By Yusuf Jeffers
“In it to win it.”“Go hard or go home.” “Just do it.”
Athletic competition is a great metaphor for life. Facing challenges is universal — we find the lessons we need to overcome, move forward, and change for the better. As such, sports are the perfect classroom to teach young athletes the truest lessons, to serve them long after they’ve left the field, the court, or the stadium for good.
In fact, even though I’ve learned most of these lessons during my time as an athlete, it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever put on a uniform. It doesn’t matter what your gender, religion, ethnic background, orientation, or social status may be.
I began my own athletic journey some 28 years ago. In that time I’ve had the privilege of competing in both Track & Field and Basketball at a collegiate level, and it continues today in the form of recreational football, basketball, and the occasional race.
I’ve been the Head Coach of Track & Field for a small, all-girls high school for the past 3 years – The Nightingale-Bamford School on the Upper East Side. Considering the long, storied history of athletic dominance that the posh, Upper East Side private schools are known for all over the country, these athletes have a lot to live up to. Wait a minute, that’s right — they aren’t known for that at all. Truth is, the school is best known for producing the author of the hit novel, Gossip Girl. Yet, these amazing young ladies on the Track team have shown incredible talent and tenacity, all while battling a legacy of athletic underachievement. No small task indeed.
Track & Field can be one of the most demanding sports. The physical rigors are second only to the psychology. Unlike other team sports, even though you train together, you compete mainly by yourself. There isn’t always time to communicate and strategize during the event. One has to be highly self-aware and make split-second decisions that will impact the ultimate outcome. Needless to say, mental preparedness is key.
Along the way, I’ve picked a word or phrase that captures the motivation my team is most in need of to get us to the next level. It’s no coincidence that these ideas translate easily to real world lessons:
1. Small steps lead to big steps
Every practice begins with a group warm-up. Athletes are asked to perform the exercises perfectly, and if not, we repeat until they do. These involve some very simple movements that after a while can become mundane at best. On days when you’re tired or have other things on your mind, it can be the last thing you want to do. However, the wisdom of these drills has been proven to me many times, and goes far beyond actual performance on the track. If you can’t do the little things right, you won’t do the big things right either.
2. Fear less to become fearless
Every race is a new challenge. There’s nothing quite as intimidating as lining up to go head-to-head with an opponent or opponents you know nothing about. “Who is this?” “How did they get here?” “How did I get here?” “Am I good enough to be here?” An endless series of questions can quickly descend into the oblivion of doubt. Some races are won and lost long before the gun ever goes off. There’s no scarier opponent than the one you’ve created in your mind. And while there is certainly always someone better than you on any given day, in order to perform to your best potential, you must make a choice to leave fear behind and face the challenge head on.
Train. Practice. Rest. Repeat. That’s the formula right? If you follow it, you’ll eventually be a world champion right? Wrong. And everyone knows that. But what if you can’t improve as much as you think you should? What if you can’t break out of the back of the pack? Should you even keep trying? Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how hard you train, the medals and trophies and accolades just don’t come your way. It’s just the way life is at times. You will fail, and most likely it will be often. But there’s always a lesson to be learned in each failure, and the opportunity to grow.
4. Be intrepid
“What event should I do, coach?” “Try them all.” “But, what if I’m not good?”“Only one way to find out." Hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, shot put. All very different events. Diving headlong into a new endeavor sometimes has pleasantly unexpected results, and guides us along the path to self-discovery.
5. Character through competition
One of the most memorable meets I’ve coached involved having an athlete run in a hurdle race that she had never practiced for. The team needed points, and she stepped up to help us when no one else could or would. The race was 400m, 10 hurdles. At the end of that race, only two hurdles remained upright and her knees were a bloody mess. But she crossed the finish line with a smile, and asked what she could have done to be better for the next time!
What you do, when faced with hurdles that you haven’t encountered before, will test you to your core. Each fall hurts. It’s painful and discouraging. It’s certainly easier to give in and avoid trying altogether. Competition that tests the ability to fight through obstacles builds character.
On your way to becoming a better, more productive member of this society, start small, do it right, and you’ll grow fast. Fearlessly face new challenges with wonderment and abandon, determination, strength of character, and preparedness to sometimes fail — but never give up, and you’ll be well on the way to changing the world one step at a time.
Yusuf Jeffers is a Head Coach at Tone House. He has a BA in Biological Sciences, and was a former NCAA Division I Track and Basketball athlete. He is also a NASM-certified trainer in the areas of Sports Medicine, Performance Enhancement, and Corrective Exercise. Yusuf is a Level 1 USA Track & Field (USATF) Coach, and also TRX-certified. His motto: “A mighty flame follows a tiny spark.”