This past week, we held our tryouts for our Denver Elite teams at the University of Denver. We set these teams up to provide opportunities for the higher level players in the Denver area to get exposure and get recruited for college lacrosse. Since we are college coaches, we must have tryouts for our club teams due to NCAA rules. I honestly hate the tryouts because it pains me when we make cuts. I do not sleep well for a few nights knowing that there are a lot of kids out there who are bummed out and upset for not making the team. I guess it's just a necessary evil, but that does not make it any easier to deal with.
We do our best to pick the best players, but we probably make a few mistakes. We have no biases as we are not associated with any one group. We try to pick the teams without getting emotionally involved, so it keeps it as fair as possible for the kids. For example, if we think to ourselves, "well this kid was on our team last year so he should make it over this new kid," then that is not fair. So, we try to leave all connections and emotional attachments out of the equation. At the end of the day, we simply do our best as human beings to pick good teams and then provide a good experience for them.
Inevitably, there are a handful of parents
that believe that we are somehow pulling one over on them and that we
are out to get their kid in some way. Honestly, with everything that I
have going on in my life, I don't even have the time to come up with
these evil conspiracies anyway. Also, I don't blame these parents
either…they just want what is best for their kids and are willing to do
whatever it takes to make their lives better for them.
But, this does bring up a great teaching in sports that took me a LONG time to learn. Letting go of control and acceptance is one of the most valuable life skills that we could ever bring in to our own experience. What I notice a lot in youth sports is the exact opposite of acceptance though, and it is usually some parents who are modeling controlling behaviors for their kids. (I do want to say, a lot of parents out there are absolutely amazing and are not like this in any way, so the following does not pertain to everyone.)
There are parents who believe coaches have
some personal vendetta against their kids and that is why they did not
make the team or they got cut during tryouts. There are parents who
orchestrate and put together teams with only the top players in their
community just so they can win a youth summer tournament or two. There
are parents who constantly question the coaching of their kids and many
times will try to get coaches fired even at the youth or high school
level. (Just so some of you other youth coaches know, parents even
question our coaching at the youth level when we were the same NCAA
Division I coaches that helped lead a team to the Final Four last year,
so you are not alone.) There are parents who will sit on the sidelines
and yell at inexperienced referees for making a bad call in a summer
tournament (full disclosure - I am guilty of this as well…ooops). There
are parents will gossip on the sidelines about what they think is going
wrong with the team. It sounds something like this : "Well, this person
should not have not have done this…and that coach should not have done
that…they should do this…blah, blah, blah!". At the end of the day, what
these parents are trying to do is control the outcome. They want their
kids to win and succeed so that everyone can be happy and feel proud of
themselves. So, they are willing to do whatever it takes to make that
The problem is, sports do not work like that! Sometimes, I worked my butt off and tried my hardest and my team lost games or did not win the championship. One of the biggest failures in my athletic career was being a part of our USA national team that lost in the title game in 2006. We were the only USA team not to win gold in thirty years! We had all worked hard for that moment and put together the best team imaginable, but the Canadian team played better that day and we came up short. That's how sports work sometimes.
Also, the bigger problem with all this, life does not work like that! Sometimes, we can work really hard at something and we fail. Sometimes, we may really love someone, but they leave us. Sometimes the unexpected happens and we lose a family member or experience a catastrophe or we get sick or injured. I can guarantee, at some point in all of our lives, something will happen that we never wanted to happen, just like we never wanted to lose a game. But it will, so how do we handle that situation and what can we learn from sports to do so?
When I was playing goalie, learning to let go of control was one of the hardest skills for me to learn. When a guy who can shoot 100 mph starts to wind up from ten yards away, your mind can start to think a lot of different things. Where is he shooting? Is he gonna hit me in the throat? If he scores, are we going to lose this game? Man, what was I thinking when I said I wanted to be a goalie in second grade?! If I paid attention to any of these thoughts racing through my head, it would be "game over"…the shot was going in.
So, how did I learn to handle this type of situation? It took a lot of years of practice, but I learned the more that I was able to let go of things that I could not control, the more I was able to focus. The better that I got at this skill, the better I became at goalie. It also seeped into my everyday life, as I learned acceptance and letting go worked in my day to day activities as well.
I started to see in lacrosse that I could not control where the player was going to shoot, how hard he was going to shoot, when he was going to shoot. I could not control the referees. I could not control the other team and how well they were going to play. The only thing that I could control was myself, how well I was prepared, how hard I worked and my focus on game day. When an opposing midfielder was about to crank a hard rubber ball at my chest, the only thing that I could control was where I was focusing my eyes to make my reaction. (This was a skill that I had learned from a professional tennis coach and took a lot of practice for me to be able to do consistently.) I even had a mantra that I repeated over and over to myself throughout the game. If anyone had ever put a microphone in my helmet, all they ever would have heard me say throughout most of the game was, "Just see the ball…just see the ball…just see the ball…". I know it sounds a bit crazy, but that saying kept me focused on the one thing that I could control.
When I learned to let go of the things that I could not control and stay focused on what I could, I became more and more successful in lacrosse and in life. By successful, I don't mean that I won all the time and got whatever I wanted, when I wanted it. More importantly than that, learning to let go of control brought me a lot of peace and I was able to enjoy life more. Sometimes things do not work out the way I want and sometimes life is not perfect and easy. Once I am able to let go of those things that I cannot control and find acceptance in that situation, then I know that I am going to be okay and everything is going to work out the way it should.
It's up to us as coaches, teachers, mentors and parents to model this for our young athletes, are students and our kids. My father, Coach Bill Tierney, did an amazing job with this when I was a kid. When I complained that I was on a bad team, he did not go find me another team to play on. He told me to get better so I could help the team get better! Even though he knew a thousand times more than any other coach that I ever played for, he told me to listen to them and play my best for them. In high school, when my high school coach decided that he was going to start another goalie in front of me when I was a freshman, my father did not complain about what an idiot the coach was, he handed me a short stick and told me to play midfield. I did not know at these times what my dad was teaching me, but looking back, this was all about controlling the things I could and accepting the things that I couldn't.
The teaching and skill of acceptance and letting go is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to our children and teach our young athletes. But, are we first willing to do it ourselves? And I don't mean to pick on anyone here - parents, coaches nor players - but, I am just highlighting the fact that this is something that all of us can work on to live a more joyous life.