SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Power of an Encouraging Word

A young boy, in fifth grade, took up a new sport this spring. There were three teams in his age group, and he was on the novice team because, well, he was a novice.

He loved the game. He was timid at first, the result of not knowing what he was doing and, also, not having his coach present at as many practices as would have been optimal because, well, the coach is a volunteer, has a life, and has a job. Still, despite being younger and smaller than many of the kids, he persisted.

He wasn't a star by any means, probably in the middle of the pack toward the bottom third, but he practiced with vigor and did the best he could. A sibling has had more success athletically, and near the season's end he wondered aloud on which team he'd play the following season. Would it be even possible, he asked, if he could make the first team?

We didn't discuss the topic much. All I offered was that kids who succeed do the work in the off-season to get better, which in this case would be to get into better shape and to practice frequently to develop skills. But I'm his dad, and that's what dads are supposed to say. And while I coach him in a different sport and he tells me I'm good at it (and it's not just because he might want me to buy him something, either), it's not easy to push your own child beyond his comfort zone. It's almost like there's something in the human gene pool that creates a barrier that prevents families from going berserk, something like a force field. It was, though, my hope that my son would have an incentive to work hard in the off-season so that he could distinguish himself in the fall in tryouts.

His last practice took place in the late spring, and, as it turned out, the coach of the first team ran it because my son's coach traveled to the state tournament to see his sons play on a team that was more like the Hickory Huskers in Hoosiers than the heavily favored South Bend Central squad. This coach encouraged the boys, but he knew my son's name, and he said, "I'm counting on you to improve, as I really need people who play your position next season."

The conversation wasn't long, but it was powerful. The coach offered enthusiasm and encouragement -- something that any almost adolescent boy needs. My son came home from practice and recounted the story -- with brighter eyes than normal -- and had some extra verve as a result. We then discussed what he needed to do, and he offered that he needed to practice his skills so as to be ready for the tryouts.

And, pretty much, he's been doing that, and through daily activities playing a variety of sports, he's been getting into better shape, building endurance and quickness. He sees an opportunity and wants to take advantage of it, and he has some extra impetus all because of a one-minute conversation in which an adult who wasn't his father told him that he had faith that he could improve enough to play for his top-level team.

There's plenty of yelling, doubting and negativity in this world. So, if you work with someone, are in a position of leadership or are a coach -- you have a duel role -- to challenge your team to do better, and to encourage them that if they have the skills and the tools they can actually achieve beyond what they believe they can. Sometimes all people need is a word of encouragement, even if you say, "Hey, the bar is here, you're not there yet, but I have all the confidence that you can get there. The big question is whether you have the same confidence and whether you can show me."

I watched a recently documentary on HBO about Vince Lombardi. There was a vignette in the film, an interview of Hall of Fame guard Jerry Kramer. Kramer recounted that one day he had an awful practice because he kept on jumping off-side. Lombardi chewed him out pretty good in front of the team. After practice, the coach walked through the locker room. Kramer was sitting on a bench, changing, and Lombardi approached him. The coach patted his young guard on the back and said something to the effect of "Jerry, keep on working hard. You know, you can be one of the best guards in this league." Kramer recounted the story and then said, "After that, I was determined to work as hard as I could. How could you not after encouragement like that?"

The world is in desperate need of leaders who connect with people. You don't have to be a politician or a CEO, it might be that you manage a shift at a convenience store, run a moving crew, coach a Little League team or a cheer team or run a pizza joint or an executive committee. Wherever you are, though, set the tone and make a difference by leading, challenging and, most important of all, encouraging. If you do that, you'll make everyone better -- including yourself.

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