A Tale of Two Teams, Two Coaches, and One Missed Opportunity

Coach Jeff Traylor with Marshall working with Marshall players

Marshall softball players Antanai Coleman, left, and Taylor Stigger try on catching gear with the help of Roncalli junior varsity coach Jeff Traylor in the spring of 2010. (Photo: IndyStar.com)

By now, you’ve likely heard of the girls’ basketball game played Tuesday night between Bloomington South and Arlington here in Indianapolis. By the final buzzer, the score was 107-2 in favor of Bloomington South and, in my opinion, a great opportunity was lost.

First, I should point out that I love winning. I think it’s great, as well as one of primarily objectives of playing a sport. But it’s not the only objective, and probably not the most important. There’s sportsmanship. Being part of a team. Learning to work together and depend on each other. Building confidence and acumen. All of these are more important than winning. I think all of these faded into oblivion on Tuesday when one coach’s desire to win trumped everything else.

So on Tuesday night, when it became glaringly apparent that the game was going to be a rout, what should the coaches have done? Specifically, what should Larry Winters, the Bloomington South coach have done? In his own defense, Winters has said that he wasn’t trying to run up the score. Winters told Nat Newell of The Indianapolis Star, “I didn’t tell my girls to stop shooting because that would have been more embarrassing [to Arlington]. We were not trying to embarrass them.” Well, you missed the mark on that one, Coach.

When I heard this story, I was immediately reminded of what happened back in  2010 when the Marshall softball team showed up to play Roncalli High School in a junior varsity game. Rick Reilly, in reporting for ESPN, described the scene:

After an inning and a half, Roncalli was womanhandling inner-city Marshall Community. Marshall pitchers had already walked nine Roncalli batters. The game could’ve been 50-0 with no problem.

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

It’s no wonder. This was the first softball game in Marshall history. A middle school trying to move up to include grades 6 through 12, Marshall showed up to the game with five balls, two bats, no helmets, no sliding pads, no cleats, 16 players who’d never played before, and a coach who’d never even seen a game.

One Marshall player asked, “Which one is first base?” Another: “How do I hold this bat?” They didn’t know where to stand in the batter’s box. Their coaches had to be shown where the first- and third-base coaching boxes were.

At this point, Roncalli coach Jeff Traylor (a great guy from a great family), offered to forfeit. Reilly continues:

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

“The Marshall players did NOT want to quit,” wrote Roncalli JV coach Jeff Traylor, in recalling the incident. “They were willing to lose 100 to 0 if it meant they finished their first game.” But the Marshall players finally decided if Roncalli was willing to forfeit for them, they should do it for themselves. They decided that maybe — this one time — losing was actually winning.

This is certainly unusual and it’s a great outcome. But it’s not the end of the story:

That’s about when the weirdest scene broke out all over the field: Roncalli kids teaching Marshall kids the right batting stance, throwing them soft-toss in the outfield, teaching them how to play catch. They showed them how to put on catching gear, how to pitch, and how to run the bases. Even the umps stuck around to watch.

“One at a time the Marshall girls would come in to hit off of the [Roncalli] pitchers,” Traylor recalled. “As they hit the ball their faces LIT UP! They were high fiving and hugging the girls from Roncalli, thanking them for teaching to them the game.”

In the midst of all of the talk about sportsmanship being dead, take a moment to go to ESPN and read the whole article. I promise you’ll feel better.

Still, this leaves us in a bit of a quandary with Arlington. By losing to Bloomington South by 105 points, what lessons were learned? Sportsmanship? Team work? Compassion? Predictably, the pundits are weighing in none-too-kindly on Coach Winters, and you can add my name to their ranks. He certainly misjudged the situation and missed an opportunity, but I don’t think it’s enough for us to just point our fingers, place some blame and move on.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should work to change the game, either. A “mercy rule” doesn’t exist in basketball and probably shouldn’t. We’ve all seen teams come back from huge deficits to win.

But here’s a thought… In a town where we have these two polar opposite examples of how to behave for the good of the sport and the kids involved, I’m wondering if we can’t use this as an opportunity to raise these Arlington kids up. In a town where our Indiana Fever just won the WNBA Championship, I’m wondering if there might be an opportunity for those players to adopt this Arlington team. Can some personal attention, some coaching, some hard-won wisdom by some of the game’s greats (Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Jessica Davenport…) end a 22-game losing streak? Maybe. Maybe not.

But winning isn’t everything, and a little personal attention and mentoring is just what this team needs right now.

Teacher tells graduates: “You are not special.”

McCullough tells students: "You are not special."

There are some messages that need to be said, and some that people don’t want to hear. Often, a single message is both. When Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough stepped up to the mic to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012, he delivered one of those messages. He told them:

“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

With his reading glasses and his slightly unkempt hair, he looked every bit the part of English teacher and strikingly resonated the message he was about to deliver. He told the students, “…your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.”

Now, before you begin leaping to conclusions and shouting things like “how dare he tell my little pumpkin that she is anything less than amazing!” allow me to add some additional context. McCullough continued:

“The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Needham, that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood numbers. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”

He wasn’t beating them up to be mean or belittling. The truth is he was a teacher, through and through and to the end. Though they sat before him at commencement, the end of one era and the beginning of the next, he was taking one final moment to teach:

“As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”

“Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.”

“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.”

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

Personally, I can think of no better message to deliver to our kids, at commencement and minute-by-minute as they work through school to reach that milestone. You see, part of the problem– maybe the biggest part– is us. Parents of our generation are creating such coddling environments that our kids have very little self-sufficiency. McCullough says that, “we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.” He’s right. And when he points this out to the graduating class he places the blame exactly where it belongs: with us.

“You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

I admire him for his insight. I applaud him for his courage. I will honor him by doing all I can to remember these words with each interaction with kids, both mine and others, to encourage them to live their lives not to garnish the accolades, but the for sake of actually living their lives. I will encourage them, at all times, to “climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

I’ve presented you with the Cliff Notes version. For the full effect, watch David McCullough deliver the address himself:

Of letter spacing and love: why the little things matter

Of letter spacing and love: why little things matterMichael and Ashley will be having their first baby in a few weeks. Like anyone in their position, they’re dealing with all anxieties that come with that event. Michael, for his part, has been concerned with kerning.

Kerning is a typography term that relates to the space between letters. Most of the time, if it’s done well, you don’t really notice it. Things (words, signs, sentences) just look right; like they belong together. When kerning is bad, though, it’s really bad. Things look clunky, unkempt, and careless.

Michael, as a programmer who works with designers, knows kerning is important, but isn’t all that comfortable making the call himself. So he sent a picture to all the designers and asked for help to get the kerning right on the letters he’s hanging on the wall of the nursery. He wants “ELLIE” to look just right.

We have all been coached to spend a lot of time and energy making the big decisions, and they are certainly important. And you might think that there are other things– more important things– that Michael should be focusing on right now. But the truth is, he knows these little things matter.

Parenting, it turns out, isn’t so much about the big things that need to be decided and done. Rather, it’s all about the little things. How you react when she asks to sit on your lap and read a book. What you say when you’re frustrated from driving in snarled traffic. How you answer when she asks for something she really wants, but doesn’t need. And maybe most importantly, how you treat her mother; both when you’re happy and when you’re not.

It’s in these little things that our children learn to get along with each other. It’s how they learn to cope with things when they don’t go quite as well as they’d hoped. In these little things, our little ones find out that words can hurt, but they also heal. It’s how they learn to forgive and to put the needs of others before themselves. These little things, without a doubt, are how they learn to love, along with countless multitudes of other things.

I often hear parenting experts talk about teaching moments as if they only come along every so often. They couldn’t be more wrong… These moments happen every minute of every day, whether you’re aware of it or not. Kids watch. They listen. They learn. The good, the bad, and the ugly, all together, all the time.

So with a few weeks left until delivery, Michael busies himself with letter spacing. There may be many reasons for this, but it isn’t trivial. Instead, it shows that Michael has already learned one the key lessons of being a parent: Little things matter. A lot.

Ellie, when she gets here, will be in good hands.

Love that dog… and that boy

Love That Dog

Love That Dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Jack loves to read; always has. Last night he shared with me his latest ‘favorite’ story, a delightful little book called Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. It is, appropriately, the story of a boy named Jack, his dog, his teacher, and – eventually – his words. Creech describes it like this:

The story develops through Jack’s responses to his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, over the course of a school year. At first, his responses are short and cranky: “I don’t want to” and “I tried. Can’t do it. Brain’s empty.” But as his teacher feeds him inspiration, Jack finds that he has a lot to say and he finds ways to say it.

Jack is both stubborn and warm-hearted, and he can be both serious and funny. Although he hates poetry at first, he begins to find poems that inspire him. All year long, he is trying to find a way to talk about his beloved dog, Sky, and the poems his teacher offers him eventually give him a way to do that.

In the book, Jack becomes especially enamored by the poem “Love That Boy” written by Walter Dean Myers. Ultimately, it is this work that inspires Jack to tell the whole story of his dog, Sky.

When I walked in the door last night, Jack’s first request was for the sequel to Love That Dog, the appropriately-named Hate That Cat.

I love that Jack loves to read. I’ll be absolutely thrilled when he decides he also wants to write.

Here is “Love That Boy” in full:

Love that boy,
like a rabbit loves to run
I said I love that boy
like a rabbit loves to run
Love to call him in the morning
love to call him
“Hey there, son!”

He walk like his Grandpa,
Grins like his Uncle Ben.
I said he walk like his Grandpa,
And grins like his Uncle Ben.
Grins when he’s happy,
When he sad, he grins again.

His mama like to hold him,
Like to feed him cherry pie.
I said his mama like to hold him.
Like to feed him that cherry pie.
She can have him now,
I’ll get him by and by

He got long roads to walk down
Before the setting sun.
I said he got a long, long road to walk down
Before the setting sun.
He’ll be a long stride walker,
And a good man before he done.
Walter Dean Myers

Caine’s Arcade: Recognizing the incredible potential of great imagination

Every once in a while I come across a story where all the planets align, the good people come out on top, and I’m afforded an opportunity to sit back and truly appreciate how powerful a tool the Internet can be. This is one of those stories.

The summary is this: a 9-year-old boy named Caine built an elaborate arcade out of cardboard boxes at his father’s auto parts store. And then he waited for the customers. Eventually, one showed up. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll let you watch this video and see how it unfolds.

One final thought: There is power, to be sure, in this new inter-connected world. But it pales in comparison to the power of a great imagination.

I’d love to hear what you think…

[Note: I first saw this video about 5pm today. At the time, Caine’s crowd-sourced scholarship fund was at $88,000. Five hours later, it’s grown to nearly $103,000. Further proof, I think, that creativity still matters. I tip my hat to Nirvan Mullick for recognizing a great story when he saw it and thank him warmly for telling it. Here’s a link to Caine’s Arcade’s Facebook page.]