Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aching Pain or Delicious Hope: Stanford vs. Notre Dame--A Spiritual Experience

Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope. Spirituality is ultimately about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality. –Ronald Rohlheiser, “The Holy Longing”

I never thought standing outside of a locker room after the Notre Dame vs. Stanford football game on Saturday, November 27, 2009 would prove to be a spiritual experience. Two talented teams, two respectable programs, two dramatic season records and this night marked their one final game of the regular season. As I waited with three other alums to present the “Legends” trophy—a beautiful Waterford crystal bowl that stands atop of a redwood base recognizing the heritage of both schools—aching pain and delicious hope looked me in the eye. The lights from the field cast a surreal glow in the space outside the stadium where we stood, providing me with an interesting vantage point. Not one player or coach emerged through the tunnel without the look of either unmet longing or fulfilled desire. In that moment, I came to understand the very essence of spirituality was unfolding around me.

Aching pain
Questions loomed large about the future of Coach Charlie Weis; this loss nearly sealed his impending fate. Losing a game in the final two minutes hurts, but losing a head coach may hurt more. The buy-out of Weis’ ten year contact, the loss of a potential recruiting class who had wanted to play for him, the process of firing any person—albeit “one of our own,” exacerbated the aching pain.

I watched the Notre Dame trainers and managers pack up and roll out the massive operation that is college football. Already a serious and important task, they worked quickly and quietly. A smile was nowhere to be found. This was most readily apparent on the face of this team, Notre Dame Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who was accompanied off the field by Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. I wondered if Swarbrick kept his arm around Jimmy to protect him from another irate fan or if he was begging him to reconsider leaving early for the NFL draft. Clausen left Swarbrick’s head-lock to embrace a football trainer in a hug said that—“I’m sorry” and “this stinks.” On the final play of many games, Clausen alone led his team to victory. His face revealed a tangible disappointment that this game and his career at Notre Dame did not end in this fashion.

When I caught the strong profile of graduate assistant and former Notre Dame All-American Bryant Young, the words that he said at the “Legends Weekend” lunch just the day before haunted me: it’s not how you start the season, but how you end it. Every member of that team wished the season had ended differently—the Irish were 0-4 in November. If spirituality is about what we do with that desire, I concede, it went to the right team.

Delicious Hope
The Stanford Cardinal had much to celebrate. Just one week prior, their arch rival--the Cal Bears won the “Big Game” at Stanford. This was a team that had surpassed expectations all season long; it was obvious they were unwilling to lose again. The “Fighting Harbuaghs” had something to prove and completing this season at home with a win was the only option.

Players became increasingly vocal with their cheers and whistles as they began to fill the locker room. Even Condelezza Rice, honorary game captain, couldn’t curb her enthusiasm. Before she addressed the winning team and coach with her congratulations, she stopped to shake our hands and acknowledge what an exciting game it was. Rice holds a master’s degree in political science from Notre Dame and speaks candidly of her support for the Irish. But on this evening the former Secretary of State, now a professor at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, was anxious to celebrate with the victors.

The presentation of the trophy could not begin without the man who made this triumph possible. Delicious hope was most palpable in running back Toby Gerhart, and his Heisman trophy run. That award would be determined in two weeks time. On this evening however, visions of the Heisman danced in the heads of every Gerhart fan.

And when at long last Coach Harbaugh was freed from the media circus on the field, we asked him when would be the best time to present the Legends trophy. Harbaugh took one look at it “Let’s do it now.” My male cohorts followed him inside the locker room to honor the winners. The boisterous crowd gathered close as they listened to a Stanford coach share the history and significance of the trophy. Everyone then bowed their heads as they said the “Lord’s Prayer” together. It doesn't get much more spiritual than that.

The Essence of Spirituality

Spirituality is largely open to interpretation; it can be tough to define. If Rohlheiser is right, if what shapes our actions is our spirituality, then the Irish need to work through the aching pain and move past the regret and disappointment of the 2009 season. Delicious hope waits and so too does the “Legends Trophy.”

Football players, coaches and fans all long for a storied season like Stanford's. Despite the aching pain, delicious hope is what keeps us returning one year after another. So too may an unexpected spiritual experience that the game provides.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Casey Martin: What He Said & How He Said It

What a difference a conjunction makes. 

We have all heard the words “it’s not what you said but how you said it” and more often than not, the sentiment that accompanies this retort isn’t good. Yet, when Brian Murphy, host of the KNBR “Murph & Mac” sports talk radio show, asked golfer Casey Martin about the health of his leg and the likelihood of amputation, I was struck by what Casey said and how he said it. Casey gave a status report and concluded by saying “we’ll just keep praying about it.” For some reason those words drew me in. His response struck me as invitational as opposed to presentational; I wanted to hear more. I became curious about this athlete, his plight and his faith. Athletes profess their faith quite publicly all the time.
When they aren’t thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” we see them using eye black to post scripture verses (Phil 4:13 or John 3:16) or pointing to the heavens in gratitude. I admit their overt claims and gestures of faith often make me uncomfortable; I seldom find that the presentational is invitational. 
Yet, authenticity speaks for itself. I cannot help but think that the "Parable of the Mustard Seed" serves as an appropriate image for what captured my attention on that morning commute. Casey's testimony of faith, if you can call it that, was so small; we hear “I’ll pray for you” or “pray for me” quite often. But considering who Casey Martin is, his words of authenticity prove to be like the mustard tree—very strong. 

It was at this time last year that “Murph” interviewed Casey Martin. In addition to the fate of his leg, they discussed Casey’s golf career at Stanford, his love for the University Oregon where he is now the head men’s golf coach and his latest endeavor—10th I had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing Coach Martin but a few months later. The November-December issue of HopeKeepers magazine recently published the following story about a man I will keep praying for. To read the published article "Casey Martin: God Has Been Awesomely Gracious to Me"

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Transitioning from Coach to Athlete: What I have learned, lost and loved.

As the 2009 school year was winding down, I started waking up at 4:28 a.m. three days a week only to be reminded of what makes rowing an incredible sport. Time and again, the physical demands, the eccentric and strong egos in the boat and bad days on the water were trumped by flat water, brackish smells, the rising sun, synchronicity and more synchronicity. 

I have been a good coach and I have been a bad coach. I believe some were born to be great coaches; as much as I love rowing, I was never meant to be one of those great coaches. However, the reflection I have written is from the other perspective. Port side, 6-seat.
In the seven years I have coached high school girls’ cross country, running competitively during and beyond the season has remained a personal priority. I joined various running clubs to learn insights, ideas, and tips from other runners and coaches while training. Even working out in a class at my gym has proven to be personally and professionally worthwhile. For example, when I told one instructor I use his term “aggressive breathing” with my team, we had an interesting conversation about how important but challenging it can be to know what terms resonate with those you coach. Yes, I could gain much of what I have learned through reading or talking to other coaches, but I believe “learning by doing” has made me a better coach. Yet, it wasn’t until I returned to rowing after a 13 year hiatus, that I fully came to understand there are valuable and lessons to be learned when a coach transitions to an athlete.

I was a varsity rower at the University of Notre Dame before Title IX took women’s crew to the next level. Our team was still competitive and to keep a seat in the boat, I rowed with the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in Oakland, CA every summer. It is wishful thinking to say that returning to Lake Merritt after not rowing for so long, was “like riding a bicycle.” Although I had not forgotten the fundamentals of the sport, to row at the level I once had required practice, patience, and coaching. This transitional experience has been humbling, challenging and insightful. It has afforded me a new found and deepened appreciation for what it means to be in the one in need of coaching. Because of this, I would like to share what I have learned, lost and loved in this process.

What I Have Learned

Do not underestimate the importance of communication
Key to any good relationship is clear and continuous communication. Coaches know we should articulate, explain, reinforce, and even model what we expect of our athletes however, several instances come to mind where the temptation to not communicate presses. For example, my cross country team begins practice by gathering in the bleachers to learn the plan for the week in addition to the day’s workout. It often appears as though 10 out of 70 girls are listening. I compete with a bevy of distractions—the football team, what my athletes ate for lunch (or didn’t!), and the demands of the school day. I wonder: is this really worth my time? Yet as a rower, I appreciate knowing what is expected each day of the week: Mondays are for technique, Wednesdays are aerobic, Fridays combine drills with hard pieces, and Saturdays vary because we have more time to row. This schema thoroughly helps my mental preparation—I need to eat something hearty because workouts on Wednesday are physically demanding. Trust that each individual athlete reaps some physical, mental or social benefit in team communication.

From time to time, every coach is not as organized as he or she would like to be. I think back to frenzied times and know I wasn’t at my best. Coaches are leaders, and we are expected to be in control though it may be difficult for us to admit otherwise. As I used their warm-up time to finalize practice, I said to myself Why should I tell them I need a few minutes? Isn’t it better to just get practice started? Yet from the athlete’s perspective, I have noticed my teammates are significantly more focused when we are informed of the day’s workout before we hit the water. Otherwise, a general anxiety lingers in the boat until we know what is expected of us. Ideally both athletes and coaches would always come to practice organized and prepared. For those times we are not, I believe we owe it to our athletes to communicate what we can.

Communication is a two-way street.

At times practice is long and arduous, even from the coaching perspective. Occasionally, I don’t want to take that extra five minutes to talk to a runner about something I hope will just go away or that she can fix by herself. However, in returning to the role of an athlete—the person in need of coaching, I crave that outreach. I am hungry to know what my coach sees, and I want to improve. Did I make the adjustment she recommended effectively? How can I increase my flexibility? Such conversations are better suited for when we are “off the water.” That time after practice allows for dialogue and creative problem solving. One time, my coach even drew a sketch so I could visualize how to amend my stroke. Although we laughed at her illustrations, I valued the lengths by which she went to help me grasp the technique. Good coaching does not assume our athletes will get better by doing; good coaching initiates outreach so our athletes can succeed. Communication is paramount.

Here lies a paradox: I also believe it is important to let teens advocate for themselves and approach me with their questions. In my transition, I am more aware this can occasionally be difficult to do. Is now the time to ask? Is it really a big deal? When I return to coaching, I will encourage my runners to take the initiative to communicate with me as I will with them. I hope to provide a presence that indicates I am open and willing to talk. I will encourage my captains to model this philosophy of communication. It takes time and may even be a risk, but it is central to improving individually and as a team.

What I Have Lost
Many of us carry biases that can get in the way of good coaching. Returning as an athlete has helped me recognize one bias I carry that is worth losing. I often view this generation of young people as coddled and cajoled by the belief that everyone is a winner. I have seen my response to this mentality hinder my skill as a coach. To combat my belief that these kids grew up receiving prizes for everything, I committed to giving positive feedback only when it is deserved by my standards. I was proud of myself for using it sparingly and for what I believed to be appropriate. My transition from coach to athlete has encouraged me to think otherwise.

Not all of our athletes are maestros or naturally competitive. They need encouragement, and a little affirmation can go a long way. On the water, I am frequently told what I need to fix by both the coxswain and my coach. When I hear that I have made a good adjustment or the recognition “that’s it!” I thrive. I keep my focus and try to repeat the change I made for the better. When I don’t hear anything, it is very easy to get down on myself. Different coaches have different philosophies such as “sandwich a recommendation between two commendations.” Whatever ratio of positive to negative remarks you decide to give, be sure the positive is loud and clear.

What I Have Loved
Without a doubt, I love being on a team. Athletes join organized sports because competition and play is fun, and so is being on a team. Obviously, without seven other rowers and a coxswain, crew is a different sport. Being on a team again has helped me realize the value in committing to something larger than myself and my own goals. Being late or missing practice impacts others. I also now hold a deepened appreciation for the unique talents each individual brings to the whole. For example, when I told my teammate Dana after practice that I loved rowing behind her she was caught off guard and said “Most people don’t like sitting behind me because they get wet” (due to her backsplash). When I responded by saying, “You pull harder than anyone else on this team and I know you’re extremely competitive. I’m competitive, but I need someone else to fire me up” I verified what I know in myself through the example of another athlete. I will encourage my runners to recognize the gifts their teammates bring to the team and learn from their example. Who on this team runs hills hard? Who really knows when to pass a girl? It is much more fun to learn and work together.

Not all coaches may have the opportunity to participate in a sport different from the one they coach, but participating on a team, pushing yourself as an athlete, and setting goals can be a great opportunity to test yourself and examine: What can I learn? What might I need to lose? And what do I love about my sport? There are things to take with us and things to leave on the water or on and off the trail as I will when I return to coaching this fall.