Friday, February 17, 2006

A Lesson for a Lifetime

Today in the first ever Olympics Women's Snowboard Cross gold medal race, American and World Champion Lindsey Jacobellis competed in a tough race against two Canadians and a Swiss rider. Lindsey Jacobellis fought her way through a tight start, and some jostling in the upper half of the track to come flying to the finish with an unprecedented 140 foot lead over the second place rider. That's when things went wrong. On the second to last feature (jump) of the race Lindsey glanced back and noticed that she was essentially alone on the track. As she launched herself off the feature she twisted in the air grabbing the edge of her snowboard in a method (trick) that snowboarder's call a "backside method grab". She landed back on her heels and fell over backwards. By the time she had struggled back onto her board and started back down the course she had been passed by Switzerland's Tanja Frieden. Lindsey Jacobellis had to settle for the silver medal and a lesson of a lifetime.

I feel sorry for Lindsey. It's tough to work the years she has to get to the Olympics then to get through 3 preliminary rounds and to have a commanding lead only to lose it all with one moment of showboating.

That said, as a sports fan who has had my fill of showboating, egocentric, spoiled superstar athletes it was kind of nice to see an athlete pay for their showboating in a very real manner. The media seems to love showing us the showboats, the showoffs, the over-the-top attention grabbers. What we don't see enough of is the hard working athletes who do what it takes to win and then celebrate. I don't get a thrill out of watching some multimillionaire NFL wide receiver dancing in the endzone, or some defensive lineman doing a sack dance. Isn't that what they get paid for? I don't see the need for 360 degree spins or tomahawk slams in basketball when a lay up or simple dunk scores the same two points. I've just had enough of elite athletes concentrating more on image and fluff than on playing the game well.

As a middle school volleyball coach I stress three main things that I want my players to learn. First: to learn to be a good volleyball player. Second: to be a good teammate. Third: to be a good student-athlete.

That third one is the tough one. There is so much involved in trying to turn little girls into good student-athletes. Requiring them to get good grades and backing up their parents when they are kept away from practices or games because they aren't getting their homework done is easy.

Demanding good sportsmanship is also pretty easy. I explain at the beginning that poor sportsmanship will not be tolerated. Trash talking, rude comments, gestures, or behavior will not be tolerated. Players are required to respect and be polite to their opponents, coaches, referees, fans, parents and themselves. They get no other warnings. First violation of these rules earns a player a seat next to me on the bench for the rest of the match. I have never had to issue a tougher penalty as we have never had a repeat offender. Now if I could only get the parents to behave as well as my athletes.

The hard lessons to teach are:

Stay in the moment. Forget the last play, concentrate on the current one. Don't worry about what's for dinner, the mistake your teammates just made, or what you mother is yelling from the stands. Concentrate on making this play the best one in the game.

Stay connected with your teammates. Communicate with each other. Pay attention to each other. Try to learn to act with one brain. Everyone concentrating on the same process at the same time.

Stay in the game. There is no such thing as too big a lead. In a game to 25 points you can be up 24-0 and still lose. Don't back off on a weaker team. It is the players job to play their best all the time. If they get into a game against a weaker opponent it is my job to modify the lineup accordingly. It is their job to play full out all the way to the end.

Play the game well. Work on your basics. A free pass to an open spot on the court or an off-speed hit to the corner score the same point as a powerful floor denting spike. I played a lot of volleyball for many years with young men just out of high school or college who put a huge amount of effort into jumping as high as possible and hitting the ball has hard as possible. They just never seemed to learn that a 38 inch vertical leap was useless if you couldn't get your spikes over the net and onto the floor in bounds.

Lindsey hopefully learned a good lesson today. Apparently she hadn't learned it earlier. Lets hope it sticks this time.

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