TAKE THE TROPHY AWAY FROM THE TROPHY GENERATION
In the summer of 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison became a hero to countless coaches across all sports when he told the world how he returned two trophies that were given to his sons for doing absolutely nothing other than showing up. He gave these participation trophies back because of, in his own words, “the belief that everything in life should be earned.” He continued, stating that he “wasn’t about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”
Harrison’s attitude was a breath of fresh air for fellow Generation X’ers like me, who grew up in a different time. While I am sure we weren’t always the perfect kids growing up, there was definitely a far greater sense of working to earn our keep back then than there is now. The trophy generation of today has grown all too accustomed to being handed their keep, bringing a sense of entitlement and an expectation of instant gratification to many parts of their lives.
In an age where kids are brought up being rewarded for nothing that merits reward, it becomes a challenge for coaches to instill that sense of earning into their DNA when they’ve been given so much. But rest assure, it can be done.
During my time on the staff at Rutgers under an ABCA Hall of Fame coach in Fred Hill, just down the way from our offices was another Hall of Fame coach, C. Vivian Stringer, leading our women’s basketball program as one of the nation’s best. Her teams would always practice in the morning hours, and there would be a number of times when I’d get to the office and noticed her players practicing in what looked like street clothes, wearing nothing on that said Rutgers. At the time, I wondered to myself if maybe they didn’t get their normal practice uniforms done in the laundry, but later, I realized that it was an intentional motivational tactic by one of the most accomplished coaches in her sport.
It was in those time when she had, in fact, taken away anything and everything that said Rutgers, including their locker room, because in her opinion, her players were not representing the program in a manner that it deserved. That might have meant on the court by the way they were competing, or it might have been something that had nothing to do with basketball. But the message was clear: if C. Vivian Stringer’s players wanted to truly be Scarlet Knights, they would have to earn that privilege back. Countless times, it worked, coinciding with her teams seemingly turning the corner on their season.
On the baseball side of things, many collegiate programs love to show off to their players, prospective recruits, and fans everything they have that makes them better than the next. College athletics has turned into the arms race of sorts; the haves versus the have nots. Some have twelve different sets of uniforms. Others, new indoor facilities with every bell and whistle that would make every Major League team jealous. And so much gear that players would never have to wear the same thing twice for an entire month. All of this stuff that will just be handed to players the second they step foot on campus.
A handful of programs, on the other hand, take a much different tactic than the Christmas in August approach detailed above. In fact, some are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and don’t allow their players many of the program’s privileges until they have proven worthy of actually earning them. For early fall practices, players at those programs may don blank t-shirts, shorts, and hats, with not a single stitch of clothing having the school logo or name. Additionally, they aren’t given a locker in the clubhouse, nor provided laundry service after a long, hot day on the field. The message in this respect is very similar to Stringer’s at Rutgers: being a part of a program is a privilege, not a right... and that privilege is to be earned. That practice gear, to be earned. A locker, earned. And PLAYING TIME, most assuredly, will be earned.
“Old school” coaching didn’t have to include gimmicks back in the day. Daily work was of the blue-collar variety, with players bringing their lunchbox to the field and putting their head down for a few hours of blood, sweat, and tears. Earning was in their DNA. Today, players are still motivated, but now it just takes a little creativity from our end as coaches to get their best effort and focus to develop that sense of earning over their sense of entitlement.
Transfer rates in college athletics are at an all-time high, more times than not a result of student-athletes disgruntled about their playing time, or lack thereof. By the time kids enter college, and are fortunate enough to play at that level, they do so with a background of being the man; one of the better players on a team or in an area, who always had a spot in the lineup because they were deserving of such.
But when joining a collegiate program, or even previous to that, and moving on to a better amateur or school team growing up, that big fish in a small pond all of a sudden becomes the guppy in the ocean, and, possibly for the first time in their lives, they aren’t the best player on the field. For many, that’s a significant adjustment, and by no fault of their own mind you. It’s how they handle that adjustment which can make or break their future: do they get back to work, and understand that nothing will be given to them, or do they feel sorry for themselves, blame everyone else for the bump in the road that they have turned into an impassible mountain?
By instilling work ethic in your players every day, in all things beyond just playing time, where everything is earned and nothing is given, you might just in fact create a team that James Harrison will enthusiastically want his kids to play for.