Saturday, November 24, 2007

What I Learned From My High School Football Coach

There are times in life when it is good to step back and figure out where you are, how you've gotten there and what you've learned along the way. The past few weeks have been one of those times for me. Upon reflecting on lessons learned the wisdom of my high school football coach, John Deti, kept coming to mind. There are two types of teachers in the world: those whose advice and lessons go in one ear and out the other and those whose words stick with you your entire life. Coach Deti fell into the latter category. It was not the way he spoke or his method of delivery, it was the simplicity of his words and the integrity of the man speaking the words. As his players, we trusted him. These are the lessons he taught us:

1) It's simple, but it's not easy - When you break down a play in football into its most basic parts its really not rocket science. The ball is snapped, the line blocks, the running backs either take the ball and run towards a point in space or block, receivers run routes and the quarterback just gets the ball to where it needs to go. Yet, something happens in the midst of all this: 11 guys on the other side of the ball do their best to ruin all of your plans. The thing about plans is that they're made in a static environment, reality is dynamic, constantly changing. Every decision and move you make has unintended consequences that cannot be conceived beforehand. Life in many ways is a series of plays. Businesses, governments, scientists, etc. all design their own "plays" that seem simple in theory, but then competitors slash prices, Israel bombs Iran, and a new scientific property is discovered...your plans are left in a smoldering heap on the floor. Coach Deti knew that plans are the easy part, actual execution is where the real money is made.

2) It's the little things that matter - Coach Deti was well ahead of Malcolm Gladwell in understanding that the little things in life can make the biggest difference. Drill after drill, practice after practice, this message was ingrained in the mind of every Plainsmen football player. "If you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves," he would remind us as we ran the same play for the 26th time in a row. Everyone wants to score a touchdown, but few people are willing to work out the details required to make it happen. Making a great block just doesn't have the same glamor as catching a pass in the end zone, but the one simply cannot happen with out the other. In life, big dreams are a dime a dozen, but rare is the person who has the discipline and patience to grind it out each day doing the little things well over a long period of time.

3) Nothing is ever as good or bad as it seems - Out of all the sage words spoken by Coach, these have echoed in my mind the most as I've walked through life. We all know those people whose everyday is either the best or worst day of their life. If you do not know anyone like this, its probably you. These people annoy me. Humans are incredibly susceptible to hype, we all fall for it. The car that doesn't quite drive like you imagined it would after watching the commercial; the life-changing promotion that soon turns into nothing more than extra meetings and longer hours.

Going through 4 years at a military academy was one of these, "nothing is ever..." experiences for me. Admittedly, I was nervous going into it, none of my immediate family had been in the military so most of my information was from people who had a friend of a friend whose Uncle Jim went through in '68. "Best four years of my life!" I would hear. "Hardest thing I've ever done!" "I heard they cane the freshmen each morning before breakfast." Well, I made it through the four years. Was it hard? Yes. Was it the best four years of my life? Yes, but for entirely different reasons then I had been expecting. All this to say, our expectations often greatly exaggerate reality so do not rely to heavily on them.

4) Never pass up a free meal - Of all the words spoken by Coach, none seemed so insignificant at the time and made so much sense later. "Never pass up a free meal," he would say to us before an athletic banquet or school function. It was his way of getting a group of rowdy high school boys to go sit through a meal for a few hours with a bunch of adults. I really don't know anyone that enjoys that slice of American high school culture called the, "athletic banquet." Dressing up to go sit on uncomfortable school cafeteria chairs in order to listen to a dozen coaches explain why even though they went 1-10 this year their team was, "a special group of kids." All of this while eating lasagna and jello salad (pot luck favorites) and waiting for your turn, when your coach would call you up and hand you your certificate, shaking your hand and turning toward the crowd for the quick parental photo-op. At times it all seems ridiculous, but the spirit behind the event is what makes it good.

It is often said that nothing in life is free. This is true for the most part, but sometimes people just want to bless you. These opportunities are rare and should not be dismissed too quickly. There is nothing as tacky as when people try to honor someone and they don't show up or are ungrateful. I admit, I didn't like athletic banquets, but I was always thankful for the people that put the time and effort into honoring our hard work. One of the keys to succeeding in life is understanding when to go with the flow, sometimes this means humbling yourself and not passing up the free meal.

5) Things will go wrong, expect it and move on
- Before the start of every game the team would gather around Coach Deti in the locker room as he talked to us. I hesitate to call it a pep-talk because it was something different. He focused us in on where we were and what we were doing. One thing he always told us was that during the course of the game things were going to go wrong. Not exactly what you'd expect a coach to tell his team to motivate them, yet I remember the pressure that those words took off our shoulders as players. It freed us up to play the game to win rather than play not to lose. He didn't expect perfection, he expected his team to play each down to the best of our ability, picking ourselves up and moving on after a mistake.

At the time, I had no idea how true these words would ring out in my personal life. In the Spring of 2003 my mother passed away from cancer. I was finishing my freshman year at the Air Force Academy and came back to Laramie for several days to be with family, friends and attend the funeral. It was decided that Coach Deti would speak at the funeral. You see, John Deti was not only my high school football coach, he is also my godfather. The days surrounding that event seem like a blur when I think back now, except for a few distinct moments. At the funeral, as Coach stood behind the podium to speak, everyone was silent. "Julie was a friend of mine," he paused. I
t was the first time I'd seen this great man visibly shaken, the ripple effect was tremendous. He went on, but to me he had already said everything that needed to be said. Things do indeed go wrong, knowing this doesn't make the "wrongness" any easier, but it frees you up to play the game, to win rather than not to lose. And that is the only way to really live.

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1 comment:

Sara Martin said...

This article turned out really turned out well! Good was great seeing you and Marelize for Thanksgiving. Thanks for being wonderful friends!