A couple of weeks ago, while I was on a family vacation in Florida, I walked out of the unit we were renting and heard the familiar sound of a basketball pounding on asphalt. On a tennis court below where I was standing was a young man of 16 or 17 years old going through a series of ball handling drills all by himself. He was doing these drills with great intensity and skill, and, because he was really good, I could see after just a few seconds that he had spent many, many hours of his life doing these same drills and others like them in isolation, with no one around him cajoling, motivating, or coaching him. It was just this kid, some asphalt, and a basketball, and it was beautiful to watch.
Watching him perform his own personal workout stirred some emotions within me that I haven’t felt in a long time. The first one was because I WAS that kid 45 years ago. Watching his workout was akin to watching myself in my earlier life when I spent literally tens of thousands of hours working by myself in a similar environment with the singular goal of trying to become the best basketball player I could possibly be. For reasons only God knows, those are incredibly fond memories that I have to this day.
It was also refreshing to be reminded that some kids still understand what it takes to become great at something. I have no idea who this young man is, what team he plays on, who his coach is, or what camps or AAU leagues he attends, but, what I DO know is that he is one heck of a basketball player, not because of any of those factors, but because he is dedicated enough to spend time while on a family vacation diligently practicing his skills under a sweltering Florida sun with not a soul in sight pushing him.
Without ever speaking a word to this kid, I know that he understands that there is one person and one person alone who is responsible for making him into the player he wants to become, and that is himself.
In both high school and college I was blessed to play for coaches who impacted my life in more ways than they can ever imagine. I will be forever indebted to them for all they did for me, because they taught me not only about the game of basketball, but about the skills necessary to be successful in life; skills I use to this day. But, as good as they all were and as many concepts and drills as they could introduce to me, they couldn’t develop my skills; not in two-hour-a-day practice sessions that occurred during the basketball season. That was on me; just like it is on the young man in Florida.
Being a college athlete was one of the most demanding, most impactful experiences of my life. It was at that level, surrounded by highly skilled, very motivated teammates, that I learned to respond appropriately to criticism, to demand more of myself than I ever imagined, and to be self-critical. I learned these attributes in large part because the coach for whom I played, Bob Hamilton, expected nothing less. He and I had a rather simple relationship; he informed me in clear terms the skills I needed to improve to become better and play more, and I had to decide if I was willing to put in the time and effort to do just that. If I did, I would play. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. It was really that simple, and I love him to this day for teaching me this very important lesson.
I can’t imagine that Coach Hamilton spent a lot of time worrying about how he was going to deliver his message to me or being concerned about hurting little Tommy’s feelings when he was instructing me on what I needed to do to get better, and that is exactly how it should be.
I also cannot imagine, after receiving one of Coach Hamilton’s more spirited assessments of my inadequate performance, running to Mommy and Daddy and complaining about how the coach had treated me unfairly and hurt my feelings. I knew their response would have been, “Instead of whining to us, perhaps your time would be better spent out on the court working on the areas he told you to work on.” And, that would have been the end of THAT conversation, which is exactly how it should have gone.
That’s why I am always intrigued by parents who storm into board offices after athletic seasons demanding the heads of coaches on platters because they feel they didn’t adequately develop their son’s or daughter’s skills. I’m going to let you in on a little secret; no coach does that. It’s the kid, and the sooner he or she learns that lesson the better it is.
I wish I would have taken the time to walk down to those tennis courts in Florida and find out a little bit about that young man; who he was; where he plays; what drives him; and what his aspirations for his basketball career and beyond are. I would have loved to follow his success this year; success he will no doubt have thanks to the hard work he was putting in when (almost) no one was watching.
Shame on me for not taking the time to do that.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.