Remembering My Dad, the Coach

my dad the coachWhen I was growing up, my Dad was a high school coach—first football and basketball, then track and cross-country.

This meant learning lessons from fields, courts, and tracks even before my brother and I were old enough to play sports on our own. He repeated Vince Lombardi and John Wooden quotes and shared stories of legendary sports heroes, like the great Yankee Lou Gehrig, nicknamed the Iron Horse for his commitment and endurance on the baseball field.

We watched a lot of sports together. When he coached high school football, we went to the games and cheered for the Westhampton Beach Hurricanes. Autumn Saturdays were for high school games and we planned dinners on Sunday around football games. We liked all the home teams: the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, and Jets. Yes, it’s possible to be a fan of two different home teams—why not?

We were taught that giving it your best was expected. “As long as you try your best” applied to everything. You can do it. Try and try again—that’s courage. It’s a game of inches, he said after a player made (or missed) the end zone, basket, or base, or when a runner reached the finish line. You have to work hard, stay focused, and go for it.

Athletic skills and physical feats were appreciated and even marvelled at, but we were taught that mental toughness was what made a true champion. Determination and dedication—that’s what you need to win. You can’t just show up—you have to prepare and play hard, no matter the circumstances. To succeed, practice is as important as competition. So is putting your heart into what you’re doing. You have to love the game and the pursuit.

He said “have fun” instead of “good luck.” After all, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. “Be a good sport” applied to all. The highest value should be placed on being a good teammate, keeping your ego in check, maintaining your cool, playing by the rules, persevering when things get tough, and respecting your opponents. Attitude is everything.

It’s not right to root against someone. A sportsmanship award is better than a first-place trophy. If you don’t have an allegiance to a team or athlete, go for the underdog. He thought blow-outs were boring, even if your favorite team was the one in the lead. What he wanted to watch was a good game.

In school, joining a sports team was encouraged and also seemed like the natural thing to do. I’m so glad I did. I ran cross-country and track and the lessons I learned are with me today, decades later. I wasn’t a fast runner, but my dad was proud of me because I trained hard, tried my best, and loved being on the team.

When I went to college at Albany State, I joined the school newspaper with the intention of covering sports. My favorite was college basketball. In the last couple of years, Albany’s team has made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament. This was an opportunity for my Dad to talk to me about hoops and send me an email with the simple subject line: “Go Great Danes.”

Our mutual love of sports was a bond we maintained and treasured. Through email, we would share links to articles or video clips that were inspiring—recent ones include a video segment on Terry Fox, feature stories on Roberto Clemente and Yasiel Puig, a commentary about Phil Jackson and the Knicks, and an old photo he found online of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. His comments were short and sweet: “good stuff,” “inspirational,” “get a tissue,” or “enjoy.”

After I moved to Los Angeles, he sent me an article of great LA sports figures and we were able to go to a UCLA basketball game. When I recently joined a fantasy football league with friends, he wanted to know the players I had on my team and he’d notice how my star quarterback or running back was performing. During the visits to California my parents have taken since they retired, we have watched Sunday football games together at my home and I have planned meals around game times.

In everyday life, I have relied on sports lessons to motivate me, whether it’s pacing myself, going the distance, or kicking in the end. During tough times, my father’s encouraging words—similar to the ones he would share with the students he coached—have supported and lifted me. It was as simple as reminding me that strength comes from within.

There’s always a game on and it pains me to think I won’t be able to talk to him or sit down on the couch with him to watch—or talk on the phone, plan a visit, open my email to see another message that would surely bring a smile to my face. There is so much I already miss about my dear Dad. I can almost hear him say, “chin up, Stefanie Susan.” I will miss that love and support and his voice telling me to have fun. But I’m so grateful for the gifts he gave me.

Lessons From My Track Coach That Still Motivate Me Every Day

When I was entering high school, my parents told me they wanted me to join a team. My father was then a coach himself and knew the experience would be valuable. I ran on the cross country, winter track, and spring track teams. Frank LaBianca coached all three of these teams at my high school, for both boys and girls. He was one of my best teachers and I learned as much about life from running on tracks and fields as I did from sitting in classrooms.

Coach studied John Wooden and Vince Lombardi and we all heard their words and were taught their lessons before knowing their names. We heard their quotes, along with others that came from writers, philosophers, and world leaders. Coach was also the print shop teacher. This is important to this story, as he taught his students by giving them assignments to print words of wisdom that were then displayed on the wall in the room our team gathered in before and after practice every day. Some were also printed on business cards Coach kept in his pockets to hand out when we needed them most.

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So here’s the thing about words of wisdom: They can be words printed on a page or they can really mean something to you. When you hear phrases or expressions or even full speeches again and again, you will remember them. When those words are tied to emotions and experiences? Boom. That gives them weight and meaning. You hear a word or a phrase and it triggers something—and you can be lifted, encouraged, inspired, and driven to pick up speed and go, go, go.

In recent years, a group of teammates began to connect on Facebook. One teammate helped establish a scholarship at our high school in Coach’s name and reached out to us for support. Then someone suggested we get together to have a lunch to honor Coach—to thank him all these years later for what he did for us. Coach’s nickname was “Labo” and a teammate asked us all to share our favorite “Labo-isms” for the event—things we remember Coach saying to inspire us again and again. Here are my favorites.

“A team is only as good as its slowest runner.”

You’ve heard “there’s no ‘I’ in team”—everyone has a part to play. In cross country, there are seven runners and only the first five score in a race; your individual point score is simply where you place in the race and the team with the lowest collective score wins. So what about the other two runners? Any one of the seven can finish in the top five. These last two runners can help keep pace and offer support to other teammates. and they can act as displacers by finishing ahead of another team’s top five runners (in a close race that comes down to a matter of points, finishing one second ahead of a runner from the other team could make all the difference). You don’t have to be the fastest—or the best—to make a difference, but you have to show up and run as hard and as fast as you can to be an integral part of the team.

“Be a champion in practice—that’s where champions are made.”

Also: “Champions are made, not born.” No doubt about it, physical ability makes a difference. But it’s not everything, and talent will only get you so far. I was never the fastest on my team and no one would have dared suggest I run the 100-meter dash. But a 5K cross country race requires more than just speed; you need endurance strength that comes from running every day, remaining committed to your training goals, and listening to your coach. It means running in the sand with your sneakers on and sprinting drills around the track, even when your muscles are burning, you feel like you can’t catch your breath, and it’s taking everything you have not to cry over that blister on the back of your heel. Those who work hard and are committed to their goals are the ones who succeed. Practice makes perfect? No, but it will make you strong.

“You don’t know how strong you really are.”

During cross country season, we used the same course as the boys’ team and they would be stationed throughout the course to cheer us on, along with Coach (yelling louder than anyone). I am certain I surged ahead at their encouragement—before our home course’s legendary “Cardiac Hill,” approaching the last long stretch before the finish line, or simply mid-way through the course when my legs were feeling heavy and I wanted the race to just be over already. But I was always surprised and amazed when I found the strength to pick up my pace or the energy to kick at the end. Endurance training gives you strength. (And encouragement from the sidelines helps you find it.)

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“To have a friend is to be a friend.”

Also: “Don’t kick a man when he’s down.” We all struggled at various times—in practices, in races, and in our lives. Coach insisted that we respect and support one another and we did. I loved being on those teams and it wasn’t because I loved running or competing (though I did). It was the experience. We were truly bonded: we practiced and competed together, cheered each other on, rode the bus together to and from meets, carb-ed up on bagels or pancakes before big races, crammed into crappy hotel rooms for overnight competitions, socialized on weekends, and went to running camp every August. Blisters, sweat, and tears? Check. We were a team. Some of us stayed in touch after high school, others drifted away, but we all still share the bond. And at the reunion lunch for Coach, we felt it.

“ ‘Tis better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.”

Also: “Never feel shame for trying and failing, for he who has never failed is he who has never tried.” You have to try. Really, that is all.

“What are you afraid of?”

Fear has no place on the field. “What are you afraid of?” I heard this one a lot. I believe Coach knew just when to ask me that—when my confidence was low, when I was tired, when I wondered if I might be better off spending my time doing something else. At the lunch, many of us took turns sharing stories about our experiences on the team and with Coach, and this was mine:

I remember being in the print shop, listening to Coach give me a pep talk about fear and taking chances. “What are you afraid of?” he asked. He likely repeated that question a second time, and probably tilted his head to the side and used his hand to punctuate each word like an orchestra conductor. Then I remember clearly that he pointed up to the wall, where he had posted dozens of inspirational quotes for us to read. On the far right-hand corner was a passage from Theodore Roosevelt and it was the longest of all the quotes.

“Far better is it….” he began. But then I interrupted him. I had heard this quote so many times and I jumped right in to finish it: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” In that moment, I know I felt smart and a little sassy for standing up and reciting the quote word-for-word. I don’t think I realized then that he had already taught me to believe those words, which were certainly about a war or at least about life and death or something more dramatic than a track meet or a poor showing at practice. My teammates also remember that quote and I saw heads nodding when they heard me repeat it. I told Coach then that I still hear those words all these years later, how they’re often triggered when I am facing a challenge, or when I have lost focus or confidence or faith. Those words guide me.

Photo courtesy of Frank LaBianca.

Why It’s Hard to Imagine A Better Sports Hero Than Lou Gehrig

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Originally published on GOOD.is

I remember my grandmother talking about how she cried when Lou Gehrig gave his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech at Yankees stadium, announcing that he was going to retire from baseball after being diagnosed with ALS, an illness that would soon become known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This might have been tougher for Gehrig than most. At the time—and for more than 50 years after this—he was the record-holder for consecutive games played in baseball (2,130). That sort of commitment earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse” and was one of the many reasons he made such a great team captain.

Gehrig was long gone by the time my grandmother told me this story, but he became my first sports hero that day.

In sports—and other pursuits—you need skills (some innate, some developed). You have to deliver. In addition to his consecutive record streak, Gehrig played remarkably well (the other record he held was for most Grand Slams: 23). Then there’s the unflappable spirit. You need to believe you’ll hit another homer even if you find yourself striking out.

And even better than playing well? Playing well with others. Unless you are pursuing something truly individual, you need to unselfishly support the efforts of your teammates. Now for the part about having a heart of gold. Yes, of course you need to have a healthy ego and plenty of ambition (but, seriously, you don’t have to be showy or obnoxious about it). If you’re fair and decent, you earn the respect and admiration of your teammates. In honor of their lost hero, the Yankees didn’t name another team captain for 30 years.

Back to that speech. My grandmother was one of thousands who cried upon hearing a brave and humble Gehrig give his farewell address, in which he expressed his gratitude to fans, fellow players, his parents, his wife, his mother-in-law—even groundkeepers. It is by no accident that Gary Cooper, the most All-American of actors, was later cast to play Gehrig in the movie about his life, The Pride of the Yankees. It is a bio film of Gehrig’s life, but it a story you would guess to be pure fiction because, come on, let’s be honest here, could a guy really be that good?

I grew up believing he was, and his example has stayed with me all these years.

I’m still entertained and moved from watching sports, and it is the athletes with Gehrig-like qualities I always admire the most. While I have been disappointed by some (I won’t even bother to name them), so many other true greats continue to emerge on playing fields and courts and tracks.

It’s inspiring to see someone who has the skills, the spirt, the heart—and commitment. That consecutive game streak of Gehrig’s says so much. Think about how easy it is to quit, change course, or simply lose steam. Gehrig didn’t. (2,130 consecutive games!) He remained dedicated until it was no longer possible. You’re lucky to find someone like that to look up to in life.