into the ditch were my largest contributions to that success.
Though I was never very good at it, I enjoyed being around golf. When I played and coached, I had an occasional good shot or even a good round, but I almost always had a good time. I envisioned golf being a part of my life for many years to come. Like my grandfather, who didn’t start golfing until he retired and then was never very good, I saw myself golfing into my 80s. Unfortunately, I barely made it into my 30s.
I got busy with kids in my late 20s and early 30s, and didn’t golf regularly. Some years, I didn’t golf at all. I probably could have and should have, but it felt selfish to leave my wife at home with chaos. When I did make it back to the golf course, my body no longer bent and moved like it used to. I backed off and resolved to work on improving my weaknesses in the hope that I could still swing a club. A few months later, it was no better. In fact, it was even more difficult to make contact with the ball, let alone direct it in a safe direction, and the very motion of swinging hurt. I was done.
Like I do with pretty much everything out of my reach, I blocked golf out of my mind. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to dwell on things that are no longer an option. We’re all going to get there eventually. I just got there more quickly. I tell myself that a lot.
But sometimes I don’t listen. Lately, when I catch myself watching the golfers outside my office, those old golf fantasies cross my mind. One day, I even stood up from my chair and attempted a swing without a club. I wanted to see what that felt like, hoping that maybe I could find a way to get back out there. I took one swing that probably didn’t look much like a swing and nearly fell over, much like the last time I tried that on an actual golf course with an actual club. It wasn’t going to happen.
I share this story not to make you feel sorry for me – I don’t even feel sorry for myself – but to make you think about the things that you should be doing and aren’t. I see way too many people wasting opportunities far too often or making excuses that result in lost opportunities.
Perhaps you’re postponing travel, because everything isn’t perfect, when perfection really isn’t necessary. I’m proof that the opportunity you assumed would always be there sometimes isn’t there when you expect it to be. Can you live with the regret of missing it?
Maybe you’re frustrated that age has reduced your physical prowess, and because you aren’t what you once were, you quit trying. Don’t do that. Reduced physical prowess is better than no physical prowess.
If I could travel back in time to 1999, I would make the time to golf more. It probably wouldn’t affect my ability to play now, but I would be satisfied that I squeezed everything I could out of the game before it was taken from me. Do yourself a favor and try to live your life in such a way that you don’t have the same kind of regret.
“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.
To find the magic around us, we often have to challenge our preconceptions and look below the surface. The Olympics and a conversation I had about them reminded me of that recently.
“Table tennis? You’re really watching table tennis?” I asked my son last weekend when I found him with remote in hand, glued to the screen of the TV. “Why would you watch that?” In my cynical eyes, I saw a simple game that you might play in your grandparents’ basement, not a serious sport worthy of the Olympics.
“Because it’s a teenage kid who has worked his tail off to compete at the highest level,” he told me. “I can identify with it.” Yep, another humbling moment for Dad. Just when I think I’m starting to figure things out, I’m reminded that I have a lot to learn.
The Olympics is not about spectator entertainment, it’s about the passion and dedication of the athletes who are competing. It’s about their four-year journey and the sacrifices they make. It’s about nurturing a dream while toiling in relative obscurity. It’s about the power of the human spirit.
For the most part, Olympic athletes are not household names. Even those who succeed enjoy a relatively short time in the limelight. Very few make even an acceptable income from their efforts. In fact, they often delay their career and family goals while they pursue their dreams. Many aspiring Olympic athletes, despite their dedication and sacrifice, won’t even qualify for the competition, forcing them to decide if they can spend another four years in preparation. We don’t see any of that when we scoff at a game of table tennis.
We don’t see the ten years that Kanak Jha, the 16-year-old table tennis phenom, spent in preparation for the Olympic stage. Last year, while most of his contemporaries were headed to high school, Jha traveled from his California home to Sweden to train with the world’s best table tennis players, splitting time between training and taking online high school classes. He sacrificed a normal high school experience to pursue his dreams.
While I learned that, yes, it is possible to make a nice living playing table tennis, even most Olympic-level table tennis players won’t get there. Like many athletes, that doesn’t keep them from trying.
There is a 20-year-old woman in my neighborhood who has been religiously training to be an Olympic weight-lifter for the past few years. Like Jha, she splits her time between academics and training, making sacrifices that few are aware of and even fewer are capable of. Again, it’s not money or fame that drives her. She is driven by a desire to be the very best at what she loves to do.
Imagine if we could apply passion like that to our professional lives – if we could sacrifice comfort and convenience for multiple years in a quest to be the very best at what we do.
I’m reminded of the 10,000 hour rule which I first encountered when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The theory of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” to become world class at something, and it’s applicable to many areas. For example, the average professional works 50 40-hour weeks or 2000 hours per year. At this pace, it takes them five years to become world-class at their profession. Of course, they can shorten this by working more hours, like a 50 hour-per-week pace for 51 weeks. In that case, they can achieve world-class status in one less year. Coincidentally, it’s four years between Olympics.
While might not ever be Olympic athletes, we can certainly learn something from their dedication and perseverance, and through that, an appreciation for what they do – even table tennis.
Imagine working for hundreds of hours over several years to realize a dream. Imagine needing just one more victory to achieve that goal. Now, imagine walking side-by-side with someone who has the same goal, but if he wins, you lose.
That’s exactly what will happen on Saturday afternoon at the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament during the “Parade of Champions,” one of the neatest annual traditions in Nebraska high school sports. In the final three hours of the three-day state wrestling tournament, 56 wrestlers will end their wrestling season with the referee raising their hand as a state champion. Another 56 will experience a level of dejection that they have probably never experienced and might not ever experience again. For two minutes though, they all experience the Parade of Champions.
I first saw the Parade of Champions in 1989, as a college freshman, when I attended the tournament with a classmate who had won championships the previous two years. I last saw the Parade of Champions last year, 26 years later, as the parent of a wrestler who came up one match short of participating in the Parade. The format has changed slightly over the years, as well as the venue, but the intensity remains extremely high, even for a spectator in the stands.
The wrestlers enter the 15,000-seat arena walking side-by-side with the opponents they will face in their championship matches. The public announce system will play Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” as they are led in a processional which will end with opponents facing each other on the very mat upon which they will decide the championship. The 15,000-plus fans will be on their feet cheering for wrestlers who typically wrestle in front of a few hundred – their successes often relegated to the box score section of the sports page. It’s an incredible affirmation of their journey.
(You can see video of the ceremony at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vq0CiBDBbxA (skip ahead to the 2 minute mark) or at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2r_6n-BrLY for a version of the Parade that happened before most of these wrestlers were born.)
To get here, they each won three consecutive matches in a bracket containing the other 14 state-qualifying wrestlers in their weight class. Those guys are either in the stands, wishing they were on floor, or on the bus on their way home. For months, and most often years, the championship contenders have trained for this moment. They have endured some of the most intense practices a high school athlete can endure. They have made countless sacrifices to get here. Many haven’t tasted soda or fast food since November, as they transformed their bodies into lean wrestling machines.
Most of them have missed the championship match in previous years, so they understand the significance of the moment. In fact, they have likely dreamt about this moment, as they left practice, sore, tired and worried about their next match. To convince themselves to persist in their journey, they have probably pictured where they will display their championship medal.
Their coaches, teammates, friends and family will watch with bated breath, hoping their wrestlers will end the season with their hand held high. There will be celebrations for the winners and a long, restless night for the losers. The seniors know that this will be their last chance to make a dream come true. The underclassmen don’t know what the future holds, and as wrestlers, they know that they must seize their opportunity, because there is no entitlement in wrestling.
The entire scene is a microcosm of life. Long after the wrestlers unlace their wrestling shoes for the last time, they will experience adulthood’s shocking successes and crushing disappointments. It’s unlikely that their subsequent victories and defeats will be broadcast statewide and happen in front of an arena of expectant eyes, but they will take the lessons they learned on this stage and benefit from them.
Whether they land the big job or lose the major account, they will understand that both victory and defeat are temporary and that they must continue to apply themselves and the lessons they learned in order to reach their goals, like they did to be right here, in this moment.
We all have had pinnacles in our lives – moments when our dreams were realized or crushed – so it should be easy for us to empathize with the drama from our seat in the arena or from our sofa at home. That’s what makes sports so compelling. You don’t have to be an athlete to recognize the emotion.
This is real reality TV, and it’s available on public television at 3 pm this Saturday, if you can’t be at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, you can see all of the final matches online at http://netnebraska.org/basic-page/sports/nsaa-high-school-championships.
We should be two tournaments and a dual into my son’s penultimate season of high school wrestling, but we’re not. A knee injury in the last football game of the season has him sitting impatiently on the sidelines.
That first tournament was going to be tough. Two guys in his weight class will be D1 FBS scholarship linemen next year. One of them is a defending undefeated state champion, and headed to Nebraska. The other is 6’5” and 285 lbs, and headed to Arkansas. Patrick lost to him last year, 7-1. The defending champion and last year’s runner-up would be in his brackets in several tournaments this season. Undoubtedly, this wrestling season was going to be challenging, but after finishing third last year, he had prepared for that, and eagerly anticipated the challenge. Now, it’s not going to happen.
Multiple sports seasons relatively free of injury probably gave us a false sense of confidence. Last wrestling season’s bout with mono was challenging, but the time away from the mat was brief, and Patrick was able to recover in time for the important season-ending tournaments, winning 17 of his last 20 matches. This time, we weren’t as lucky.
At the exact moment his coaches and teammates were posing for the annual team picture, he was being wheeled into the operating room.
Optimism is the rule in our house, and in the few days between the injury and the prognosis, we clung to the hope that surgery wouldn’t be necessary and that time away from the mat would be short. It was tough to see that snatched from him, but we’re treating the experience as a powerful lesson in perspective.
Missing a wrestling season, while disappointing, barely registers on the list of possible health-related challenges. While we were learning that knee surgery would be necessary, some people were getting dire cancer prognoses. While he’s in physical therapy, they will be in chemotherapy. When he’s competing again in a few months, their battle will wage on.
It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you think like that. It also gives you a reason to be thankful for everything that you do have. Gratitude is important any time we face life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks, because it helps us push back self-pity.
When we face these setbacks, it’s tempting to feel like helpless victims of circumstance. Why me? will cross our minds, if not our lips. It’s hard to accept the reality that God sometimes puts us on the sidelines so we understand the game better when our number is called. It’s even harder to treat these experiences as blessings, but they are, if our attitudes are right.
I’ve learned from experience that it’s important to face adversity with faith and optimism. With that attitude in place, setbacks can give us an opportunity to fully reach the depth of our potential. Maybe things have come too easily for us, and only with a unique challenge will we be forced to “find that extra gear.” At other times, setbacks force us into thinking, thinking about how we can live better, more effective lives. Almost always, setbacks give us the opportunity to take an inventory of our lives and a chance to rearrange our priorities so that the most important things get an appropriate amount of our attention.
Though this wrestling season won’t go the way we hoped, we’re making the best out of the experience. Instead of dwelling in the negatives of recovery, we are focused on the positives. The unexpected off-season will give him extra time to build himself in the weight room. It will also provide an opportunity to observe the emotional roller coaster of a wrestling season and be better prepared for it next season. Most important, he is learning to fully appreciate everything and everyone around him. For that, we’re thankful.
* Thanks for all of the notes of support. Patrick’s injury was a meniscus tear (fortunately, no ligament damage) that required some sewing. He has to be very careful in rehab and diligent in his exercise, but 100% recovery is expected.
If we pay attention, we are occasionally rewarded with unexpected opportunities to observe the brilliance of life when triumph and defeat collide. Such was the case, earlier in the week, when I watched the championship game of the Nebraska Girls State Soccer Tournament, pitting Elkhorn South against Gretna.
I hadn’t planned on watching the game – I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched an entire soccer game, but I was interested in this one, because my children attend Gretna schools, and my wife and I have known a handful of the Gretna players since they were very young. I didn’t even realize that the game was televised, until I sat down and read the newspaper. When I tuned in, Elkhorn South had just scored the game’s only goal to take the lead 1-0, and only five minutes remained.
Things didn’t look good for Gretna. They had already been beaten by Elkhorn South twice this year – not only beaten, but shut out. In fact, over the past two seasons, Elkhorn South had shut out Gretna five times. Shut-outs are a bit of a thing for Elkhorn South, which was going for its 18th shut-out of the season and 19th straight win. Gretna had only five minutes remaining to do what very few had this year – score a goal on this incredible defense.
As time ticked away, it looked like Elkhorn South would capture the state title that had evaded them the year before. In that championship game, they had given up the lead with 35 seconds remaining, and would go on to lose the game in a shoot-out.
Forty-four seconds remained this time when defender Sarah Zeleny took a shot from 40 yards away. The senior had never scored a goal in her high school career, and one of the state’s best defenses was between her and the goal. None of that mattered, as she placed the shot perfectly just above the goalie’s reach to force overtime.
Even Zeleny was surprised. “Usually when I shoot it, it doesn’t go anywhere near the goal,” she said in a newspaper interview.
The Elkhorn South team never recovered. Just like last year, they gave up a late lead and lost in extra minutes. While they were stunned in disbelief, Gretna was ecstatic. Meanwhile, from my recliner, I was thankful for the lessons in fairness, faith, opportunity and momentum that the game provided.
Fairness: Elkhorn South played a near-perfect game and had been dominant all season. After their heartbreak in last year’s final, they were due some good fortune. Instead, luck went the other way, and their dominant effort ended in frustration. Sometimes, we can do everything right, and still not succeed. Life isn’t always fair.
Faith: Facing daunting odds, the Gretna team didn’t give up. It would have been easy to accept their fate as another shut-out victim, but they didn’t, and though she had never scored a goal, Zeleny seized the opportunity to help her team. When the odds are against us, faith gives us a chance.
Opportunity: In a normal situation, Zeleny would have never tried such a long shot with such a low probability of success; she would have tried to move the ball to a teammate. However, in this case, because precious little time was left, doing what she normally did would have likely resulted in defeat. Though she hadn’t made a goal in her entire career, she had practiced for that moment for years, and when it came, she didn’t hesitate. Sure, luck was involved, but luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Momentum: Since I know very little about soccer, I rely on others, and the consensus seems to be that Elkhorn South played better than Gretna, until Zeleny’s goal. Shortly after that goal, Gretna scored the game-winning goal and then held on to win 2-1. I don’t know if the Elkhorn South team ever gave up two goals so quickly. Momentum can be energizing when it’s with us, and crushing, when it isn’t. When momentum favors us, we need to do everything we can to capitalize.
I watched the Nebraska Boys State Soccer Tournament Final the next day, and whatever luck and momentum Gretna had came to an end early, as the boys lost 1-0. In fact, they lost to a team coached by one of my former students at the school where I once taught and coached myself. Though, I’m still not a soccer fan, both games were gifts I didn’t expect to receive this week.
Congratulations Champions: Gretna Lady Dragons and Columbus Scotus Shamrocks (especially Coach Brezenski)