Any Damned Fool

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Talking with a friend of mine last week about our respective running schedules, I was reminded of a lesson I learned at basketball camp the summer before my freshman year of high school.

Image(Above: Armed with the knowledge I gained at basketball camp, I made varsity my freshman year. I’m in the back row, with the short, poofy hair, in between the two girls with glasses.)

When I asked my friend about her running plans for the weekend, she said that she was going to “try to make time for a run.” I know this might sound harsh, but it became clear to me in the middle of our conversation that my friend wasn’t going to be running. Sure enough, when I checked in with her on Sunday night, she said she hadn’t run.

Clearly, I don’t have the ability to read minds or to predict the future. A long time ago, however, through my own trial and error, I learned that exercise is just like anything else in life. The first step to achieving something is to actually believe that it will happen.

What does this have to do with basketball camp? When I went to K.C. Jones‘ Celtics Basketball Camp after 8th grade, the former Celtics assistant coach, Donald “Ducky” Meade, told us a story on this very topic that I have never forgotten. In fact, his story is the sole recollection I have from that whole week at camp. It’s a life lesson worth its weight in gold, and certainly worth the cost of one week of summer camp!

The story Ducky told went something like this:

There is a very close basketball game and the key player on the other team has been scoring over and over again. It’s clear to the coach that there’s just no way his home team is going to win, if they can’t shore up their defenses against this one, hot-shot player. 

So the coach turns to the bench and walks toward one of the players–let’s call him Jimmy.  The coach says to him, “Jimmy, I need you to go in there right now and stick with #14. Do not let him score again.”

Jimmy immediately stands up and says, “Coach, I’ll try,” and then moves toward the score keepers to check-in.

The coach steps between Jimmy and the check-in table and says, “Any damned fool can try. Sit down.” He then points to another player and asks him to go into the game instead of Jimmy.

After telling the story, Ducky asked us why the coach didn’t put Jimmy in. None of the girls, including me, immediately understood why, and thought it was really mean of the coach to bench Jimmy. A few of us shook our heads, indicating “No.”

Ducky was a very, very small older man who was extremely energetic and animated. He nearly went ballistic that we didn’t understand the point of his story. So, he jumped around in front of us and explained that, in sports you have to commit 200%, and really believe that you are going to succeed in order to do so. And that’s why Jimmy didn’t get to play in that game. By saying the he would “try” he indicated to his coach that he wasn’t fully committed, and that, inside, he did not have true belief that he could stop that other player from scoring.

After hearing the explanation, it made perfect sense to me. In sports and in life, I’ve been reminded of this truth many times since. In fact, in the short time since I decided to write about this topic, a significant event involving athletic belief has taken place that puts an even finer point on my story. It is much more powerful and positive than the tale about my friend who didn’t fully commit to planning for a weekend run.

I am referring to the story of Meb Keflezighi, who won yesterday’s Boston Marathon, the first American man to do so since 1983. Meb certainly is one of the great American long-distance runners of his generation, having won the New York City Marathon (2009) and earned an Olympic silver medal at the Athens summer games (2004). However, he is turning 39 in a few short days and was listed on the 4th page of the elite runners list in the Boston Marathon press kit (the names were placed in order of their fastest marathon times).

Because of this, no one believed that Meb was going to win the Boston Marathon. When I say “no one,” of course, what I really mean is that no one other than Meb himself thought that he could win it. Yet, on a fine running day in Boston, Meb beat scores of runners significantly younger and faster than himself and crossed the finish line first, thus cementing himself among the all-time great American runners.

Not everyone who believes they will be successful will be. However, if you do not believe it, you can be pretty certain that you will fail.

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