Most athletes can recall certain memories that sparked their love for the game. For me, I remember breaking my first window while taking some unapproved indoor batting practice at my house. I think about playing catch with my dad, trying to take his glove off with every throw. Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, it was 10 years later and my dad could no longer catch me. Every athlete can think of certain milestones in their careers that represent a turning point where their love for the game shifts to a desire to do whatever it takes to play longer.
Growing up in South Florida, baseball was a way of life. We played 12 months a year and I was still hungry for more. I was one of those OCD kids who would lay out my uniform the night before a game or even a practice. In my opinion, sports up until ages 13 or 14 are largely about learning the game. But even more than that, the early ages are where you really learn how to compete. I doubt many kids are concerned about form or technique in a pick up game of basketball or a game of whiffle ball in the backyard. But I guarantee parents can point to countless arguments between their child and neighbors, siblings, or friends about the outcome of an unsanctioned competition. I know moms across the country have had to step in and break up these intense cringe-worthy disputes, but these times are what forge bulldog competitors for life.
Around age 13 or 14, when the participation trophies are piling up to the ceiling, athletes are faced with a decision. Am I okay with being a JAG (just another guy) and hopefully getting a varsity letter or two by the time I graduate? Or do I want to be something special? Am I willing to start making the sacrifices that will help my chances to play my sport beyond high school? Will I let the prospect of collegiate athletics drive every decision I make on and off the field? For myself, the answer was a clear and resounding YES!
Getting serious about your sport starts with small, subtle shifts in your habits. It could be as simple as getting a grilled chicken sandwich with a water between games instead of your usual chicken wings and coke. After I pitched, I could sit back and relax and wait for nature’s slow recovery process to take place. Or, I could jumpstart the process by running sprints and doing post throw band exercises. Sometimes, it was the simple choice of to lift or not to lift? As human beings we can justify anything. “Well 3pm is my only chance to work out and I’m so tired right after school. It’s not worth it; I’m too tired to really get after it. I can afford a day off, can’t I?” The answer is sure you can. But I can guarantee thousands of kids playing your position in your sport are not granting themselves the luxury of a day off.
Buying in to the grind will begin to reward you opportunities that many of your peers don’t get. For me, it was invites to national showcases and workouts for college and pro scouts. To make things more difficult, the increase in opportunities in your sport tend to directly coincide with a spike in social opportunities. Is your commitment strong enough to skip the big party to make sure you’re sharp when you play in front of the college coaches the next day? If you truly have the desire to be great, the answer is yes.
If you fully immerse yourself in the process, the grind to get better, you may be lucky enough to get the chance to play beyond high school. There is no better feeling than checking the mailbox every day to find letters from the schools you once dreamed to wear the uniform for. It’s the ultimate payoff for the hard work, the endless sacrifices you’ve made to get to this point. With the trend of recruiting beginning earlier and earlier, this early love can be dangerous. It can cause a young adult to sit back, rest on your laurels, and save the hard work for when you get to the school you plan to attend. Don’t fall in this trap! Let the habits you’ve developed continue to shine through. Sharpen your focus even more, because I’m here to tell you that the games you see on tv are just the end result of a year round ringer of hard work.
It’s funny how time changes one’s perspective on things. Sometimes, the stuff you once dread become the things you now long for. For me, the daily grind of collegiate athletics has left me wanting more. I look back at the lifts. I recall the “optiotory” conditioning in the 95 degree heat. I think about the painful shuffle between the hot and cold tubs. There were the countless hours spent in the training room getting graston massage treatments to break up scar tissue (much different than the relaxing massage you may be picturing). I can still recall trudging over to the Case academic center for study hall after a long day of class and baseball activities.
I’m not telling you this so you feel bad for poor Division I athletes. We get spoiled rotten and college was the best 4 years of my life. I’m saying this because I miss it every single day. There will be a time in every athlete’s career when you are told in some form or fashion that it’s time to hang ’em up. It’s rare that an athlete goes out on their own terms and extremely rare that an athlete is ready when the time comes.
Take control of your future. Being great is a choice. Wake up every morning and choose to dominate the day. Learn to appreciate the tough workouts. Learn to love the early practices and games. Take pride in getting work in before your competition wakes up. Then, when the time comes to finally call it a career, you’ll sleep well knowing that you did everything in your power to be the best you could be. So I’m asking you, how will you sleep?