Sports can provide an ideal setting for the transmission of wisdom, in this case, from a father to his son.
In college, I read Umberto Eco’s richly complex and insightful novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. A particular line jumped out at me at the time: “What we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments when they aren’t teaching us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” This stuck with me years after reading, and it’s continued to be a guiding principle, especially now, being a father of three young children, and a water polo coach of many young men.
One morning early in my coaching career, I stood on the pool deck overseeing my athletes go through an exceptionally rigorous conditioning drill, one requiring them to perform physiologically taxing exercises on an unforgiving time interval. I noticed quite a few of them taking it easy and “cheating” the drill using their hands at one point to make it easier instead of fighting through the rigor of the legs-only instructions.
I stopped the drill and chatted with them about my expectations. As I spoke, I was reminded of a scrap of wisdom gifted to me by my father back in high school. It truly is the one scrap I’ve applied more than any other acquired along the way. It’s the single scrap I’d attribute to any of the successes I’ve had in any venture, sporting or otherwise.
I thought to myself, “Do I explicitly share this with the boys now or try to disseminate it in an ‘odd moment’ as it was to me?” Because I wanted this little morsel of wisdom for every one of my athletes, I went with it. I broke the “odd moments” rule and shared…
One rainy day during winter break of my sophomore year in high school, I felt exceptionally sluggish and low-energy. But it was my scheduled day to lift weights. I’d established the goal of becoming the best goalkeeper I possibly could, along with eventually playing Division I college water polo with hopes of making the National Team. So I went. I lifted heavy objects up and down, to the point of failure, and put them back where I found them.
When I arrived home, my father asked how it went. “Fine,” I responded, “Pretty good,” realizing it actually had gone well despite my preconceptions. “Actually, surprisingly good. I really didn’t want to work out at all before I left the house.”
Here comes the off-the-cuff scrap. I have only my oft-replayed memory of how it went down. I’d pay a good sum of money to see a video of the seemingly unremarkable moment. I see the event now in my head as my dad commenting while walking away from me, like he’d been saving this little nugget and knew he couldn’t waste it on a “Son, let me tell you about life” sort of moment. So, as he turned and walked away, he said something to the effect of this:
It’s those times in life when you really don’t feel like putting in a good effort but do so anyway that allow you to achieve excellence.
I recognize this is something many people may already know and most people who achieve excellence realize, at least subconsciously. I also know it didn’t require the platform of sports to have meaning. But that’s just the thing: youth sports truly do provide a great catalyst for something like this: Maybe even the ideal catalyst as it’s an institution that, at its core, pushes the participant to find their perceived limitations and then push beyond them. And when you combine that sort of setting with another factor—fun—you have the perfect balance for true emotional commitment and engagement. As any teacher knows, once you have a young person engaged the real riches become available. In the classroom that can take a bit of work, but on the sports field, it’s often baked into the system.
And so, just as we want from all wisdom-scraps parsed out to young athletes, this tidbit has applied to so much more than just my sporting life. In some futuristic, sabermetrics-style manner, I’d love to know the number of times I reflected on this as I contemplated sitting down to write any of my various books: It’s daunting, facing a blank screen with the cursor blinking, awaiting the first words of the next 300 pages, preparing to sit, alone, for three-hour stints to slog through ideas and verbiage and sentence structure. And when this author experienced this, he thought back to that moment with his own father. And, even if he didn’t feel like it initially—as is often the case—he started writing.