Many young men with great talent never really make it in high school athletics. Conversely, many others with seemingly little talent end up playing first string varsity, making the all-state team. What is the difference? Some will tell you it’s luck, or a break, or a coach who likes them. Let me submit to you another idea. I believe those who play do so because they have a white-heat desire to play. When you want something with all the intensity of your soul, then other things are dwarfed in importance.
The desire to play obscures such things as dating, school politics, just being one of the boys, and fooling around. Self-discipline takes over, not because of a “have to” attitude but because of a “want to” attitude.
Let me share with you some things I have discovered over the years, especially while I was involved in football. I didn’t have much confidence, but I wanted to play almost more than anything else. The coach told us to eat a lot of beans and drink lots of milk. I didn’t like milk, but I drank it. I really wasn’t all that hot on beans, but I persuaded Mom to make a pot as often as I could. The coach said to be in bed by 9:30, and I was in bed by 9:30. It wasn’t hard to do because the desire to play overshadowed all these little things. One thing the coach asked me to do that I couldn’t do was work out on Sunday. He had asked each player to do calisthenics on an individual basis on Sunday. In this thing I followed the teachings of the Church.
At regular football practice I would do every calisthenic exercise the best I possibly could. I felt like I needed to do more than the other guy because he had more talent than I did. I only remember missing one football practice in three years, with the exception of when I broke my leg. The one practice I missed was for my grandmother’s funeral. And even at that age I hoped the funeral would be at a time other than practice. For four weeks after I broke my leg I would go out and watch the team play. After four weeks I persuaded the doctor to take the cast off, and six weeks after my leg had been broken I had the privilege of playing in another game.
Why do I tell you all this? Because I learned some great lessons from athletics. They have helped me through life. The young man who wants to play in high school athletics must discipline himself. The coach can lay down rules and regulations, but without self-discipline the rules and regulations only result in bodily movements or action. Self-discipline puts one’s heart into the program. It becomes something we want to do far more than the desire to just get by. Self-discipline imposes the need for self-motivation. I recall working in a grocery store during the summer; some of the other fellows worked in construction. I felt a need to make the eight hours a day I worked as strenuous as the eight hours they worked. I would force myself to run from one task to another. I would lift 100-pound sacks of potatoes and put them on a cart. Then I would push the cart with five 100-pound sacks to the display and unload the sacks, trying to hold each sack shoulder high without letting it touch my body. When football season came, I was in great shape physically.
We can learn a great deal from others. I had an older brother whom I worshiped. He played football in high school and was my hero. I would polish his football cleats before each game. I would wash his white shoelaces and press them. No one had better looking football cleats than my older brother. During the summer before I went to high school, he would take me out to the backyard. I would put on shoulder pads and a helmet, and he would try to run over me. I shouldn’t say try; he did. We would hit each other head on; I would tackle and he would carry the ball. Then after a while we would reverse the procedure and I would carry the ball and he would tackle. After doing this a few nights with him (he weighed about 185 pounds and I weighed 155 pounds), do you think I had any fear of those my own age? He suggested wind sprints to build up my speed and timing. He encouraged me to run long distances to build up my wind. We would do push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, etc. The interesting thing is that it was hard work, but I wanted to do it.
Through the years I have listened to those who have counseled my boys in an attempt to help them improve. If a boy thinks he has all the talent in the world, then he’s not too receptive to listening to a has-been. It is also true that people will stop trying to help him. The young man who listens when someone suggests how he might improve after a ball game doesn’t only learn more, he has more people pulling and praying for him to succeed. Don’t be so touchy when someone constructively criticizes you after a game. Listen carefully, thank them, and ask if they saw anything else in which you could improve. Remember what they tell you, put it into practice, and you’ll find your game will improve and so will your popularity. This is a good principle to apply to life. Be grateful for those who correct and constructively criticize you. They really have your interest at heart.
A few ideas I heard passed on to some good athletes in the past are these.
1. Shoot 100 free throws every night.
2. Stand near the wall and jump up 200 times, tipping a basketball against the wall.
3. Hold a basketball in your hand all the time you watch TV or sit and talk (you really get a feeling for it).
4. Practice dribbling every day for 15 minutes on the basement floor.
5. Think of taking 50 free throws every night just before going to sleep.
These are just a few ideas that anyone who would want to play basketball could benefit from. I remember one of the great bits of advice I received while playing football: Whether you are running or playing defense, at the last instant, you can choose whether to put every particle of effort into the tackle or into the running drive or to relax and ease off. Those who ease off get hurt. Those who give it everything, play. Someone told me of the swim coach at Yale who a few years back had a swim team that was breaking world records every meet. The coach was questioned about this. How were they doing it? He said, “I have taught my swimmers how to break the pain barrier.” I was impressed by that statement. Through the years I have listened carefully for mottos, slogans, poems, etc. that motivate. Following are some I would suggest that you commit to memory. If you do, they will always be there for recall. When you memorize something, it becomes a part of you and can be called upon at will to give you strength when there seems to be no strength left.
“The coward never starts; the weak die on the way; only the strong come through.”
“The winner never quits, and the quitter never wins.”
“The man who won’t be beaten, can’t be beaten.”
“The harder you fight for something, the harder it is to surrender.” (Vince Lombardi.)
You Can Do Anything You Must Do
I would suggest several principles that are essential to the young athlete.
1. The athlete who has a spiritual commitment has a well of reserve deep down inside of him on which he can call when others give out. Make prayer a vital part of your training.
2. You’ll never really enjoy athletics if you are a poor sport. There is no excuse for poor sportsmanship no matter how much pressure you are under. Poor sportsmanship causes you to get down on yourself and down on the umpires or referees; you get down on your team and the competition. Equally significant, generally they will get down on you, for the Master said, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7.)
3. Live the Word of Wisdom. Make a total commitment to it. Live it all year around. There are special blessings of health that are promised and other hidden treasures of knowledge. The person who breaks the Word of Wisdom loses in so many ways.
4. Keep your heart and mind pure. Sir Galahad is reported to have said, “My strength is as the strength of ten, Because my heart is pure.” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Sir Galahad.”) Those who are pure in heart, who do not feed their minds out of mental garbage cans, who do not listen to dirty stories, who keep their thoughts clean, will find strength that others do not have.
5. Never profane the name of God or his holy Son. Oftentimes in athletics there are those who do. The young man who controls his tongue will never profane the God whom he may need to call upon under real stress.
6. Always treat young women with dignity and respect. The immoral, uncouth athlete has dissipated his strength in the lustings of the flesh. No one who is immoral is great. God will not be mocked, and those who violate the moral code in any degree will reap the whirlwind.
7. Never find fault with your opponents or team members. They will become your enemies and will set out to destroy you. Be complimentary; build them up. Every time you lift someone up the ladder of success, you get a little closer to the top yourself.
8. Never want anything so badly that the person who has the power to give it to you can control you. This is true of athletics as it is in life. Integrity is vital.
9. Give all that you have to give; don’t hold back. Be a hustler; it’s a way of letting the coach see that you really want to play.
10. Of course, the athlete who is not dependable is useless. Be constant in all seasons.
11. Select your friends with care, for you will be judged by your associations. Don’t travel with the group that is crude, rough, and dissipated.
Now my young friends, I have never coached professionally. All of the above ideas have been picked up over a number of years. Use them. Put your family and church first. Be patriotic and love this great land that provides you with such rich and great opportunities. And then have a white-heat desire to play, and you’ll find fulfillment and success in athletics.