By Dale Hierlmeier
A long, sustained drive fizzles short of the end zone with a fumble inside the opposition’s 5-yard line. A dropped baton in the final relay event results in a lost championship. Illness strikes several players resulting in absences and a team’s poor performance in a major season-ending event.
Miscues, snafus, unforced errors, rule violations, suspensions and illness are among the contributing factors affecting athletic team performance. A skewed view of athletics, focusing entirely on the win-loss column, often overshadows a significant underlying purpose of athletic competition and the inherent life skills learned through sports participation.
Curiosity suggests inquisitiveness or a desire to learn. Author Napoleon Hill wrote, “The starting point of all achievement is desire.” Curiosity is what inspired Einstein, Edison and the Wright brothers, as well as Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Jim Ryun and other notable athletic world record-holders. The combination of inquisitiveness and athleticism sets the stage in the sports world for amazing Einstein-like results. The insightful coach helps create a thirst for curiosity in the athlete.
If curiosity is the inquisitiveness to learn, then initiative is the spark that kicks off action – the first step. As in competitive sports, initiative is important in life’s journey. Encouraging and training athletes to attempt diverse skills and new endeavors instills confidence in athletes to demonstrate initiative throughout life.
Courage implies mental strength to persevere in the face of difficulty. The unique characteristic of courage is that it does not require victory or mastery but simply the mental vigor, spirit and confidence to advance in spite of all odds. Athleticism, and successful experience – through physical and mental preparation and coaching leadership – are a plus, but the courage to persevere comes from the heart.
Flexibility is to be susceptible to change. Weather conditions, facility availability, participation numbers, travel distance, equipment affordability, fuel costs and program funding require constant monitoring, modification and adaptation. Athletic participants, teams and programs either adapt to the environment through modification or become a casualty of the environment through stagnation.
Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen – patience is most appreciated when milking the clock down for the final shot in the closing moments of a basketball game or holding back for the final kick in a long-distance running event. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author of the novel War and Peace, wrote, "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." Patience is being steadfast or calm despite opposition, difficulty or adversity.
Perseverance is an inner drive to persist in spite of opposition. This insistent drive includes not only persevering in pursuit of victory, but also demonstrating determination in the turbulent closing moments while accepting defeat. Playing iron-tough to the bitter end best describes perseverance taught through sports.
Caring implies to have concern or regard. Like self-esteem, caring is not easily taught; it is developed – instilled intrinsically through a bonding process between teammates. The coach’s challenge is in designing and implementing a team climate conducive to the development of a caring relationship among teammates.
Friendship is the act of showing interest, goodwill or camaraderie. Team unification in support of a common goal provides the backdrop for many of life’s closest friendships. Inter-team competition, intra-team training and team camaraderie blend harmoniously to form lasting friendships, only to be magnified on the victory stand.
Baseball legend Casey Stengel said, “Gettin' good players is easy. Gettin' 'em to play together is the hard part.” Cooperation is marked by a willingness and ability to work with others for mutual benefit. Collaboration of coaches and athletes in a team environment follows closely the blueprint for family upbringing, mandated in the career setting and is a welcomed option in society.
In athletics, pride refers to the satisfaction taken in accomplishment versus that of arrogance, vanity or conceit. In the pure spirit of competition, pride incurs a humble sporting-like appearance resembling fulfillment but void of boastfulness, taunting or malicious intent. It is the coach’s responsibility to role model and lead by example in demonstrating this often misconstrued life skill.
SENSE OF HUMOR
A sense of humor is the faculty of perceiving what is amusing or comical. With the inherent demands and stresses of athletic participation, athletes value a coach with a sense of humor. The ability to incorporate a spirited personality in conjunction with traditional training methods ups the ante of a coach who provides an enjoyable learning experience, and sense of humor, as an important, yet fading life skill.
With the juggling of school work, practice and sport schedules, cancellations and reschedules, informational overloads, early curfews, sport camps, community service projects and personal time, athletes become semi-magicians in the art of organization. If only out of necessity, athletes learn organizational life skills in sports essential for survival in the real world.
Integrity is defined as an adherence to a code of moral values. The spirit of athleticism not only promotes integrity but also insists that athletes assume integrity and abide rigidly to the established rules of conduct and by-laws governing a sport. Except for instant replay, once a rule is established, there is no leeway in the sports arena for interpretation or manipulation of a called infraction.
Responsibility is to assume accountability for that which is controllable. As in most aspects of life, participation in athletics showers responsibility where it rightfully belongs, to the credit or discredit of the participants. Precision, strategy, turnovers and unforced errors are among a plethora of instrumental variables within an athlete’s control and hold the athlete accountable for personal performance.
Effort is the conscious exertion of power. Sports practices, team schedules and athletic events are managed strategically to demand the ultimate effort among competitors. Although various sporting events involve explosive sprinting or combative collisions at the line of scrimmage, others involve marathon distances containing evenly calibrated splits or pinpoint accuracy, but all physical tests of prowess are serious attempts of exertion.
Problem-solving implies the ability to resolve an otherwise insurmountable task. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles abound in athletics, as in life. Facing top-seeded players and teams, driving the ball 80 yards in less than a minute, scoring an insurmountable number of points with time running out requires engineered problem-solving techniques that yield memorable experiences.
The rationale for athletics focuses far beyond the scoreboard, win-loss column and the teaching of X’s and O’s. Although ostensibly taught indirectly, the life skills of cooperation, patience, caring, initiative and flexibility, among others, are dauntingly engrained in the minds of athletes participating in competitive sports programs.
About the Author: Dale Hierlmeier, RAA, teaches nutrition at Ancilla College, Donaldson, Indiana. He is a former athletic director at Southwestern High School in Hanover, Indiana, and Saint Joseph’s High School in South Bend, Indiana. He is a 30-year veteran of the teaching and coaching professions, is currently officiating track and swimming and is a freelance writer.