Loyalty and accountability seem to be the most crucial traits employers demand in the workforce. As a coach and trainer of young athletes, these characteristics are essential to maximize the time spent in the gym or on the field. An athlete must remain loyal to the process. Some make the mistake of taking their foot off the gas when they start to experience success. They cut back their workout regimen, and to no surprise, fade down the stretch of the season. Others selectively push themselves when it’s convenient. These are usually the guys that rarely make the optional speed/conditioning sessions but make most of the team lifts. Most young athletes claim they want to be great, but few are willing to put in the day-in, day-out work to separate from the pack. It’s no coincidence when some teammates steadily improve while others plateau. Successful people tend to set goals. They tend to have a plan to achieve these goals. The most successful people let nothing steer them off course. The best in any field have a relentless drive to do whatever it takes to fulfill their dreams.
We are in a society where people immediately look for an escape route when the first hint of adversity hits. In the realm of youth sports, if little Timmy isn’t getting the playing time he feels he deserves, the first thing that pops in his head is quit or transfer. This is not to imply that one should avoid bettering their situation if an opportunity presents itself. But I think Vince Lombardi said it best, “Once you learn how to quit, it becomes a habit.”
I’d be lying if I tried to seem above these thoughts creeping in my head during my playing career. In high school, I was in the middle of a baseball hotbed (Broward County, FL), but enrolled at a dysfunctional program with little structure or discipline. My high school was notorious for scaring off the best talent to private school powerhouses in the surrounding area (i.e. Eric Hosmer). I was tempted to pursue these other options, but decided to stay and compete with the friends I’d played with my whole life. If I pushed myself, remained disciplined, and worked tirelessly to get to the next level, I could make it. “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to,” John Wooden. As old friends and teammates slowly faded away from the game, the players that wanted more than just a varsity letter separated themselves. It worked out in the end for us. The players from the team that wanted to play college ball got their opportunity. Getting recruited takes hard work, skill, and some luck. “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it,” Thomas Jefferson.
It’s normal to think about taking the easy way out and starting fresh. Dodging the challenges of accountability and avoiding honest self-evaluation are easy ways to avoid the truth. My freshman year in college was a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. After rehabbing all the way back from my second elbow surgery, I earned the last spot in the weekend rotation as the Sunday starter. I proved to be in over my head, and mediocrity/inconsistency ensued. Lingering arm issues plagued me throughout the season. I quickly fell out of the rotation and was delegated to midweek mop-up relief to the tune of a 5.4 ERA, 15 IP, and about as many K’s as BB’s. My exit meeting was filled with some criticism I’d never heard before. “How could coach say I underachieved? Doesn’t he know I could’ve gone to about any other school in the conference? If he would’ve brought me in down the stretch, I would’ve showed him what I could do.” These are the delusional thoughts that pop into an 18 year old’s head who has never been told he failed or wasn’t good enough. For a moment, I thought to myself, “I’ll go somewhere else and show coach that he was wrong.” But when I stepped back from it all, I realized coach wasn’t wrong, I was. I hadn’t proved that I could consistently throw strikes in tight spots. Besides that, I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t available to answer the bell at certain points in the year, so why should I have expected more opportunities? I did the right thing and stayed loyal to my commitment. I worked like a mad man that off-season. I was fueled by my own failures, not my coach’s “misconceived” perception of my underwhelming performance. I came back prepared the next season and made 11 weekend starts. My freshman year was a humbling experience that was vital to my maturation process. “There is no better coach than the bench,” Anson Dorrance, UNC Women’s Soccer Coach.
As I said before, thoughts of bailing when times get tough are natural. How one chooses to handle the decision reveals true character. Going back to younger athletes, I can’t tell you how many kids I see at tournaments playing with a different team every weekend. These are generally the kids that plateau early and often hold on to their Little League accomplishments. Obviously, there are exceptions for everything. Organizations fold, teams dissolve, and some players are forced to wander the travel ball circuit like nomads. But more often than not, guys that bounce around avoid accountability and blame others for their shortcomings. “He who is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else,” Benjamin Franklin.
Some athletes leave their school, travel team, or organization when they are disciplined, held to a higher standard for the first time in their brief careers. To me, that represents a fear of greatness. These are the streaky players, often frontrunners that can be the best teammate when they’re going good, but pout in the corner when they catch a cold streak. These guys often find something wrong with the coaching staff, teammates, or style of play the team incorporates. This provides a scapegoat for poor play or lack of playing time. Before heading off to greener pastures, ask yourself a few questions. Did the coaches provide optional opportunities for extra individual skill-work? Did I take advantage of any of these chances to get better? Did the player I sat behind outwork me at practice or conditioning?
The burden falls on the parents and coaches to set the example for how to conduct your business like a professional. I’ve seen my fair share of behind the scenes schemers- the parents of players that “didn’t get their fair shake”, on a mission to stir the pot, or even strategize a mass exodus. Sadly, I’ve even seen the same actions from coaches. What message does that send to your kids? When things don’t go your way, pack up and go on a search for an easier route? “Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens,”J.R.R. Tolkien.
Going hand in hand, another common theme is to blame the training coaches and their methods. “Well my son hasn’t gotten any faster or stronger since he started working out there, I don’t think those guys know what they’re doing.” In some cases the parents may have a point. But usually a simple lack of accountability can answer these questions. Did your son or daughter train with an intense focus to get better? Or did they sleepwalk through the sessions, spending most of the time in the bathroom or at the water fountain? There are no shortcuts to success. Anything worthwhile is worth working for.
Think long and hard before committing to something: a school, a team, a workout program, anything. But once you do, stay loyal to your word. Like I said earlier, I’m not suggesting young athletes should stay in a toxic situation for the sake of loyalty. “Loyalty to an unjust cause is a perversion of honor,” Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson. I’m simply saying that when things go south, look in the mirror before pointing the finger.
Be loyal to your goals. Relentlessly follow your plan. Trust your process. Let no outside influence steer you off course. And if the hard work and discipline to your plan results in the opportunities you dreamed of, you’ll know YOU earned it. You can proudly be accountable for your actions. You can own your work ethic like a badge of honor. Or you can constantly search for a scapegoat, twisting your brain into a pretzel trying to figure out who’s to blame for your lack of opportunities.