The Real Investment

I came across an interesting article while reading one of my favorite blogs.  I often hear (correction: receive calls) from parents who are upset that their “investment” in youth sports didn’t result in a college scholarship, a spot on the high school varsity, etc. etc.  I am quick to remind people that they didn’t invest those participation dollars in anything; they simply provided their child an opportunity to participate.

But, perhaps those dollars are a viable investment after all.

Laszlo Bock, a senior VP at Google, recently had a sit down with the New York Times to discuss what Google looks for in new hires.  (Bock’s job, briefly, is to oversee the hiring process for Google.  Google is a fairly big, fairly important company.)  Throughout the interview, Bock laid out what he considers to be the 5 most important attributes they look for in new hires.  When you read the list, it’s tough to not draw a parallel between high school athletics and these personal characteristics.

1.  Cognitive Ability (the ability to think, reason, and problem solve) – How quickly do athletes have to make multiple decisions in the middle of games?  As coaches, we try to prepare the kids for as many scenarios as we possibly can, but ultimately, the kids will have to factor in emotion, environment, and situation when using their knowledge.  Every time a basketball player touches the ball, he/she must decide whether to pass, dribble, or shoot.  Every time a baseball player fields the ball, he/she must decide where to throw the ball.  Every time a pass is made to a setter, she must decide to whom she’ll set the ball.  I could list examples all day long.  Good, bad, or otherwise, our athletes are subjected to hundreds of opportunities to think on their feet.

2.  Leadership – Are you able to lead a group of peers when necessary, and are you able to step back and let others lead when necessary?  Growing up, I was a big Chicago Bulls fan during the hay day of Michael Jordan and crew.  In Game 6 of the 1997 NBA finals, the Bulls called timeout with 28 seconds left and the basketball.  In the huddle, you see Jordan lean towards sharpshooter Steve Kerr and say something that results in a nod from Kerr.  On the play, Jordan drove to the basket and jumped while squaring up to the basket to take a shot.  As he had started to drive, he drew a double team from a Utah Jazz defender (John Stockton) that left Kerr all by himself at the top of the key.  Despite having a reasonably decent look at the basket, Jordan turned and passed out to the unguarded Kerr who buried a jump shot to give the Bulls the lead with 5 seconds left.  That shot sealed Game 6 and the championship series for the Bulls.  We learned later that Jordan had told Kerr in the huddle (remembering a similar situation from earlier in the series) that he was going to pass to Kerr as soon as Stockton came down on a double team.  The best player in the game (possibly ever…although the youngsters will argue with me) chose to pass up the game winning/series winning shot.  Leadership?  Absolutely.

3.  Humility – As I said in an earlier post, one of our department goals is to teach kids how to win AND how to lose.  One of the problems in our current “purple ribbons for everyone” society is that kids aren’t learning how to deal with failure.  One aspect of learning how to deal with failure is accepting the fact that there are people out there who are better than you are…probably at everything.  One of the more popular slogans in athletic programs is, “Somewhere, someone is working harder than you, and when you meet him, he’ll beat you.”  The message is simple: there are people who are better than you.  When faced with adversity, we can either crumble or work harder to meet the challenge.  The second part of humility is accepting that people on your own team are better than you at certain things.  I often think of a 4×100 relay team when describing roles: everyone wants to run the anchor leg, but not all relay legs are equal.  Runners good out of the blocks get leg 1; consistent runners (especially against the wind) get leg 2; your best runner on the curve gets leg 3; and typically your most competitive runner will get leg 4.  Your fastest runner could be any one of those legs, but the best runners in the best situations will win races.

4.  Ownership – Ownership is evident in all aspects of high school athletics.  Coaches and kids are directly responsible for the success of the team as a whole through work ethic, discipline, and filling their own roles.  It’s not often that we see a successful team with members who spend most of their time pointing fingers at each other.

5.  Finally, rather than expertise in some area, Bock prefers to find someone who posseses those above characteristics and is willing to learn.  During my coaching days, I had a kid who played football, basketball, and baseball for me.  He was exactly the type of person this list describes: not the best athlete but worked his tail off, possessed excellent leadership skills, and always wanted to learn more.  Truth be told, he drove me bonkers with the number of times he started a question with, “Hey coach, but what if…”  He asked me more questions about more scenarios than probably the other 8 quarterbacks I coached combined.  His 40 time was somewhere around 9 seconds and he could throw a football roughly 6 yards if he had a running start, but he still led us to a region title as a senior because there wasn’t anything for which he wasn’t prepared.  (It’s come as no surprise to me that he’s continued to be successful with everything he’s done: university, US Army, various physical fitness tests/races, etc. etc. etc.  I loved teaching and coaching this young man and have followed his career with great admiration.)  In coaching, we work with these types of curious kids all the time, and the kids who want to learn more tend to be more successful, both in athletics and in other aspects of their lives.

We are constantly hyping the positive aspects of educational based athletics, so it’s great to see a large company validating these types of attributes that we can provide to kids.  I tell my coaches the same thing at the end of every pre-season coaching meeting: only 4% of all high school athletes play college sports at any level; we’d better be preparing the other 96%.

***Since I know he’s probably reading this, I will admit that I was using some hyperbole in describing my former quarterback.  I did once see him throw a football 13 yards in the air.

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