Archive for the ‘Teamwork’ category

Cutting Kids

February 11, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       February 9, 2018

                                            

Yesterday I posted “the list”! The list is the 13 seventh grade boys who have been invited to be a part of the Timberview Middle School interscholastic basketball team. It’s a list of celebration that had 13 signs of relief breathed upon it.

Not on the list are the 28 others who I had to say “Sorry!” to. Telling seventy percent of the boys that they were cut is worse than a couple of hemorrhoids living side by side…okay, maybe not that bad!

“Cutting kids” is also a life lesson. In every aspect of life there are those who are left off the list. Last spring I applied for a head coaching position for basketball at a local high school. About a week later I received an email informing me that I was not one of the finalists. There was a moment of indignation, but I got over it. Two weeks later I interviewed for another position and was a finalist, but was still not the final pick. In both cases I was not the one. It’s how life works.

For each of the students who tried out for the seventh grade team I did an evaluation that I will willingly share with any of them who ask me. I made the point to those who were not chosen that if they work on specific skills their chances of making next year’s team will improve. Some will make attempts, and others will find other things that may be more of a passion than basketball.

Parents don’t like kids to be cut. In fact, we use softer language as I did in the first paragraph. We “invite” a few students to be on the interscholastic team. If you hear the students talk, however, they will usually use one of two terms. They “made the team”, or they “got cut.”

Some day these same kids will apply for college or submit a resume for a job. When they are rejected I wonder if their parents will correct them and say, “No, honey! You just weren’t invited to take the position!”

Pain and disappointment lead to self-discovery. “I’m sorry to inform you” letters cause adolescents to realize that the world does not spin on their personal axis. If someone is never disappointed he/she will seldom reach for something that is still beyond their reach.

One boy came to me Friday afternoon. He’s a good-sized kid, who I thought would be one of the 13, but his skill deficiencies rose to the surface in the four days of tryouts. “Coach, I was really disappointed when I saw that I didn’t make the team, but I’m okay with it now.” He’s a good kid who I will have in class Monday and Tuesday for the teacher I’ll be subbing for. I told him I’d share my evaluation with him so he can work on a few things. He appreciated that. In the course of a few hours he went from taking it personally to knowing that I care about him. In regards to him, disappointment will make him stronger and cause him to work even harder.

Cutting kids is the hardest thing I do as a coach, and yet one of the most important things I do.

On Monday morning I’ll convince 13 other seventh grade boys that the world does not revolve around them either!

Icing My Shooter

February 6, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                              February 6, 2018

                                        

The freshmen boy’s basketball team I coach at The Classical Academy (TCA) In Colorado Springs has been abysmal in their free throw shooting this basketball season. Three of our five losses came in games where we shot under 50% from the foul line.

Before we had played any games way back in November I had challenged one of my players (I’ll just refer to him as “Verle”!) to improve his shooting. Each day in practice we’d do two or three rounds where each player shoots ten free throws and reports their results.

Verle would tell me, “Coach, I made 2 out of 10.”

“Coach, I was 3 for 10!”

Once in a great while it would be, “Coach, I was 5 for 10!”

Finally, one day I said to him, “Verle, if you shoot 90% for the season I’ll shave my head!”

His eyes lit up!

“Really!”

“Really!”

His eyes squinted together, his way of telling me that he was up to the challenge. In my opinion, his look of determination did not change the fact that he was a master bricklayer as a free throw shooter. Quickly he informed all of his teammates of the coach-player bet. They whooped and hollered about it.

Last night we played our 15th game of the season. Verle had not yet shot a free throw all season. In the fourth quarter of a game where we had a comfortable lead it happened. He got hacked!

The one stat that each of my players were aware of was that Verle had not shot a free throw all season. He was zero for zero! There was instant excitement on the bench of what might happen. The junior varsity players waiting behind our bench knew also and they were intently watching.

He stepped to the line, received the basketball, bounced it twice, and then launched. With minimum rotation the ball headed towards the rim. It hit the front of the rim, bounced and hit the back of the rim, and then fell through the basket. My bench erupted. The JV players joined them in the celebration. Verle looked over at me on the bench with the same squinted eyes look.

I called time out!

In basketball a coaching ploy that is often used is called “icing the shooter.” It’s the idea of making the free throw shooter have to think about the difficulty of the shot he/she is about to attempt. If someone makes the first of two shots it’s the idea of getting him away from the spot that feels comfortable for a few moments before he attempts the second shot.

This, however, might be the first time a coach has called time out to “ice” his own shooter. The players gathered around me, and someone told Verle why I had called time out.

“Coach, are you trying to ice me? Coach, I’ve got ice in my veins!”

“Great! Maybe you’ll freeze up on your shot!”

The bench was excited. The JV players were yelling. Verle walked over to the free throw line, cast one more look of determination at me, and readied himself. Behind me on the bench a couple of players were making buzzing sounds to mimic an electric razor.

He shot! Time stood still! The ball hit nothing but net! I put my head in my hands!

The whole bench, plus the JV team all launched into a symphony of electric razor buzzing. Verle gave me the squinted eye look one more time.

Now I must try to get him into another free throw shooting situation in the final four games, but considering it took fifteen games before he attempted his first one that is going to be a tough task. He may come down with a two week flu, or fake a sprained ankle.

I walked into the locker room to the sound of the whole team “buzzing!”

My hair is toast!

Temporary Disfigurement

February 5, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                 February 5, 2018

                              

My wife and I went to see the movie Wonder a few weeks ago. We found ourselves shedding a few tears during the film, which followed the story of a fifth grade boy named “Auggie” who had Treacher Collins syndrome. Because of his condition Auggie would wear an astronaut’s helmet around whenever he was in public. He dreamed of being an astronaut because in space no one sees the faces of others.

Ten and eleven year old kids can be cruel, but they can also be compassionate. Auggie experiences both ends of the pendulum as it swung from classmate to classmate.

I was deeply moved by watching the film and pondering its messages. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it!

And then Saturday morning I woke up with a rash on the side of my face that made me want to put on an astronaut’s helmet…or paper bag. By Saturday afternoon I looked like I had a huge chaw of chewing tobacco between my left cheek and gum (Not that I’ve ever done that, but I was born in Kentucky! Half the barns in the state used to have “Chew Mail Pouch” painted on one side!).

The past two days I’ve had a few “Auggie moments”. That is, I’m very self-conscious of my face and I assume that everyone I see is looking at me. There’s a sense of embarrassment tied into it. I don’t feel normal, and normal is what all of us want to be unless we’re doing something that our culture thinks is extraordinary.

Lessons are learned in the abnormal moments of life.

This afternoon middle school boy’s basketball tryouts begin. It’s my seventeenth season coaching at Timberview Middle School, and it’s the seventeenth time I will see the uncertainty of seventh and eighth grade boys as they deal with the uncomfortableness of being watched by coaches and other boys who they feel inferior to. Perhaps God gave me this rash to help me empathize with the pressures of being a twelve year old.

Actually, there’s that hint of uncertainty and inadequacy in any middle school child. With some it just might be a little deeper below the surface, but it’s there. Much of the time he or she simply stays out of situations where it has the potential to rise to the surface.

I can relate. In my few trips out in public the last three days I’ve tried to stay to the left so the left side of my face is away from people. Three months from today I’ll turn 64 and I’m still sensitive to my insufficiencies!

I’m simply a self-conscious adolescent in an elderly shell!

Dressing Like A Lollipop To Fight Cancer

February 3, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           February 3, 2018

                         

Cancer has taken a number of my friends. Mike Wilcoxen sat beside me in “home room” my senior year off high school. The next year I went off to college, but Mike succumbed to cancer at the age of 18.

Jim Sweeney, Steve Shaffer, Gary Gowler, Professor Ted Hsieh…my list of cancer victims is far longer than my list of cancer survivors.

And then about fifteen months ago my friend, Greg Davis, 41 years old, passed after a six year struggle with a form of brain cancer.

And so yesterday I taught an eighth grade language arts class at the school where Greg taught social studies for fifteen years, and I wore a pink shirt with the words “Slam Dunk Cancer” on the front of it. In the midst of each class I told Greg’s story, his victories and his struggles. Each class was graciously attentive. It’s interesting that in my second class I got a bit emotional. It suddenly came upon me like a wave of emotional memories and I had to stop for a moment.

Last night at The Classical Academy (TCA) I wore that same pink shirt, but switched to a pair of blue Docker’s, and sparkling white tennis shoes. My basketball team got a kick out of it! There was a sea of pink in the bleachers last night as TCA raised funds to send the kids of cancer victims and survivors to a special camp in the summertime.

We won our freshmen boys game! In the locker room celebration afterwards I told the boys, “This is the last time I come to a game dressed by a lollipop!”

Correct that! I would do it every game if it could help someone struggling with cancer or families that are living with heightened anxiety each and every day. I miss my friend Greg. As I told my classes yesterday, I wore the pink shirt to honor him and to remember him.

Thank God no one came up to me last night and tried to lick me!

Channeling Dr. Ryder

February 1, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      February 1, 2018

                                    

Dr. Stuart Ryder was an institution at Judson College (now Judson University). A professor in the English Department for “centuries”, in his later years he also assumed the role of Athletic Trainer for the school’s sports teams.

Dr. Ryder was also a master of puns. His sharp wit would rise to the surface suddenly with a humorous line that caused occasional laughter and, more frequently, groans.

For example, before a cross-country meet one of the runners was walking around barefoot, and Doc Ryder voiced, “I guess we must be smelling ‘da’ feet!”

Now, decades later I find myself using puns in the middle school classrooms where I’m teaching to the groans of the seventh grade students. It is as if I’m channeling Doc in my attempts at witty humor. It emerged again this morning at Starbucks when one of the baristas was fixing a cup of tea as I walked up to the counter. “Just a minute, Bill! I’ve got to fix the tea before the customer gets here.”

I quickly channeled Stuart Ryder. “I guess it wouldn’t be good for the cup to be ‘emp-ty!’”

She chuckled and said “Good one!” Seven A.M. humor at Starbucks is greatly appreciated in the midst of bleary-eyed customers who are waiting  with heightened irritation for their first cup of java.

In the classroom “pun humor” keeps the middle school students alert. Some of it is too deep for them, but that’s okay! I don’t understand the math they’re doing either!

Dr. Ryder used to say a pun and then give a personal chuckle that involved some rapid and short inhaling and exhaling. When I utter a pun I just smile and look for understanding.

“Mr. Wolfe, see my baggie! I think someone stepped on my cookie that’s in it!”

“Well, I guess you could say that’s how the cookie crumbled!”

“Mr. Wolfe!”

Another situation while we were outside.

“Mr. Wolfe, I had my bag of chips sitting here on the rock and the wind came and blew the bag off. The chips went everywhere!”

“Gee, that’s too bad! I guess you might call that an example of ‘being chips off the old rock!’” (Loud groan in the midst of chip grieving!)

It’s Doc Ryder’s seeds from the past rising again in new life.

Our lives are cultivated by different people in a multitude of ways. Dr. Stuart Ryder planted, watered, and helped students grow.

Every time I find myself beginning a sentence with the words “I guess you could say…” I can hear the rumble of his laughter within me!

Wrestling with Spartan Loyalty

January 28, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             January 28, 2018

                                 

It’s been a tough week in Spartan Land! The Larry Nassar horror had been going on for a while. I wanted to believe that he was more connected to USA Gymnastics than Michigan State University.

You see, that’s a big part of my problem, and struggle. I don’t want to believe that anything can go wrong in Spartan Country.

Sports Information Director at the Air Force Academy, Troy Garnhart, told me of the Academy’s football game at Michigan State a couple of years ago. He was impressed by everything- the people, the facilities, but, most of all, the hospitality and genuineness of the coaches and players. That’s what I want to hear! It’s difficult to hear that the coin actually has another side to it.

I want to believe that about the other university about an hour southeast down the road. Anything that makes Jim Harbaugh want to puke…like a blocked punt on the final play of a football game…brings a smile to my face!

But this is Spartan Land, and I wouldn’t even want such a debacle to happen in Ann Arbor. One of sexual assault victims of Larry Nassar is the daughter of a man who was a part of the youth group I led back in the early eighties in Lansing. Her testimony personalized a story that became so immense that there was a danger of seeing so many victims- more than one hundred and fifty, but forgetting that each one of them endured pain and suffering.

As happens in our culture, the indiscretions of one becomes the fault of the many. We’re teetering on the edge of a moral ledge where things that have been kept hidden are raising their ugly heads. In recent months, more than usual, an incision into the heart of our society has revealed the darkness of how we live. In our talent for avoidance we usually shrug off the rumors, but, in this situation, the reality has tsunami’ed us. The Nassar crimes are like when you look at a wall and see a crack in the paint, but when you more closely investigate it you notice that the crack extends in all directions.

I want to still live in Spartan Land but the “Green and White” has become grey-ish! I want my heroes to stay standing on pedestals, but I’m afraid that the possibility of falling off is increasing daily.

And how far does the failure of responsibility ripple out? A university president and the athletic director have already retired/resigned. The entire board of USA Gymnastics joined the list of resignations. How many more will be found to have ignored the elephant in the room?

I’ll always root for the Spartans, but when I wear my Michigan State hoodie nowadays I’m reminded more of the damage that has been done to a multitude of lives than I am of Spartan victories.

A school that has been known for “Magic” has entered a new chapter that is entitled  “Tragic”!

Grace-Filled Winning

January 15, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        January 15, 2018

                                        

Recently a high school women’s basketball team in our area was beaten by 94 points. They were missing a couple of their players that day, but other defeats this season have been lop-sided as well, just not in the same zip code as 94.

In my years as a coach I’ve been on both sides of the final score…on the left side of the  hyphen with a way larger number than my waist size…and on the right side of the hyphen with a digit that looks as embarrassed as a naked child in a grocery store.

One of the first games I coached was a YMCA Church League game for middle school boys. We lost 75-5 and my only player who could dribble and chew gum at the same time broke his wrist. That team struggled to score more than six points in any game for the rest of the season. One of our last games was against Bethlehem Lutheran, and their associate pastor, Noel Niemann, was also their coach. Noel knew what our team’s skill level was and he purposely had his players play a packed in 2-3 zone defense and allowed our players to shoot from the outside. They beat us 36-12, but my team was elated that the scoreboard had to use two digits to display our team’s score. That was in 1982 and I still remember Noel’s name, the score, and the sportsmanship.

I seldom see grace filter into sports these days. It’s seen as a sign of weakness. “After all,” say too many coaches, “we’ve practiced hard. Winning in a blowout is our just rewards for practicing hard!”

That argument carries only so far! Winning by a ton of points is usually fueled by a coach’s arrogance, blood-thirsty parents in the bleachers, or players who think it says something about how impressive their skill level is.

In most states high school athletes can choice into schools that ordinarily they would not be going to. Certain high schools are accumulating more than their fair share of the better players, while other schools are encountering cupboards that are bare. Mismatches are evident before the season even begins. And it will continue to be!

So whose responsibility is to be win with grace?

The opportunity to show grace begins with the coach. I use the word “opportunity” because it should be seen as such. Not a requirement, but rather a gift wrapped in the lesson of sportsmanship. Any sporting event is a venue for how we wish people would treat each other. Too often it is a place where the participants strut like peacocks and the observers say things they would not want their mothers, some already in the grave, to hear.

Grace in winning is an opportunity for a coach to teach his/her players a different lesson that is unrelated to the score. Not enough coaches seem to understand that so now there is this thing called “The Mercy Rule.” The name should be a stop sign, but, instead, it has just become a point in the game where one team is a certain number of points ahead of the other team…and mercy has gone out for coffee!

High school sports, and maybe even more than that, middle school sports, need more coaches who teach the skills of the game, but also the character that a person can have. It needs more coaches that can model for their players that winning is more than a good-looking number figure on the left side of the hyphen.

It needs more “Noel Niemann’s”!