Thursday, June 11, 2015

Having Passion: The Key to Success

I teach at St. Paul Humboldt High School. I am a Hawk for life, but Humboldt is not a traditional sports powerhouse  - their basketball team owns the all time worst winning percentage in the St. Paul City Conference. The lone exception for sports success at Humboldt is soccer. They've made several trips to state and are always very competitive in their conference, even though they have a much smaller population that other schools. Why is it that they are the outlier in an otherwise bleak sports landscape? The secret may lie in something I observed in the last few weeks of school.

I was leaving school for the day and it was pouring. As I ran to my car, something caught my eye. I noticed students out on the field. Once I reached the dry car I looked out and saw it was soccer players playing by themselves in the downpour. One thing was very evident in that moment - these players have a passion for soccer. So much so they don't care that it's raining and cool - they just want to play soccer.

That then led me to think about my experiences as a player. Just as in my coaching, I went to a few different high schools as a player. Maybe I've just got a nomadic spirit, or I think the grass is greener, I don't know! Anyway, one of the successful programs, Rushford-Peterson, was only ten miles down the road from the traditionally unsuccessful program, Houston. So what made these programs different? If you drive through Rushford on a summer night it's common to see pick up games at the courts behind the school. It's also common to see kids attending open gyms, lifting, and working on their game with almost zero adult prodding. Those kids have a passion or a fire that most schools don't have - as well as a legendary high school coach. The uncommon passion those athletes have leads to uncommon results on the court almost every year. On the other hand in Houston where I graduated from, we didn't have nearly as much of that passion. I'm a proud Hurricane and love my school, but traditionally Rushford has better sports teams year in and year out. A part of that success is the passion that the Rushford kids have for sports and what they are willing to do in pursuit of their passion.

The first thing I think coaches need to be able to do, is define what passion is. For me, passion is an unconditional love for something that causes you to go above and beyond what is expected. Passion isn't something you can fake. Passion is something that you have in every situation involving whatever it is you are passionate about. Some players play really hard but don't practice hard because they only have a passion for competition. Players who have a true basketball passion are the players that show up and work hard always - even when no one is watching.

The second thought I have as a coach is how do we cultivate that passion? Some people will argue that you can't, that players either have it or they don't. But because I am a believe in growth mindset, I'm of the belief that you can in fact cultivate passionate athletes. It's not easy, and there is no great blue print however. Below are some ways that I do believe we can help our players to grow a passion for basketball.
  • It's easier to develop passion early in life. 
    • The younger the players, the easier it is to get them excited. 
    • Two huge tips for this are: make it fun and give them people to look up to. 
  • You can't force a player to have passion. 
    • They have to develop it, you can't will it on them. That's when burnout happens. 
  • To be passionate players must have some autonomy. 
    • No one wants to work for "the man" all the time or be told what to do. Players have to have the opportunity to work for themselves and their satisfaction. 
  • Once they have the passion, stoke the fire but be careful .
    • Once they have the passion, offer opportunities to grow. 
    • But be careful not to push too hard so it becomes a tiresome job they are doing for someone else.
  • Keep it fun. 
    • Kids play games to have fun. So keep your activities as fun as possible so they enjoy what they are doing and want to continue. 
    • There was a study in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" book that stated that the more kids played pond hockey (read: pick up hockey), the better their chances of being professionals was. Why was that? Simple, the more they played pond hockey, the bigger their passion was, and they were willing to put in more work at older ages. As coaches we need to tap into this and keep basketball fun as much as possible. 
Obviously there is no science to instilling a passion. But I do believe that if you keep it fun, especially early, kids will WANT to excel in the sport and thus will be willing to go above and beyond expectations to achieve that. As a coach if you can get the kids in your program to be passionate, there is no ceiling on what you can achieve.