Friday, September 25, 2015

The Secret to Success

By Justin McLennan

There is no accepted rule to success in team sports. It is almost as if there is this mysterious energy that governs it, leading to exciting displays of sports glory. Case in point: the 1983 N.C. State basketball team's RIDICULOUS national championship. No words would do it no justice, so do yourself a favor and watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, and you will see the exact mystery I'm talking about. The same thing can be seen in the wrestling film about the Peppelmans and the Central Dauphin wrestling team's improbable state championship team title in the documentary "Takedowns and Falls". Its the aligning of the stars, and the mechanism to move stars is as yet unknown. 

One thing that is certainly known about this mystery, however, is that it has something to do with human relationships. Again, the previously mentioned documentaries are excellent examples of this. In my life I experience something similar with the 2001 state championship team from Easton, PA. It was the only championship team in my 13 years in the sport, or in any sport for that matter, and this team had by far the best team culture of any team I was ever part of. It is often said that sports are largely mental (wrestling especially) and relationships are a big determinant of that mental ability. 

Reflecting on this main ingredient for success, it seems a bit odd that building relationships isn't more of a crucial point in coaching. Sports are inherent culture builders, but being aware of the workings of this process would certainly lead to more successful coaches. Using this framework you can assume that the more you work on positive culture, the more success you will have. Of course, this is in addition to athletic skill and talent. 

Think of the chance of a professional athlete's child being successful. I don't know the actual numbers, but it is pretty shocking how much your chances are increased of going pro if your parents did too. Of course the good physical genes are a big part of it. But people with good physical genes are born all over and don't do anything successful. And the parent-athlete demographic wins by a long shot.

Using this relationship model it becomes fairly clear why this happens. Ken Griffey, Jr's swing was so sweet not just because he was born with a physical gift. His teacher, Ken Griffey, Sr., was also his father, his friend and his hero. 

I think this same thing can be said for all types of success. As an educator, we always hear about "predictors of success" and how it can be linked to a variety of factors, such as socioeconomic levels, test scores, or ethnicity. But if we use the relationship model, the real causes aren't these undercurrents. It's based more on whether the relationships exist in a child's life to lead her to success. Who is her father, mother, role model, neighbor, teacher, coach, etc.? How is her relationship with these people? From there your prediction will likely be much more accurate than test scores or demographics.

Schools offer unique situations for relationships to be built deliberately. If it can happen early on, teams will be much more ready to be coached for success a few years down the road. Like a parent-child relationship, the bonds needed for trust, communication, and learning are already existent, so the team members are naturally inclined to feed off of the positive culture. By no means would the success rates be close to the pro-athlete parent demographic, but certainly somewhere in between that and a team form from scratch. Additionally, since these children are in school together, their relationships are solid and thus ready for this mysterious energy to build.

As a teacher and coach at a K-8 school, I have had the unique chance to build relationships with my students over the course of five years before they started wrestling. The 4th grade boys on my team were students in my kindergarten class in 2010 and I've seen them all at least 180 days per year for the last 5 years. I'm not making any guarantees, but I would definitely put money on these guys having success a few years down the road. Having the 5 years in our pockets to build culture and relationships is already done. The roads are built. It still takes work to walk that road, but its a lot more probable if we walk together. 

These reflections only make the urgency of sports in our world more obvious. Children need genuine relationships more than anything. They yearn to be part of something to help understand who they are. Sports give them the relationships needed for this inner work to be done in earnest. 

For all you current and former athletes out there, look at the teams you've had and how important they were for you. If you're not already spreading the knowledge, get out there and get organized! You're needed more urgently than you know. 

Justin McLennan is a coach and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. He is originally from Easton, Pa, and attended Lehigh University. He would like to dedicate this article to Steve Powell, Barry Snyder, Ed Ferraro, Pat Santoro, Greg Strobel, Kerry McCoy, Dan Goffredo, and the original coach, his father Ross McLennan.