One Minute and Thirty Four Seconds
Walking back on to the mud slicked field, the referee shouted out the time and blew his whistle to commence play. What had been a mild rain all morning had slowed to little more than a mist. And looking up at my teammates through the haze, I expressed the roles for the coming drive.
Both teams took position and settled in for the kickoff.
The kicker paced off his steps, raised his hand to initiate action, and gracefully attacked the ball. With one single thud, the previous still broke into a scene of chaos. Each athlete trying in earnest to gain as much ground as possible.
The returner took the ball up the sideline and, with a collision of seemingly exploding bodies, was haphazardly pushed out of bounds.
Down 18-12 with the ball at our 30 and our backs against the wall, our offense took the field to attempt one last drive.
Having not lost a game of significance in over 4 years, there wasn’t a lack of belief amongst ourselves. The opposing team had left the game in our hands and it was on us to do what we’ve always done: Win.
The next 60 seconds came and went in a blur of small gains and brutally earned first downs, culminating in a small catch and run to the opposing team’s 20 yard line.
4th and 1.
Huddling together, both on the field and sideline, you found yourself catching the eyes of the teammate across from you. While our faces were painted in mud — only streaked by the mix of sweat and rain dripping down our chins — there was a very particular look in each person’s eyes.
A look that this was it.
Four straight years of playing this game and a state-wide string of six championships was suddenly at stake.
Within the huddle our Quarterback shared his commands, instilling a semblance of confidence into each player, and with one synchronized clap they broke to approach the line.
Receiving the snap, the Quarterback immediately made an attempt at keeping it himself and taking the ball up the middle. But before he could gain any momentum, the footing beneath his feet broke free and he found himself stumbling toward the ground. The offensive line kicked back into position and began engaging the bull-like pursuit of the defensive rushers.
Nearly as fast as our quarterback had lost his footing, he managed to find it, pirouetting out of the pocket and towards the sideline. The offensive line’s protection slowly broke down and (like the field we were playing on) it was as if a flood had let loose.
Pin-pointing the down marker, the quarterback dashed to the spot; hoping that he could get there before the rush could get to him.
The defense submerged onto him and as he reached the ball forward, stretching as far as his 6 foot 5 inch frame would allow, he was called down.
Approaching the spot, the ref pointed his hand downfield and expelled one single word.
The Shortcomings of Success
I think the most unfortunate side-effect of consistent and long-term winning is the lack of appreciation that it inspires.
When you only know the highs of success, it can make the lows seem so much more detrimental.
Even worse than losing is how easy you can fall prey to the “this isn’t supposed to happen to me” mindset. Typically resulting in you feeling sorry for yourself, blaming those around you, and stomping around like a spoiled kid who didn’t get what they wanted.
Coincidentally, my team made that point egregiously clear as they walked off the field for the last time that season, unsure of how to handle the letdown they had just suffered.
“That is some bullsh*t.”
“That motherf*cker lost us the game.”
“So much for our streak.”
As no surprise to anyone, I left that game feeling upset.
I wasn’t upset in an emotionally unstable type of way, but more along the lines of “that just didn’t feel right”.
It wasn’t the loss that didn’t feel right.
We got our asses kicked and admittedly had that loss coming.
What didn’t feel right was the team itself, or to be more specific, how my team handled themselves.
This unsettling led to some serious reflection. Not just on the game we had just played, but on what GOAT (our team name) has meant to me, what it has taught me, and what I’ve gained from it.
But first, I wanted to cover something.
Look, I get it.
In the grand scheme of things, flag football is not a tragically important thing. It isn’t going to change history, and outside of our league, very few actually care about any outcomes.
But, at some point or another, that sport and this team did become important.
This game has given me more than a few priceless things, and over the past 5 years I have:
- Gained friendships with people I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
- Traveled to cities I had never been just to compete and play a game.
- Watched as certain teammates have grown up, graduated college, and became men.
- And we even just watched as our QB produced the first in the next generation of GOAT.
But of all these amazing things, each of which I couldn’t be more thankful for, there is one thing that has managed to change my life.
This recreational game of pulled flags, and Saturday morning wars, taught me how to be a leader.
And today, I want to share the greatest gift that that this sport ever gave me:
How you can be a leader too.
What You Say < How You Say It
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Before our last loss one of the other captains and I discussed the importance of the game. How we, as team leaders, may have to make the difficult decision of playing one player in the favor of someone else; effectively benching the other guy.
The reason for this is simple — in sports one of the most important facets is pure talent:
The stuff you either have or you don’t.
When all things are equal, the athlete with more God-given ability will always trump the less gifted player.
But, in sports (and life), things are never equal.
The things you do outside of the game, the things you do leading up to the game, and your headspace during the game can all drastically impact the outcome of any competition.
A common misconception with leaders is that they are de facto commanders and nothing more. That they simple shout a command, and if it’s the right command, things work out the way they should.
This is very rarely the case.
Making the right decision is vital, but it is far too easy to say the right thing in the wrong way and end up with an undesired result. And we experienced that fact first hand.
During our talks before that game, we addressed the team by telling them what we had talked about. Telling them that if anyone wasn’t performing well, we would have to pull them and play someone who could get the job done. That it wasn’t personal, we just wanted to win.
Our sentiment was simple: We would play the best player.
To this day, I don’t disagree with a single word of what we said. But in regards to the way we said it — I couldn’t disagree more.
By presenting our sentiment like we did, we immediately put the fear of failure into every single player on our team. And instead of them going out and focusing on doing their job, they entered the game focused on just not messing up.
As a leader you have to be empathetic. You have to posses the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and stay cognizant of how you would react if confronted with the same scenario.
Rather than saying what we said maybe a better option would have been:
“We’re going to stay flexible today, fellas. During the game we may move some people around in order to find where everyone fits best and where each of you can best help the team. Do your job and let’s win this game.”
Now, I do not have all of the answers.
But there is one thing I do know.
By watching your wording you inspire faith in you as a leader and confidence in them as a teammate.
Doing the Right Things vs Doing Things Right
“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”
Far and away the toughest part of both playing on a team, and also being in charge of it, are the moments when you must choose one teammate in favor of the other.
Like I stated above — There are times when, by choosing a specific player, you directly take away from another player’s role on the team. This can be in regards to certain positions and the glory that comes along with it (quarterback as opposed to pass blocker) or playing time (offensive starter as opposed to special teams starter).
At this point it becomes easy to fall back on certain set of rules, remove your own emotion, and simply pick the best player or the better athlete.
And it also at this point that most people fuck up.
The thought process above is the one that most people fall back on. But, when it comes to managing people, no single factor will ever be the only yard stick you use.
Talent is huge.
But, team chemistry is huge too. Because, at the end of the day, this is still a team sport. And an upgrade at one position can still be a downgrade if it messes with the team overall.
And as huge as team chemistry is, reliability is just as important. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how perfect the player is if he doesn’t show up or he chooses to not do his job.
See where this is going?
Sometimes, when trust into a position of leadership, you will have to make the “wrong” decision in pursuit of the right and larger goal. This may mean going against the opinion of others, and following your gut instead of your head.
It doesn’t end there though.
While it is easy to justify certain actions while chasing a larger goal, you cannot lose sight of the repercussions will come.
Over the past 6 years I’ve had to make more than a couple verdicts in regards to a player’s role. And with these decisions have come a variance of reactions. Most of these reactions have been taken in stride, and while no one likes to lose a piece of the spotlight, most have the maturity to handle this. Sadly though, this isn’t always the case.
Not everyone will understand when you make certain decisions. As a leader it is on them to trust you, but there will be times when certain people don’t. And when someone negatively questions you — it can be difficult not to take it personally. Don’t let this get to you. Believe in the process and follow you gut.
Learn to Understand
“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.”
–M. D. Arnold
I’m a horribly average athlete.
Which puts me in a weird position; from a leadership perspective.
Typically, in sports, the leaders of any team are the guys who are forced to be so. More often than not, it is the most talented players that are leaned on as leaders. And, since most of these guys are talented from day 1 (talent is selective like that), they acquire plenty of leadership experience over the course of their careers.
But there is one thing these guys miss out on:
An understanding of their less gifted teammates.
This lack of understanding isn’t necessarily their fault. It’s hard to expect someone to understand something they never had the chance to truly experience. Despite this fact, it allocates a very obvious shortcoming. Hence, my strange advantage.
As a team leader I do get more shine than my natural talent would otherwise deserve. But with that shine, and my intermittent struggles as player, every mistake I make tends to be highlighted just a little more brightly. By both receiving shine and struggling at times as a player, I am able to live on both sides of the fence and develop an understanding of both types of players.
What does this mean for you?
Spend some time supporting those less fortunate.
Take a walk in their shoes if possible. If not, take the time to get to know them. Ask them of their struggles and then truly listen to them. Not so you can simply repeat it, and not to give them some half-hearted answer — listen to understand.
Because until you understand the lives of those around you, you aren’t a leader, you’re just a guy standing on top of the pile.
Ego is the Enemy1
“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”
I saved this one for last. But there really isn’t a more important point on this entire list.
Whether it be in a team-based environment, or in your personal life, we all know a person or two with an absolutely toxic attitude. People who, the minute something doesn’t go their way, throw repulsive little fits of rage. Hell, go driving downtown during rush hour and you’ll meet 100’s of those people.
And you also know exactly how those fits of rage make you feel.
Attitudes are contagious, and it is that exact reason that you cannot have those people around you. Sometime this is for the sake of your team, but more often that that — it is for your sake as well.
Early on egos will flare but, unless pressure is there, these outbursts will be minimal and easy to ignore; especially if that person is otherwise highly likable. Let that ego go unchecked though… and that shit will ruin you.
But that part is easy enough. Remove egotistical people from your circle and you are good to go.
The real trap is when, after looking at yourself, you realize that the person with the ego problem… is you.
As human beings we are natural inclined to possess certain biases that allow us to narrate in our lives in the most favorable way. We are great because we say we are, and when we aren’t great there is always a reason.
The key is to fight these natural inclinations and not let ourselves get in the way of our better judgement.
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