March Madness Teaches Us All Many Valuable Lessons

One of our nation’s favorite times of the year just wrapped up this week—the NCAA Basketball Tournament known as March Madness. The excitement that captivates millions annually is almost surreal—nearly everyone fills out a bracket whether they have seen any of the teams play all season long or not. So why do so many of us get hooked into this annual phenomenon? The answer is really pretty simple…our desire to belong. Whether it is a conversation with colleagues at work, friends over dinner or during a ride to the airport with an Uber driver, everyone seems to be able to brag about their successful upset pick (did anyone really pick a #16 over a #1 like UMBC?) and commiserate over their busted bracket. There have even been studies done on the amount of lost productivity at different offices during the tournament. On the flip side, however, I often wonder if anyone has done a study on how much of a positive impact the tournament has on collegiality and culture?

In the high school ranks in Minnesota (and many other states as well), March Madness is really more like February and March Madness with 14 different sports concluding their seasons with Section and State Tournaments spread over 8 weeks. Each tournament represents not only the crowning of a champion but more importantly, marks the end of a season or in the case of many seniors, the end of their competitive careers. Regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard, there are often tears. Tears of great sorrow, tears of great joy and most often tears regarding friendships made and the realization that the season or a career has come to an end.

I have been extremely fortunate in my role as an Athletic Administrator to also serve as a member of the State Tournament Staff for the Minnesota State High School League Boys and Girls Hockey Tournaments. This role has afforded me the opportunity to witness some great moments that make these tournaments so special. This year was no exception. Just like when we watch March Madness on TV, we have come to expect the unexpected…really nothing should surprise us anymore. From crazy endings to incredible individual performances, it is often those special moments that will be the stories we remember for years to come. Here are a few examples:

All of us want to belong.

Putting on your school colors, preparing a sign for a friend or relative to show your support or cheering along to your school song are just some of the ways we show our pride. We do the same thing at the National Level. This year the Women’s Olympic Hockey Team brought home the Gold Medal from Pyeong-Chang after winning a thrilling shootout. The goalie who made the game-winning save in the shootout was named Maddie Rooney. She is a graduate of a local high school and once participated in the State Tournament when she was in high school. She was being interviewed by the local TV Station at the arena and when she was done the announcer recognized her for her accomplishment. The standing ovation she received was deafening—even the players on the ice were banging their sticks in support. That moment still gives me chills. I have never met Maddie Rooney, but I am thrilled she and her teammates provided many Americans with a memory for a lifetime.

It is not always in a win where special memories come from either.

After a convincing loss, I was walking through the locker room hallway and overheard a tearful student-athlete ask if they could talk to the coach for a second. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, this poor coach is going to have a tough conversation about something.” But it was actually quite the opposite—the player was taking the time to show their appreciation for their coach. While their playing time was limited, the player was extremely grateful for being made to feel special as a member of the team.

High school kids can shine even in the toughest of moments.

I watched a game where some controversial calls appeared not to be going one team’s way. The crowd was definitely growing restless. What was special to see was the coaches and athletes did not let it bother them. Instead, they focused on what they could control and were never rattled. The reality of sports is every game has a winner and a loser, but the other reality is the one thing we can all control is how we handle the win or the loss.

Whether it is the NCAA Basketball Tournament or any high school activity, the percentages would strongly favor the season ending with a loss on the scoreboard. The real question for all of us as coaches is what will be the memories your kids take away? How will you make them feel throughout the season so no matter the outcome, they don’t want to see it come to an end? And to steal from the NCAA, what will be your “One Shining Moment?”