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Stuff my Dad says

*Warning: This blog contains language that may be unsuitable for young readers. This is due to the fact that it contains advice given to me by my father whom, while not a profane man, was occasionally given to the use of “colorful” language in order to convey his point. This, I believe, was due to his upbringing in in the rough mining town of Steubenville, Ohio, a number of years serving in the military, and career spent in the steel industry.

 

Stuff my dad says

 I ran across a book last month that caught my eye immediately entitled ‘S**t My Dad Says’ by Justin Halpern.  It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and reminded me of my own dad because Justin’s dad and mine share some of the same qualities.  Intelligent, independent, tough, direct, and loving (in their own way) are some descriptors I would use for both men - politically correct, not so much.

I think about the stuff my dad says often, particularly when asked for advice by the kids I coach and/or their parents. That’s because the issues I deal with often go beyond the scope of my tennis expertise and I find myself simply passing along the principles I learned from my dad about life. He was an expert at taking complex problems and coming up with the most intelligent, effective solutions. As my dad might say, he was good at “cutting through the crap”. 

Recently I was asked, by a girl I coach and her dad, about a high school tryout that didn’t seem fair. The round robin system they were using was being cut short before all the girls had a chance to play, apparently the coach had decided to let go of some of the weaker players before tryouts were over. Because my student had played the stronger players in the early rounds she wouldn’t have a chance to play the weaker players. I agreed that this seemed unfair.  As usual, I thought about what my dad would say and passed it along. Specifically, two principles came to mind:

Principle #1: Hustle ALL the time

When I was young my life centered around baseball. After a little league game one night I was feeling particularly proud of myself, since I had made some great plays at shortstop and my team had won - life was good. As we got into the car to drive home, however, I noticed Dad didn’t share my enthusiasm.  He told me I needed to run on and off the field faster and that I wasn’t giving 100% effort. He could be a man of few words, so there wasn’t much discussion beyond that.  It was tough to hear; I couldn’t understand what was so important about running on and off the field between innings. At that age (I was around 8) you do what your Dad says, so for the rest of my baseball career I was the first guy on and off that field. I realized later that he was teaching me a principle to live by, he called it “hustle” – I figured it meant paying attention to the details, working hard in all circumstances (particularly when you think it doesn’t matter and no one is watching), and practicing/competing with full intensity ALL the time. Later in life I realized that this was often what gave me a competitive edge in whatever I pursued. The older I got the smarter my dad became. 

To my young student and her dad I suggested that this principle would apply very well in her situation. Regardless of whether she felt tryouts were fair she should focus on hustling. It’s so easy, when things aren’t going your way, to focus on the externals (the things out of your control) and neglect the internals (the things you can control). How her coach ran the tryouts were external, her decision to stay focused on hustling was internal.

Principle #2: Strive to be “head and shoulders” better than the competition

A few years later, having learned about hustle, it was time for spring baseball tryouts.  At age 10 most players would be placed in the “minors” division for kids ages 8-10, and a few exceptional 10-year olds would be put up in the “majors” division for kids 11-12.  Naturally, my belief was that I was good enough to play with the older boys. The coaches put a bunch of us in left field and started whacking fly and ground balls out to us. I was all over the place and grabbed every ball I could get to, usually cutting in front of the other guys. I never missed. One of the coaches told me to let the other guys catch some. I hadn’t considered that we were supposed to take turns. I was just hustling - giving it 100%, playing my best, paying attention to every detail.

By the way, my Dad wasn’t there.  He hadn’t given me any pep talks that morning or told me to hustle.  He barely knew I was trying out that day. The parental philosophy, so prevalent today, of needing to watch every move your kid makes was not one that my dad subscribed to. He had taught me the principle, and the living-it-out part was left up to me.

The call for the majors that spring never came.  I was terribly disappointed I didn’t make it.  My Dad never said anything about it. His reaction to this disappointment was not to run to the coach and plead my case, even though I would have been happy for him to do so.  Finally, after watching me mope for days, he explained that if I expected to make the majors that it wasn’t good enough to be a little better than everybody else.  I needed to be “head and shoulders” better so that there wasn’t the slightest doubt. The conversation didn’t last long, but the message was powerful.  Whatever I achieved was mine to own, so if I didn’t make it then I was secret mysteries of america’s beginnings eye of the phoenix torrent to take responsibility, work harder, and aim to be twice as good at my next opportunity. 

This principal was as relevant to my student now as it was to me when I was young. First, if her expectations were based on a perfectly fair tryout system (that would produce a lineup that reflected the exact abilities of each player), she was going to be very disappointed. No such system exists. Second, the difference between a player who plays #7 vs. #6 or #1 vs. #2 on a high school team (or any team) is going to be very small regardless of the tryout system they use. Her focus should be on getting good enough to play much higher, to make it so that it’s not even close. As my dad put it, “head and shoulders” better. The reality in my case (when I was 10) was that I probably was good enough to make the “majors” that year, but just barely. However, I wasn’t “head and shoulders” above those guys so I didn’t deserve to get picked.  My hope was that my student understood that focusing on the unfair tryout system was a waste of time. She needed to focus on getting so good that she removed all doubt.

The wisdom, I think, of my dads’ advice to me as a young athlete was that it always put the burden on me to perform. The outcome was a by-product of a process (hustle) that was purely my responsibility. His job was to support that process (which he always did), not enable me to win all the time (which he never did).  Regardless of the externals, I was to take responsibility for the internals. My hope was that by sharing this with my student she would benefit in her life beyond athletics.

 

Random dad stuff

There’s no way, short of writing a book, that I could convey all the valuable life principles that my dad imparted on me over the years, many of which I have passed on to others (particularly my own kids and students). I don’t always know how well they have been received but I do know that sharing them always makes me appear smarter than I am, thanks to him. I may write that book one day, but in the meantime here are a few more dad principles that come to mind:

When you are in high school and don’t want to take advanced classes (even though you are probably barely smart enough to do so) so you can focus on sports instead, remember that the key to success in life is to CREATE OPTIONS FOR YOURSELF regardless of how you feel at the moment.

When you want to quit graduate school because you have three papers due that you haven’t started yet, are working two jobs, and haven’t slept in a week remember that: ANYONE CAN STAND ON THEIR HEAD FOR A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME and you should NEVER MAKE IMPORTANT DECISIONS WHEN YOU ARE DEAD TIRED.

When you have your first child and feel as if you are barely out of childhood yourself and are feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising another human being, remember that:  IT’S NOT ABOUT KNOWING ALL THE ANSWERS, IT’S ABOUT ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.

When you want to do something that may not be met with approval from others remember that IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR NO FOR AN ANSWER, DON’T ASK THE QUESTION. This advice was given in reference to a situation I was dealing with at work. It may be risky when applied in marriage relationship. 

When you don’t know what you’re talking about but speak anyway just because you like to hear yourself talk, remember: DON’T RUN YOUR MOUTH WITHOUT YOUR BRAIN BEING IN GEAR.

If you are uninformed or unprepared to discuss a subject and want to protect your ego by pretending you don’t care, remember: NEVER BE PROUD OF BEING IGNORANT.

When given a task to perform and realize that it would be much easier to cut corners in order to save time and/ or energy remember: DON’T DO THINGS HALF ASSED.

 

Reflections

During the writing of this blog my dad passed away after a full and wonderful life at the age of 77. He had battled heart disease most of his adult life but was fortunate to stay just ahead of the curve of medical advances, enabling him to live such a long life. Surprisingly, at the end he developed an aggressive form of lung cancer which progressed rapidly. He was too tough and strong willed to be done in by just one life threatening disease. Even then, he battled to live because he loved life so much.

 My dad possessed uncommon intellect (he was a member of Mensa, the organization for smart people where your IQ must exceed your body weight), discipline (he earned his engineering degree from Johns Hopkins while going to night school and working a full time job), knowledge (history, economics, politics, mathematics) , conviction (a good friend of his recently said that, “Bill was not easily moved from his point of view”, which pretty much says it) and independence (he left home at age 16 to live on his own). He enjoyed respectful debate with those who had differing points of view and he graciously shared his advice with those whom he cared about. Fortunately, I was one of those people.

He profoundly impacted the lives of countless others as well. I know I’m not the only one who learned from him and passed it along to others. In this sense, he lives on far beyond the years he spent with us. I can’t begin to express how much we will miss him but I can guarantee he will never be forgotten. I’m particularly thankful that he lived long enough to be a part of my daughters lives and that they were able to know and love their Pop-Pop into their adult years. I can think of few gifts greater in life than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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