The Value of Purpose-Based Athletics

I recently had the opportunity to experience a first-ever airplane flight through my daughter’s eyes. With nervous anticipation, she listened intently as the flight attendant went through some basic instructions with all the passengers on the airplane. After the flight attendant finished, my daughter continued to take in her surroundings. She noticed the cockpit door being closed prior to takeoff. She quickly asked me, “Daddy, what if you need to speak to the pilot.” I replied back, “Honey, I can’t imagine a scenario where the pilot would need to hear from me during the flight.”

After much discussion, I realized my daughter assumed because I had been flying for years that I was some sort of expert in aviation. I smiled as I imagined what would happen if, during a turbulent flight, I knocked on the cockpit door and told the pilot to decrease altitude and increase speed. I’d likely be leaving the flight in handcuffs. As we reached the pilot’s desired altitude, I began comparing the experience of a pilot to that of a high school sports coach. Both the pilot and a coach have a destination in mind and gather as much information as possible prior to a game/flight. Both a pilot and a coach are responsible for caring for precious cargo. The major difference between being a coach and a pilot is coaches can’t close the cockpit door.

Everyone’s an expert

I remember what it was like to be a high school athlete. My coaches pushed me beyond my comfort zone. They had high expectations for me. They held me accountable for my effort, my attitude and my performance. It was hard. I went home some days questioning myself and at times, my coaches. I remember feeling frustrated and physically and emotionally drained. My parents encouraged me to push through the hard times, to stay positive and keep working hard to achieve my goals. They never called a coach or wrote anonymous letters and the thought of starting a petition to have a coach fired never even crossed their minds. I felt tremendous support from my parents but I was expected to blaze my own trail.

In my experience as a coach and AD in the 21st century, sport parents are now more interested in preparing the path than preparing their child. Everyone’s now an expert. Coaches are constantly questioned on team placement, choice of captains, playing time, practice structure and overall team performance. Athletes are forced to listen to two coaches while competing—the coach on the bench and their parent in the stands. If coaches aren’t being questioned or blamed for poor performances during games then it must be the officials.

In order to make room in our broken sports culture, we need to give our coaches the space to train, teach and coach our children. We need to allow our kids to fail and learn from their mistakes. As parents, we can’t fix everything for our children. It is hard to see our kids struggle. Adversity can be a good thing if we allow our kids to work through it and overcome it on their own.

More does not usually equal more

If you haven’t read the Time Magazine article titled “How Kids Sports Has Became a 15 Billion Dollar Industry,” you need too. The current philosophy is that if athletes pay more, play more and train more they will be more likely to earn a scholarship or play professionally. If athletes aren’t specializing in one sport, they are expected to play multiple sports concurrently. Gone are the days athletes put down the basketball and focus on baseball for a season. Today’s athlete practices one sport from 3 to 5 pm and their second sport from 6 to 8 pm. Community programs known for bringing people together and instilling a sense of pride are losing out to expensive club teams and traveling teams who promise National Championships at 10U level. Parents and athletes graduate from these youth programs and come to our high school programs with expectations that coaches are full-time, year-round employees. They want new uniforms every season, hotels every weekend and coach buses to and from events. Some athletes resent their high school teammates for not being as talented or dedicated to their sport when compared to their elite club level teammates.

We know only 1 percent of high school athletes will play professionally. We also know only 3 percent of high school athletes will participate at the NCAA level. This means 97 percent of high school athletes will have a terminal experience in our programs. Despite having the deck stacked against the majority of our athletes many families still believe high school sport programs should exist as factories for D1 scholarships.

Purpose-based programs are the last class period of the day. Our coaches are teachers trying to influence their athletes to grow and become the best versions of themselves. Co-curricular programs exist to connect students to the fabric and culture of the school. Sports are not the most important things schools do, but they are often what our students care most about. Our current culture undervalues the true purpose of purpose-based athletics and focuses too much attention on winning and earning scholarships.

Success goes beyond the scoreboard

I remember prepping for a playoff football game against Park Center High School when I was a senior in high school. My coach told me it was my responsibility to take on the pulling guard, string out the play to the sideline and allow the linebackers and the free safety to fill in the gaps and make the tackle. I couldn’t believe what my coach was asking me to do. I was supposed to sacrifice my body so someone else could make a tackle? I wondered how he even thought I was capable of doing that—was 100 pounds lighter than the pulling guard.

At practice early in the week I avoided the pulling lineman and attempted to make the tackle myself. My coach put his arm around me and said: “I believe you can do this and if you can, you are going to help your team be successful.” I continued to practice throughout the week without much success. It was hard, and I was frustrated. My coach continued to believe in me and encourage me. I was still unsure of myself on game day. Park Center didn’t waste any time—they came right at me with that play. I did my job and our safety came up quickly and made the tackle for a loss on the play. Each time they tried the sweep play I would take on the guard, string out the play and allow my team to come up and make the tackle.

I don’t have opportunities to take on a pulling lineman anymore, but I do find ways to make sacrifices for the success of others. I often have to grind through long days at the office. I find myself bouncing back from mistakes and learning from them. Taking on that pulling guard in high school was hard but you know what else is hard? Being a good husband, a good father a good friend and a good colleague. When I’m struggling in one of these areas, I remember my coach telling me he believed in me and he knew I was capable. I learned this lesson and more from playing sports and from my coaches.

As an AD, I say to my coaches all the time—don’t chase the wins, chase the influence. We can’t judge our success as coaches based on a score or number of wins in a season. We need to judge our success based on kids coming back as adults and telling us something we did or said as coaches changed the arc of their life. That type of success goes way beyond the scoreboard and is key in making room in our current win-at-all-costs sports culture for purpose-based athletics.

Purpose-based athletics is different than youth sports and it is different than NCAA and professional sports. High school sport programs should always prepare, practice and play to win—winning is the goal, but it is not the purpose. The “why” or our purpose behind purpose-based athletics is human growth and development. If we focus on purpose, our athletes will go on to do great things as adults. They’ll use the life lessons they learned through sport and they’ll be more resilient, they’ll show perseverance and grit. And like me, they’ll look back on their high school experience and remember the relationships with their teammates and coaches are what mattered the most.