Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Playoffs? You're talking about playoffs?

The NFL playoffs are here. When your team makes the playoffs, there are seven possible outcomes. Only one of them is awesome and the rest have some degree of bummer to them. Let’s break them down from best to worst.

Winning the Super Bowl: It's pretty great.

Losing the Super Bowl: It’s a bummer, but not that bad if you can keep the proper perspective. Your team is the second best in football, so that is actually pretty good. As a Broncos fan, I have experienced four Super Bowl losses, every single one a blowout. That does not include the Super Bowl beatdown when I was four years old. I am getting pretty good at handling this outcome.

Winning in the Wild Card round, winning in the Divisional round, and losing the Conference Championship: In this scenario, your team won two playoff games, including a road win in the Divisional Round, one of the hardest wins to achieve in football. If your team played in the Wild Card round, expectations were probably fairly low so falling one game short of the Super Bowl is pretty good.

Winning in the Divisional Round, losing the Conference Championship: In this scenario, your team got a first round bye and then won a home playoff game. Expectations are high and the Super Bowl is one game away but the teams falls short. The 2005 Broncos fell into this category, and after the game, I just kept thinking about what could have been. For Vikings fans in 1998 and 2010, this scenario still haunts them. The reason it is not lower on the list is that your team at least won a playoff game before heading home for the rest of the playoffs.

Winning in the Wild Card round, lose in the Divisional round: Most likely the expectations were low but your team did win a playoff game. At least your team made the playoffs and won a game. The 2011 Broncos season felt like a success since the team had failed to make the playoffs for the previous five seasons and then scored a victory when they did. On the other side, the 2005 Patriots were defending Super Bowl Champs and getting bounced in the Divisional round was pretty crushing to them. Perspective is everything with this one.

Losing in the Wild Card round: Chances are that your team was not very good but you still held out hope that they would make a run. Instead, your team rewarded your hope by failing to win a playoff game. Bengals fans just keep experiencing the scenario and it crushes their souls. The 2008 Colts won twelve games but lost in this round and their fans probably never recovered.

Losing in the Divisional Round: This one is the worst. Your team was good enough for a first round bye and is playing at home against a team that had to play a week before. Home teams win 75% of the time in this round. The Divisional round loses in 1996, 2012, and 2014 haunt me way more than the Super Bowl loses. The 2012 loss against Baltimore still makes me want to throw up. The Broncos will need to win multiple Super Bowls before I get over that game. Now that I write it out, that sounds kind of pathetic.

The Broncos have the #1 seed for the playoff so I am hoping for an outcome on the higher end of this list. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack: the purpose of sports

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part five of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

A few years ago Nike had a series of commercials called "why sport?" They all followed the same formula with a story and a funny line in text on the screen at the end. The most famous one featured a woman alone in a cabin in the woods who is chased by a guy with a chainsaw and hockey mask. She takes off into the woods and easily outruns him. The text at the end said "Why Sport? Because you live longer."

With my boys getting old enough to start taking an interest in athletics, I have started to think about the role of sports in our lives. There is a small group of people with the ability and work ethic to make their living through sports, but for the rest of us, what purpose should they serve? I contend that the purpose of sports is to make you better at other parts of life. When I am physically active, I am a better person. When my boys are worn out from physical activity, well, they are too tired to fight with each other, so that is a win. Sadly, humans like to take something good and mess it up. We have done that with sports.

Youth sports are supposed to be fun. Kids are supposed to learn sportsmanship and hard work. Unfortunately, too often parents and coaches take things too seriously. My nephew has been a Soccer referee for years and tells crazy stories about parents and coaches acting like complete tools at their kid's games. That will suck the life out of a group of children really quickly.

Another problem that has come up in recent years is specialization of youth sports. Kids are expected to start young and play the same sport year round. A friend was telling me that his daughter wanted to try softball but found that all the teams were made up of kids that had been playing for years and there was no place for beginners. She is 11 years old. Many experts have said that specialization is not good and that kids should play different sports during the year but it looks like it will take a while to change.

Despite my lack of athletic gifting I still love to participate in a lot of different sports and I feel more alive and happy when I do. I will pass that on to my children so that, even if they end up in the back of the pack, they can feel the joy of competition and trying your best. I want them to understand the purpose of sports and enjoy them as much as I have.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Lessons from the Back of the Pack: It is not the Critic who Counts.

My friend Chuck Wood sent me a piece of paper with this quote on it years ago. I have posted it at my home or workplace ever since. At this moment it is in my cubicle at work next to my computer. What an incredible statement.

In most sports, when you are not very good, it is not all that obvious. In team sports like football, basketball, or soccer, you ride the bench most of the time. Unless you have friends or family in the stands, no one notices that you are not playing. They may see your clean uniform or observe that you fell asleep on the grass, but that is about it. You can hide your lack of skills even better in golf or tennis since someone would have to actively watch you for a while to determine your skill level. They might even witness you making a rare decent shot and think that you are pretty good. Well, as long as they don't stick around long.

In the sport of Cross Country running, you cannot hide. Everyone runs the same race distance at the same time. The best runners cross the finish line to everyone's excitement and applause, and rightly so. Witnessing the end of a five mile race is thrilling. After that excitement is over, the rest of the runners come pouring over the line. The energy starts to diminish as more and more runners finish and the spectators start to seek out the runners they came to cheer on. Finally, several minutes after the winners, the back of the pack runners cross the line. Some people are still there to cheer you on, but as you finish your main concern becomes watching for spectators who think the race is over and start walking across the course without looking. There is not much glory in it.

In Track and Field, slower sprinters don't get as much notice because their race is over so quickly, throwers are off in their own section, and jumpers all go one at a time. Distance runners cannot hide. The longer the distance, the more opportunity to fall behind in front of the entire crowd. Worst of all is getting lapped. That is when the fast runners are so far ahead of you that they actually catch up and pass you. It's awful and everyone in the stadium sees it. You just hope that most of the spectators got bored and took a bathroom break during your race.

In those times I needed to remind myself that I loved to run and it did not matter what anyone else thought. I'm sure there were people that judged me for my lack of ability and wondered why I tried so hard at something when I was not great at it, but their opinion did not matter. There are lots of critics in this world. If you doubt it, read the comments section of anything posted on the internet. Also, be prepared for part of your soul to die if you do that. I digress. Sorry.

Teddy Roosevelt was right. The critic does not count. Success in life comes from stepping into the ring, knowing that you may get knocked out in the first round. The fear swirls around inside your head and your heart wants to escape from your body but you still have to face your opponent, all by yourself and in the way that only you can. Win or lose, after the bout critics will tell what you did wrong and how you should have crossed instead of jabbing and how they would have won in the second round. None of that matters. You were the one in the arena. You can hold your head high because, win or lose, you left your blood and sweat in the ring and in the process gave your best shot. Front of the pack or back of the pack, that is a powerful lesson in life.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack: You can be the toughest.

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part three of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

The other day I saw a list someone posted to Facebook that had 100 pieces of advice a teacher gave to his class of high school Seniors. No author was credited and my google search also did not reveal further information, so I apologize for not passing on the proper credit. Most of the advice was good but one thing in particular stuck out. The line read "you may not always be the strongest or the fastest but you can be the toughest." That made me think about my time at the back of the pack in college and what I learned about being tough.

I was not the toughest runner on the team. That belt was held by Lester Sheneberger. His collegiate running career consisted of a single race, but it was enough to make him a legend. The team had traveled to Decorah, IA for the first race of the 1992 season at Luther College. During warmups he felt that something was not right in his ankle but started the race anyway. About a mile in he was in rough shape. He kept going, though, up hills and through the woods. Did I mention that it was a five mile race? He was in visible pain, limping along, but finished the race somehow. Afterward an X-ray revealed a broken bone in his ankle. His Cross Country career was over that day. Among the team if someone did something tough, we would call it "pulling a Sheneberger" or some variation like that.

On that team I was surrounded by tough people. Another teammate, Travis Glanzer, ran for three seasons of Cross Country, even putting up one of the best times in the history of Bethel University, with horrible pain in his shins. He had compartment syndrome, which is kind of like Carpel Tunnel Syndrome in your lower leg. Every step hurt but he never complained and never missed a workout. Matt Wickman ran for two years with chronic back pain. Like Travis, it always hurt and he never complained. Spending time every day with people like that cannot help but make you tougher.

Toughness is hard to explain but you know it when you see it. Brett Farve in the NFC title game against New Orleans a few years ago was one of the most amazing displays of toughness I have ever seen in sports. The Saints defense was playing dirty, hitting him on almost every play of the game and he was taking a beating worthy of Rocky Balboa. Yet, every time they hit him, he got right back up. When the game ended in a close defeat for the Vikings, he couldn't walk. His ankle was swollen to about twice it's normal size. That is physical toughness.

Mental toughness is usually less obvious but no less impressive. My wife, Heidi, has no interest in pushing the physical boundaries of toughness. There will probably be no marathons for her, but she is still one of the toughest people I know. For years she suffered from horrible headaches and some days she could barely find the strength to make it through the day. The headaches are gone now so she found a new way to demonstrate how tough she is. Four years ago in March she carried twins to 38 weeks and amazed the doctors when they each weighed seven pounds. That is 14 pounds of baby that she carried around. Not to be outdone, three years later she pushed out an 11 pound baby without any pain medication. If anyone pulled a Sheneberger, it was her.

My time spent at the back of the pack made me tougher. When it was 90 degrees and the scheduled workout was four miles of intervals, I put on my shoes and joined the team. When it was 20 below and blowing wind, I got dressed and headed out. Now, twenty years later, I still run, just not as fast or as far. I am tougher than I would have otherwise been without those experiences.

It never crossed my mind to quit, despite finishing races after most of my competitors had already cross the line. I am not sure if that makes me tough or just stubborn, but either way, I am glad I had the chance to learn those lessons at the back of the pack.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lessons from the Back of the Pack: Four Kinds of People

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part two of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

Everyone in the world falls into one of four groups when it comes to athletics. There are two words that come into play. The first word is "gifted" and the other is "competitive". The presence or absence of the two words describes everyone on earth.

The first group is the rarest. They are the ones who are gifted and competitive. These people find athletic success as easy as breathing and they also love to win. Automatically we think of Michael Jordan, John Elway, Wayne Gretzky, and Peyton Manning. They have a competitive fire that burns brightly and they also have incredible God-given physical skills that most people can only dream about. They will work harder than anyone else because they just have to win. This trait drives them to become household names but also puts them in danger of becoming overly competitive jerks.

The second group has incredible physical skills but lack the competitive nature of the first group. They are the ones who played every sport in high school at the varsity level but drove their coaches crazy because they would never fully apply themselves to it. Because athletics came so easy, they often got bored with a sport and moved on to the next one.

The third group has it the best of anyone. They are neither gifted nor competitive. They may participate in athletic activities but mostly because their friends are on the team. Losing is not a big deal, they just want to have fun. People in this group may work out every day and be physically fit and active but they do it to be healthy and to have fun not to be the best of the best of the best.

The fourth group has it the worst. They are fiercely competitive but not athletically gifted. People in this group join the team, never miss a practice, and desperately try to win, but just lack any God-given athletic ability. Coaches love these athletes for their work ethic and desire but probably also think about how nice it would be if they had some actual ability to go along with it.

In case you where wondering, I am firmly in that fourth group. When I play something I don't simply want to win, I want to crush my opponents. I want to win in such a way that the next time we play you are already defeated. My calm demeanor covers up an intense competitive nature. I hate losing but when it comes to athletics I lose all the time. Even after all these years I still have not come to grips with it.

That competitive nature is what kept me going at the back of the pack. That is the answer to the question of why I worked so hard at something that I was not all that good at. I had to compete. I had to scratch the itch. Something inside drove me through the intervals and tempo runs and hills. It's is also the reason I almost lost several friendships and my marriage over a game of Monopoly, but that is a post for another day. (Heidi and I are still happily married but will never play Monopoly together again.) I guess that like the first group, the fourth group is also in danger of being overly competitive jerks, we just lack the skills to back it up.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack.

When I was 19 I made the transition from a high school sprinter to a college distance runner. One of the reasons that I chose Bethel University (then Bethel College) was the Track team. I loved high school Track and Field and, though I was not very good, I thought that I could run for a small college. In my first week of my Freshman year I sought out the Track coach only to have him show zero interest in having me on his team. All through that year I wanted so badly to be a part of the team but had to watch from the sidelines. Fortunately, I met the assistant Cross Country coach who convinced me that I could make the change to long distances. So I trained all summer and showed up the next fall ready to become a member of the Cross Country team. It turned out that I loved Cross Country even more than I had loved Track. It also turned out that I was not very good at it.

I was on the Cross Country and Track teams for three years each, and I did see improvement in those years. However, I was never one of the top runners on the team. No matter how hard I worked I just could not overcome a distinct lack of athletic ability. When someone tells you that you can do anything with hard work and perseverance, they are wrong. Sometimes someone with natural ability is just better than you no matter how hard you work. That was a hard life lesson that I did not enjoy learning.

So, if you are not all that good at something, why pour your heart and soul into it? I'll break it down in movies. When it comes to sports movies, most of them have one of two endings. The first is when the plucky underdog loses to the champ but gains everyone's respect by refusing to accept defeat quietly. Rocky and Mystery, Alaska fall into this category. The second is the story of the plucky underdog that gets the unlikely victory. The Mighty Ducks and Best of the Best are my favorite examples. Then there is Rudy. The story of the guy who barely makes the team and only gets a few seconds of playing time but still wins everyone's respect. I was like Rudy, except that no one chanted my name after a big race and they did not make a movie about my life. I loved running, I worked hard at it, and I encouraged my teammates in their pursuit of personal records. There was not much glory, but it did not matter.

What did I learn at the back of the pack? I learned that it is good to give yourself over to a goal. I learned that sometimes the rewards are small, but they are enough to keep you going. I learned that I am a better father, husband, and employee because I learned how to work hard at something that most people did not understand. The back of the pack is often a difficult place to be but there are important lessons to be learned if you can stick it out.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Good news at the end of a long search

In the five and a half years since Heidi and I did not move to Africa, I have struggled in my career. The first job I got after we knew we were staying in the United States was at Costco. I took the job as a seasonal employee since I could not find anything in three months of searching and needed some money coming in. On Christmas Eve I found myself collecting carts in a blinding snowstorm. I did not really enjoy that experience. One year and two jobs later I found myself working for someone with whom I did not get along. For three years I was looking for something else while hoping against hope that she would move on. A year and a half ago she told the other staff person and myself that she was leaving. It was a happy, happy day. People who know me would agree that I don't have much trouble getting along with people so for me to struggle so much with someone was unusual. It seemed that things had turned the corner in my career but that did not end up being the case.

For the last four and half years I have worked for a trade association for the remodeling industry. Most of my work involved recruiting new members but I also had quite a few other responsibilities. When the Executive Director left, I applied for the job. Unfortunately, my previous boss did not paint a favorable picture of me to the Board of Directors.  I was not given a true interview and informed via email that someone else was offered the job. It was a tough pill to swallow. To this point all of my attempts to find a different job had failed so I had no choice but to stay the course until I could find new employment.

The positive in all of this was that Nick, who the Board hired instead of me, is a pretty great guy. We pretty quickly settled into a good working relationship and I was able to heal from the three years with the previous boss. Working with him also allowed me to hone some skills that I did not really know that I had.

At his point I should point out that I was struggling with my identity in regard to my career. My job felt like a dead end since I was unable to advance to the Executive Director position. I would look at some of my former classmates and see what they had accomplished and felt pretty small in comparison. Yeah, I know that is dumb, but I still did it all the time. Every day I thought about how I wished for a career move with a better title and better pay but no matter how many positions I applied for, nothing was happening.

I admit with shame that I was struggling in a big way to trust God with my career and finances. I could have faith for others to see a breakthrough but I was thinking that none would be coming for me. It seemed that my struggle with confidence in that area of my life would continue indefinitely. All I could think about was how I am past 40 and my career is stalled. This was not how I pictured things going when I was younger.

A month or so ago at church the pastor invited people up for prayer at the end of the service. He specifically encouraged people who were struggling with issues of employment to come up. After a minute of watching me stare forward Heidi nudged me and told me to get up there. I am so happy to have a wise wife. So I trudged to the front with no faith at all that God was going to move. A young woman that Heidi and I had met a week before came and prayed for me. She told me that she felt the Lord say that He is waiting for me to put my eyes on him and there will be a breakthrough. That was the point when I finally started to trust again.

I had decided that there was one of two tracks that my career could follow and either would be fine. The first was to pursue association management and the second was to get into non-profit development (fundraising). In the past year I had had promising interviews in both fields but neither led to an offer. At least I knew I was on a reasonable track. So a few weeks ago I saw a job on LinkedIn and decided to apply. It was for an organization that works with eye care professionals. They were looking for someone to manage two small trade associations and it seemed like a good fit for me. To my surprise, they called the next day to set up an interview. It was only after I had agreed to the interview that I realized that they are based in Woodbury, about a 35 minute one way drive from my house. I take pride in having a short commute to work and never would have applied if I had realized where it was.

Before the interview was scheduled I had set up a networking meeting with a woman who is friends with our good friends Peter and Julie. She is a Major Gifts Officer for a large non-profit and I wanted to pick her brain about fundraising. We talked for about 45 minutes and I was able to pick up some helpful ideas. From there I headed to Woodbury for the interview and I was not terribly enthused about it. That worked in my favor.

About halfway through the interview I found that I was not all that interested in the job. It was a good opportunity but I was thinking how I would not be upset if no offer followed. Then, about two thirds of the way through, the CEO of the organization joined the interview. The completely caught me by surprise when she started asking about my fundraising background. She proceeded to tell me that they need someone to run their foundation and offer career services to their members and how she has never seen anyone with a background in both. I told her that I was interested (in my mind I was ecstatic but I tried to stay cool) and that I would love to get more information. At the end of the interview they asked for me to send my professional references and that they would follow up with me after the finished all the initial interviews. Then I had to wait. I hate waiting.

After a week and a half I got a call from Janice. She offered me the job right then over the phone. I asked to give her an answer in the morning but it was pretty much a done deal. After praying about it, I accepted the job. I'll get a nice jump in salary and a better benefits package. My current boss took the news well and I am excited to start in a couple of weeks.

I don't know what will happen next but I am grateful to God for his provision and I feel so much better positioned for the future. All of the waiting was frustrating but I know that I can trust God in all circumstances. Over the last few years I have been able to be grateful for my wonderful wife, four adorable children,  great family and friends in my life, and a house that we love but I was mostly not grateful for my job. I am grateful that God is good all the time, even when I have trouble remembering it.