The crunch of snow beneath my boots broke the silence of another dark, early morning as I waddled precariously across campus, navigating above lurking black ice, which hid itself beneath the freshly fallen snow towards. Frozen shut, I yanked until my car door finally peeled open, ice shaking loose from the hinges. I swung my tired legs, covered only by a thin layer of spandex, onto the frigid seat, immediately feeling the bone chilling cold impermeate my entire skeletal structure. So begins another day of training – grinding – in its most raw, sort of bleak atmosphere. I turned the ignition, and the loud blaring of the radio shot a spark of energy into me. The words would awaken my soul, though, even more.
The calm and collected voice of Kareem Abdul-Jabber being interviewed about his favorite coach, John Wooden, was the thaumaturgy the coaching gods were beseeching me, a discouraged drillmaster and post-collegiate athlete (the latter being a title which I’ll probably still be claiming when I’m 90 years old) in the north woods of Maine on this subzero morning. The explanation as to why Wooden was the greatest coach Jabber had ever played for was just the necessary encouragement and inspiration I needed to press forward with the day and my overall intent with this noble and increasingly underappreciated profession as a collegiate coach. The 6-time NBA MVP’s recollection of his first practice at UCLA sounded a bit like everyone else’s first day of kindergarten. Coach Wooden, standing before a dozen high school All-Americans, sat his players in a circle and gave them step by step instructions on how to properly put on socks and tie their shoes.
“You wouldn’t believe how fundamental Coach Wooden could get,” Jabber recalled as I drove to our training venue, the Nordic Heritage Center, renewed belief in my coaching ideals all of a sudden heating up like I desperately wished the defrost for my windshield would do. While Wooden’s practicality stemmed from improved performance through blister prevention, comfort, and secure footing, he ultimately understood, first and foremost, that great players, do the ordinary things, extraordinarily well, and he prioritized teaching world class athletes the basics because he understood that without the basics, his athletes would not actually ever be….world class athletes.
Sadly, this sentiment is lost on most of our aspiring athletes as individuals, teams, and their coaches are increasingly caught up in the frills of perhaps the most tightly contested competition in today’s culture: The social media race for the page saturated in the freshest and fanciest drills, workouts, and maneuvers in the weightroom. Ignored is the hard truth: true greatness and success requires a humble attitude and willingness to put in tons of mundane, unseen work. As coaches, it is our duty to preserve those ideals for the supreme benefit of future generations, no matter the difficulty in convincing young people to buy in. Why? Because it is essential in carrying out the true purpose of athletics amidst a culture always seeking instant gratification.
Going against the grain, an inevitable reality for those who subscribe to my sentiments to this point, is a road I have found to be as blanketed with opposition and discouragement as an Aroostook County ski trail is with snow (there is my subtle plug endorsing the University of Maine Presque Isle ski team and its facilities!). Just as the conversation I stumbled upon that morning gave me a boost in my beliefs, I hope my thoughts can provide other coaches with encouragement to stick to their guns in presenting, and more importantly, ingraining their athletes with the fundamentals. To illustrate how those at the top understand the necessity of them in their diet, I have to share a music story I heard during my undergraduate years as a trumpet player at Concordia College.
There once was a world renowned pianist who moved into a New York City apartment. His new neighbor was ecstatic as he dreamt of indulging his ears daily with a musical feast sure to be filled with large portions of Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin. He was surprised then, as you can imagine, when he left for the work the morning after the musician had moved in and heard being played very slowly and meticulously, the first three notes of a scale pattern. C, to D, to E, back to D, ending on C. It sounded like a five year old at their first lesson! The next day brought more of the same. And the next. And so on and so forth. The only thing the man ever heard was this three note scale.
In frustration, he thought to himself, “I thought this was a concert pianist who moved in?!” Then, one day, the man forgot his lunch, and needed to return to his apartment at midday. Upon entering, he heard the glorious sounds of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto in D Minor. The pianist, now into the third hour of his session, was masterfully performing a work like few in the world were capable of doing.
You see, the pianist understood how a weak foundation of fundamentals would prevent even basic progression. In order to mature onto complex things, the brain must be free to fully focus on each new challenge and stimulus, only possible if those fundamentals are indoctrinated to the point of being second nature. For that, there simply is no replacement for perfect repetition. Not simply repetition – only perfect repetition – something which can only be ensured when each task is simplified and repeated to a point well past a “normal” person’s threshold for insanity.
It is the same in sports. Why is Steph Curry able to shoot effortlessly from thirty feet away? Because he learned how to shoot effortlessly from two feet away first. The static principles of his form – eyes on the target, elbow in, finger tip control, follow through – are not dependent upon the distance from which he shoots. A fourth quarter, game-changing bomb is the flash we see on T.V., but it was made possible by an individual willing to be steadfast to the proper development of shooting as an art, willing to spend thousands of solitary hours right next to the hoop, shooting, visualizing, and indoctrinating excellence.
I once read how Curry’s father, Del, forced a 12-year old Steph into a religious code of simplicity similar to musicians, wherein he was not to shoot from beyond about 10-12 feet. He retooled his shooting form, raising his release point in anticipation of the necessity of eventually needing to get his shot off quickly over taller, faster defenders. Can you imagine how humbling that must have been?!
“Steph, want to play horse with us?” his friends probably asked before remembering the house rules. “Oh I forgot, you still can’t shoot from anywhere farther than arm’s length from the rim.”
Then the last one chimes in, “How is he ever going to learn to shoot the three?”
Go to any gym in the country on a Saturday today, and I guarantee you will see 7 and 8 year olds trying to be like Curry, the master of the trifecta, heaving up shots from 25 feet, from behind the backboard, and from the hallway to the locker room. Ironically, their strategy is the exact opposite approach Steph took. Unfortunately, it serves as a dark typology – a relational pattern with deeper meaning – to a more serious issue: this is how a culture raised on instant gratification will try to achieve excellence. Will it work? A wise author once wrote, “can salt water and fresh water flow from the same spring?” He was talking about our speech pattern, but he could have applied it to our work ethic, too.
Increasingly, we are all much more interested in the flash, and not the foundation. Either we are not convinced of its necessity, or we are convinced, but we simply do not have the patience or the time. We just want to get to the “fun” stuff. Sadly, if we approach our passions in this manner, we never really achieve true mastery, of which there is no greater feeling of reward and enjoyment attainable. Therefore, it is our duty as leaders, coaches, and athletes, to model and instruct ourselves and our pupils to understand and live out the 97%. Because the flash is only 3% of the whole story.
The other 97% happens on the lonely paths of the training trail, the empty weight room at 5 A.M., and the driveway and old basketball hoop (or any other athletic venue). It happens with a monotonous repetition of the fundamentals. As a joke, me and some buddies made t-shirts for our cross country team as 10th graders, and on the back, it read, “It is not all glamour, man,” the words which we had heard repeated to us by a crazed hippy while hiking up a mountain during that summer’s training trip to Montana. We laughed then….now, I can’t think of a better saying to go on the back of any teams’ shirt!
No matter how much an individual loves a sport and desires to be great, there is always going to be moments where they will have to persevere through lack of motivation, injury, and setback. Athletes with this kind of tread on their tires refer to this phenomenon as “the grind,” and conversation about it is shared by an exclusive brotherhood of people who authenticate themselves and others easily by their kinship to this “trials of miles.”
Here is the kicker, though, and coaches and aspiring dreamers should ignore it at their own peril: even if you are willing to “grinding through the grind,” are not guaranteed the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal, or NCAA title. Heck, you might not even be the best on your own team!
Hundreds of DI, DII, and DIII athletes commit 4-5 years of their life, 11.5 months a year, to their sport, and never even see a national meet, much less earn All-American status. That level of anonymity can be a hard reality to swallow. However, there is a guarantee I can promise to those who pursue this route, and it is more valuable than any trophy.
If you go the route of the pianist, Steph Curry, and Quenton Cassidy, are disciplined in doing the basics daily with a humble attitude, and do everything you can to be the greatest possible version of you, you will receive a much bigger reward, something Jabber’s coach instilled in all of his athletes at UCLA: True success, which Wooden defined as the satisfaction of knowing you gave 100% effort to be all you can be.
AND, you will be equipped to achieve True Success in all walks of life. You will know how to be the most successful doctor, teacher, fireman, husband, wife, mom, dad, etc. I would way rather have learned that from my athletic career than just received a certificate but missed out on the lifelong lessons and tools.Really, that is what sports is all about, and it is what coaches should be focused on.
The elements of humbly starting with the basics every day, working the grind unpublicized and sometimes alone, all for no material guarantee – those are the most countercultural things today, but their value is transcendent.
Remind your athletes, should they ever complain about skiing with one pole, skiing with no poles, or even “skiing” without skis, they never graduate from the fundamentals. And do not be too discouraged if you feel lonely and intimidated because you see the “flash” of another athlete who has screen shot themselves flexing so their quad muscles have more ripples than an old dutch potato chip…as they are eating old dutch potato chips. Or the impressive video of a children’s choir singing Handel’s “Messiah” or a GIF of a team effortlessly executing a complex drill. Walk before you run. And spend more time walking than you run.
Wait, I actually only mean that metaphorically.
My point is, the road to excellence is one not often traveled, and often the biggest gains, for performance, and more importantly, for life, are made there.
Let’s take people there.