Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lessons From the Back of the Pack

It's funny the things that stick with us.

To think of all the bits of advice and insight that pass through us, who's to say why some stay with us and some don't.

I had this soccer coach when I was younger. He was an interesting man to say the least, and to this day one that I'm not sure I'll ever completely understand. He was a walking conundrum. A man just as likely to inspire you as he was to thoroughly offend you. A complete social idiot, who somehow knew more than most about what made the people around him tick. A man who's unquestionable success was only ever one sentence away from becoming a failure.

A man who had a great influence on who I am today, providing as many lessons on what not to do, as what to do.

But it was in those autumn days when I served as his unofficial Assistant Coach that he taught me the most. And one afternoon in particular that brings me to the point of this blog.

It was at the end of a long day at practice, very early in the season. He turned to me, in one of his rare introspective moments. One of those odd occasions where I wasn't merely "the guy who set up the cones", where I wasn't simply the means to his end, but rather as the kid who one day might grow up to take care of others.

"You wanna know how to find the leader?"

He stood there for a second, as his team's thundering feet returned from the latest round of sprints he had just sent them on. It was a custom at the end of practice for the team to line up on the midfield line, then on his whistle, they would sprint down and behind the back of the goal, then return to the midfield line. He would give them a time that each of them had to be back by. He's start with time like "26" seconds, then slowly drop the time as he went. If someone came in after 26 seconds, the whole team would have to repeat that sprint, before moving down to the final time.

"Okay! This one has to be under 23!"

He blew his whistle, and they sprinted away leaving us alone once again.

"You do these sprints with them. Wait until they are gassed, then ask them to do one more. Only this time, ask them to do it in a time just fast enough that they think you are crazy for asking."

The kids return again, hands on their heads, gasping for air. A few seconds go by, as the sound of burning lungs sets the mood.

"Okay! Last one. Everyone has to finish under 19"

An audible groan of incredulity emanates through out the group. Their faces drop in a wash of surprise and outrage. A few choice words are muttered under a few breaths as they place their toes back on the line.

He blows the whistle again.

"Then you watch."

We stand there watching the collection of young men flying towards the goal.

"Your leader's not the guys up front."

I look out at the three boys in the lead, separated from the pack by several yards. The faces of the boys that top the list of goals scored, who's name appear at the beginning of every starting line-up.

"It's not the slow kid who's busting his ass from the back, pushing his way to the middle."

I note the chubby Senior, usually one of the last to finish, who is uncharacteristically running amidst the majority of the team.

"It's the kid in the back who should be winning. The kid who can run much faster than he is. The kid who slows down to run along side the slowest guy, trying to push him to run a little faster to make the time."

And there he was. The kid who barely looked out of breath finishing right along side the boy who looked close to passing out.

"Just made it!"

The team lets out a loud sigh of relief.

And I don't exactly know why, but I find myself thinking of this often. This idea of leadership, and what it looks like, compared to what it is.

And I think about this, wondering on any given day, which of these boys I am. The ones out in front trying to lead by example. The boy desperately trying to make up ground, pushing himself beyond his capabilities. Or the guy in the back, side by side with the ones who need the most help.

But, I think the old, jackass was right. Cause if I had to choose which I'd like to be, it would the guy in the back.

Cause the older I get, the more I find this principal to be true, that the only way to help someone is to meet them where they are. That as much as you would like them to rise to your level, to your standards, or expectations, it doesn't work that way. That a true leader doesn't call down to you from the top of the hole to get you out, but jumps down into it with you.

And I sit here writing this, looking back the week that was, for all it's craziness and chaos. I can't help but laugh a bit, thinking of my crazy coach, and encouraged that for this moment in time, there seem to be a lot of holes worth jumping into.

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