The Silver Lining?

I love good ideas. I love problems. I love trying to figure out ways to solve problems. It’s the coach, the competitor, and the scientist in me. Some people probably say that it’s mostly the a$$hole in me but I digress.

First, a huge “THANK YOU!” to people who read my previous post, The End of an Era. It was a post about the school district’s decision to sell the iconic football stadium in Clay Center, Kansas. If you wish to share your favorite Unruh Stadium memories or histories, please add a comment on the post. I’d love to learn more from your stories!

One of the comments on the post completely blew my mind. It’s a great idea about what to do with Unruh Stadium after the school district moves out. The individual points out that since the city pretty much gave the stadium to the school district by selling it to them for one dollar, it’s only right for the school district to give it back, especially as they’ve invested very little in its physical upkeep over the years. 

Basically, the community gave USD 379 a gift in the 1990s, and perhaps it’s time for USD 379 to return the gift. 

Give it back. What an idea!

Why?

The commenter suggested that once returned to the city, the stadium could be used for public recreation. One thing that has been on many citizens’ minds over the past 15 years is the need for a real and actual Clay Center City Recreation facility in town. A group did a study a few years ago and drew up some nice plans for a facility but, if I remember correctly, the location was an identifiable problem. I agree the current stadium complex would make the perfect home for a Clay Center City Recreation facility for decades to come. 

Picture three youth soccer/flag football fields on the current football field with seating and facilities already available. Next, imagine a future recreation building/parks department office complex with courts, classrooms, and community space at the south end of the Unruh Stadium. (The area currently being developed adjacent to the Clay County Fairgrounds could be sold, shared with the Fairgrounds Board, or kept for a future city development site.) With some time, investment, and TLC, it could be a stellar recreation facility. Just as important, it’s something our capable Parks & Recreation Department could maintain.

Taking a lead from the economic benefits that the Clay Center Aquatic Park brought to the local area, an even greater economic benefit can be tapped by making Clay Center an area hub for recreation activities. Youth sports, tournaments, leagues, adult activities, exercise classes, arts and crafts, and a place for the community to be a community. 

The western corridor entering Clay Center exudes much of what Clay Center is. The Aquatic Park, Huntress Park, Schaulis Field, Montel Field, Brade’s Park & Shelter, Campbell Field, and Otto Unruh Stadium. That corridor is as identifiable with Clay Center as the Courthouse or Downtown or Utility Park. 

It’s part of what we were as a community. 

It’s part of who we are as a community. 

It’s part of what the community will become.

Silver linings can be found in every cloud. One just has to be willing to rip the cloud apart sometimes to find them.

Finally, one also has to be willing to sit down, talk to people, and exchange ideas to solve even the most daunting of problems together.

That, my friends, is how communities move forward in a positive manner.

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The End of the Era

The USD 379 Board of Education is moving forward on building a new football stadium and selling Otto Unruh Stadium. Unruh Stadium will likely be demolished as the land becomes a commercial venture. It’s a sad day for Clay Center and for an iconic community structure but we look forward with reserved optimism to what the future holds.

If my memory serves me, the City of Clay Center transferred stadium ownership to the school district for $1.00 sometime in the 1990s. Basically, the city (the community) gifted the iconic structure to the school district since they were the site’s primary users. 

I regret not trying harder over the past twenty years to convince USD 379 school boards and administrators to be better stewards of their stadium site. I apologize for not being a better advocate of Otto Unruh Stadium and demanding better from our local leadership. 

I dropped the ball on doing my part to improve things and rally community support for action. Several times while working at Campbell Field I’d walk past the rag-tag, chain link fence entrance at the south end of the football stadium and get totally pissed off at how bad it looked. If you’ve been to Unruh Stadium, you know this fence. It’s been bad since I attended my first Tiger Football home game in 1994. (Mini Rant: Couldn’t we have spent $20-30,000 at some time to have an exceptional local masonry company put in matching limestone walls and gates or, better yet, a limestone arch entry/ticket booth extension ramping up to an ADA-compliant seating area?)

Being pissed off on these occasions, I’d resolve to go to Stuart Administration Center and ask the superintendent to quit complaining about all that’s wrong with Unruh Stadium and do something right for the facility. I never did. I’m disappointed in myself for not taking a stand for our facilities and demanding more from the tax dollars being banked in the district’s capital outlay fund. 

Unruh Stadium is just a sports field. In the grand scheme of things, sports are not, and shouldn’t be, one of the top five priorities of a school district or a community. Nevertheless, Otto Unruh Stadium is a sports field that has deep meaning and history for our community. As the legend goes, it was built brick by brick by Clay Center citizens from locally-quarried limestone and funded as part of a WPA-related project.

The basic coaching tenet and philosophy “Brick by Brick”, which guided the latter half of my nine seasons as a Tiger Football coach, was based on the history and design of Unruh Stadium. To this day, I firmly believe we build better athletes, teams, and communities, and do better and deeper work when we create better bricks and build one brick at a time.

I’d hazard to guess I’ve spent more time in the shadow of Otto Unruh Stadium than many folks. As a fan, parent, coach, strength & conditioning coach, graduation speaker, baseball field volunteer, tour guide, etc. I’ve had a lot of experiences there. 

I’ve cheered in the stands, yelled at officials, been penalized, lost heartbreaker games, chased foul balls, won thrilling victories, dealt with gut-wrenching injuries, and ran the stadium stairs in Unruh. 

I’ve been a baton dad, band dad, proud dad, and a dad watching his kids learn to ride bikes there.

I’ve given tours to first graders and ended each tour with a session of top-of-our-lungs primal screaming underneath the stadium. I’ll never forget the pure joy and the smiles on the kids’ faces as our screams echoed off the walls. 

I’ve seen hundreds of senior pictures, team pictures, and family pictures taken against the backdrop of the stadium’s limestone walls.

I’ve dodged tornadoes, thunderstorms, power outages, sleet at March baseball games, and long 110°F summer American Legion tournament days inside the protection of Unruh Stadium.

I’ve “felt” the roar of the Tiger Bike Night event from the home locker room prior to a Tiger Friday Night in America football game.

I’ve “Touched the Sign”.

Many who read this will say, “Hays, you’re just a sappy, pigheaded, and sentimental old fool who needs to get with the times.” Maybe so. Oh hell, I’m about the sappiest, most pigheaded, and mega-sentimental old fool out there! It’s okay, though, because it drives my passion and sometimes drives that passion a touch too far. 

However, I’m also one who can recognize and see the potential in the people and the places we have in our community. I know the value of responsible leadership, the value of responsible tax dollar expenditures, and the responsibilities inherent in elected, paid, or volunteer public service. 

The ultimate trust must be earned by consistent action, not lip service. Lose the public trust and lose the ability to lead.

Good luck to USD 379 and to the Tiger Legacy supporters as we move forward on the new stadium project. Brick by brick. 

I’ll leave with one nugget of sports field wisdom I’ve learned over the years through time, trial, and toil:

Sports fields are easy to build. Sports fields are hard to maintain.

It’s up to us, the Clay County community, to be better stewards and demand better stewardship of our new and shiny things as well as our older and time-worn things. We cannot afford to sit back as we watch our community’s gifts deteriorate by design, lack of will, or lack of resources by our leadership.

Tiger Family always!

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Red Beans, Rice, and Teenage Stupidity

Parents of teenagers, it’s midsummer and there’s a decent chance your teenage children might be on the edge of driving you mad. Teenagers have a knack for that. However, I’m here to tell you it’s perfectly normal not only for you to feel like blowing your lid but for teenagers to act with head-scratching stupidity. This is particularly true in the summertime. School’s out, no need to use all the brain at any given time, right? 

This will pass. Teenagers and the inherent behavior that defies all logic passes. Trust me. Despite being considered an average, well-adjusted adult of almost 58 years by most of society’s standards, I was once deeply entrenched in the world of teenage stupidity.

I was reminded of this tonight when I opened the pantry door. Staring at me from eye level was a can of red beans next to a box of rice. It immediately took me back to the winter of 1979 when I was a sophomore in high school. I went out one Saturday night with two senior linemen from the football team, Bruce and Ivan. These two guys, along with the other offensive linemen from that previous fall, were my idols. Man, those guys could block like SOBs. I tried to emulate what they did and how they went about their business. They were big, athletic, smart, and ornery as hell. My kind of people.

On this particular Saturday night, there was nothing to do. It was one of those dark and cold Kansas winter nights where there’s not a whole hell of a lot going on. We drove around and hit all the hangout spots which, just a few months ago, would have been packed with high school kids celebrating beautiful autumn nights. Each hangout was abandoned to the frigid elements. Bruce said, “You know what we should do?” I looked at him skeptically. Ivan shook his head expecting something which may or may not end up getting us in trouble. “We should make red beans and rice.”

Ivan looked at him sideways and said with his Polish accent, “You mean like the New Orleans red beans and rice? Cajun food?”

“That’s the one.”

I had no clue what they were talking about. I’m from a large Irish/Croatian Catholic family and my dad was a meat and potatoes guy by nature. Italian food and tacos were about as exotic as the Hays family went.  Red beans and rice could have been from Mars and I wouldn’t have known any better. Being the youngest member of the trio, though, I was allowed to ask stupid questions. “Bruce, do you know how to make these red beans and rice?”

“Of course I do. How hard can it be? Red beans and rice. The recipe is right there in the name.”

I shrugged. Ivan shrugged. Sounded logical enough.

Bruce pulled into the nearest grocery store, hopped out of the car, and jogged through the frigid air to the front door. In a few minutes, the automatic door opened, and out he came carrying one brown paper grocery sack with a huge smile on his face. He tossed the sack onto my lap in the back seat. I looked inside. One box of rice and two cans of red beans. Bruce put the car in reverse. “I hope you boys are hungry.”

Now, when you’re hanging out with Bubbas, hunger level never needs to be asked or addressed. With Bubbas, hunger is assumed. With visions of a Cajun delicacy dancing through my head, we drove to Ivan’s house for culinary magic. A boring Saturday night just took a 180° turn for the better.

Bruce carefully measured the water to boil and Ivan took care of prepping the proper amounts of rice from the box. I was in charge of the red beans. Two cans. No problem. My can opener skills were well-honed from years of kitchen duty and the red beans were soon ready. The rice cooked on the stove as we talked with lame, southern Louisianan accents while watching puffs of steam occasionally rise from under the pot lid. 

Images of Mardi Gras, one of the few things I knew about New Orleans or Cajun life, danced in my head. A subzero winter night in Kansas City morphed into a parade down Bourbon Street. Now all we needed to complete the vibe was just about ready. Red beans and rice.

Bruce’s watch timer dinged and he dumped the red beans into the rice pot. He stirred and covered the pot again. “Ivan, get out the plates while these beans warm up.” 

With everything ready, healthy portions were dished out. Bruce took a bite. Ivan took a bite. I took a bite. There were no colorful dancers, no jazz bands, no beads being tossed. Instead of a Cajun flavor explosion, our red beans and rice tasted like a chunk of Bourbon Street pavement. Ugh. Not good. 

Our red beans and rice tasted exactly like red beans and white rice. Duh. Who knew a spicy, Cajun dish would actually need…spices? Idiots. 

I still enjoy a good laugh forty-plus years later thinking about this act of teenage stupidity. In the ensuing years, I’ve discovered how awesome authentic red beans and rice are, especially the red beans and rice they used to serve at the Hibachi Hut in Manhattan’s Aggieville. As far as making further attempts to cook red beans and rice, I’ll leave that to my wife, Zatarain’s, or professionals for now. Maybe one of these days, I’ll recover from youthful stupidity and give homemade red beans and rice a shot. With spices this time, for damn sure!

Parents with teenagers who are currently doing ridiculous things, take a deep breath. Count to ten. Smile at your teenage offspring and envision a day when they too will be productive adults. All things must pass. And remember, it’s perfectly normal to laugh hysterically on the inside as you visualize the possibility the ridiculous teenager standing in front of you attempting to explain some recent head-scratching behavior may one day have teenagers of their own. 

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Filtering

I listened to former MLB pitcher Mike Boddicker on a Kansas City sports radio this week and he said something that activated my coaching radar. With his years of pitching expertise, the host asked him to theorize why the Kansas City Royal’s young pitchers were struggling so much. Thoughtfully, he responded that perhaps too much information was being fed into their heads. He said with so much to think about swimming in their heads while on the mound, their physical performance suffers.

Bingo! I think Mike Boddicker might be onto something here. I’ve written many times about this before in sports. Most sports are doing things not thinking things. That’s why things like muscle memory and daily practice are so important. When a player is on the field in the action of a game, thinking, in particular overthinking, is bad news.

Professional sports and sports, in general, are becoming more and more data-driven. In my opinion, this is a very good thing. Having the information to make better choices about strategy and resources is never a bad thing. The problem we get into as coaches and as organizations is we fall in love with the data but we fail to implement the filtering of the data to our players or team members. 

Filtering?

It’s when the people at the top end of the organizational ladder analyze all the available data and “filter” the relevant data to the relevant people. In a perfect world, by the time the information gets to the individual player, only the most relevant information that individual needs to do their job is in their head. That player then practices within that context, repeating the action again and again until they improve, and then takes it to the field without having to actively think about it.

You can also think about filtering as an informed simplification. As Detective Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Filtering is a lesson I learned as a green, somewhat dumb, and often overly-enthusiastic baseball and football coach. The hitters I coached didn’t need to have the dozens and dozens of physical cues involved in a swing swirling in their heads as the pitch was delivered. They needed only to load, step, and swing to attack the baseball. The mind can be a terrible thing when bogged down with too much information.

From experience, I know if I’m in the box thinking about where my feet are, what position my hands are in, if my weight is transferred, and, on top of that, the scouting report on what this pitcher likes to throw 1-2, I’m probably going to be taking a leisurely walk back to the dugout leaving the tying run on second base.

Thinking too much diminishes performance.

Same for football. Fast (quick) explosive high school football is the way we wanted to play the game. It’s the way we developed our players every day with everything we did from warmups to conditioning. We also knew the value of scouting and film study in order to give us the advantage to make up for what we lacked in sheer size and speed. The hours and hours of film breakdown of an opponent was a lot of information. Too much information for your average high school male athlete. Hence, we learned to filter. 

Although we knew as defensive coaches that on third and four in a shotgun spread formation with the back on the left and the right guard, #63, sitting slightly back on his haunches meant they were going to run their bread and butter, QB counter to the left, pushing all that info into a 17-year-old’s head probably meant that the 17-year-old was going to freeze on the field. Coach Dail Smith used to call it, “paralysis by analysis”. Busy minds = Slow feet.

To avoid paralysis by analysis, what do you do? You filter. In the example above, we knew all that information as coaches. Since the QB counter seemed to be one of their bread and butter plays, it was put into the top 6-8 run plays for the scout offense to run all week. We’d teach the linebackers to notice when the guards were sitting back on their haunches and attack. Basically, we take the 4-5 scout details and break them down to one or two for the players, work the recognition and skills repeatedly, and give them the best chance of succeeding during the game. And if we forced the opposing team to go to something other than their bread and butter plays? That was the icing on the cake. 

If you can beat me with your second, third, or fourth-best packages, you deserve to win. If you beat me with your bread and butter packages, I deserve to lose.

Data is cheap in today’s digital world. Programs like HUDL are so freaking awesome and provide so much data to a coach at any level. Sabermetrics and analytics are a sports nerd’s dream. But the downside is the sheer, daunting amount of data we generate. The important work for the modern coach and organization is to sift through the data, decide what’s important and who it’s important to, and then pass it down. A little bit of salt makes the stew better, but a handful of salt ruins it.

Filter the information to your players. Give them the basic knowledge they need without throwing a wrench into the gears of performance. Too much on-field thinking, paralysis by analysis, is a dangerous thing. Prepare your players, practice, and turn them loose to perform. 

Mike Boddicker might be right about what’s wrong with all these talented, young arms in the Royals’ system. Simplify and let the physical talent shine.

Load. Step. Swing.

Sifting gold in a cabin, 13 Eldorado, Yukon Territory, 1898. (Asahel Curtis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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What and Why?

I went to see my mom for the first time in a long while last week. She lives in a really nice assisted living apartment two and a half hours away from where I live. She’s in her upper 80s and doesn’t move around very well. As is probably a common theme across similar situations over the past two years, the pandemic times have taken a toll on her wellness. 

We had a good visit. I talk with her at least weekly on the phone and we tell stories about our household adventures when we six Hays kids were growing up. We laugh a lot about the old days. Although talking on the phone is a very good thing, it’s still nice to be able to see her in person.

Of course, during the visit last week, we laughed and told the stories as usual. She told me she was trying to learn to paint after they had a painting class a few weeks earlier. We watched the TV (an X-Files movie!) and she had her usual, highly entertaining running commentary, which let me tell you is even a whole higher level of entertaining during a science fiction story. Classic stuff. I wish you could have been there.

During our phone or face-to-face visits, we inevitably end up heading toward a tough conversation. Mom will turn a little sullen and say. “Michael, every morning I wake up and ask God why he keeps me here and what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Tough questions. They’re tough questions I’m never really prepared to answer and it leaves a hole in my gut. I often reply, “I don’t know.”

We had that conversation last week. I once again answered that I didn’t know. After a few minutes of contemplation, we were back to the movie and making fun of aliens buried under Antarctica. The movie ended, we said our goodbyes, and I headed home.

During the drive home, I couldn’t shake that conversation. I couldn’t shake the emptiness at not being able to provide an answer that could give my mother some peace of mind.

God, what am I supposed to be doing?

Today the answer hit me. It hit me in church during the funeral of one of the most selfless, kind, and giving individuals in our small town. His life was all about finding the things that needed to be done and then doing them humbly. He led a purpose-driven life at its very best.

The answer was right there all along in with my mom’s hard questions.

God keeps us here in order to find the things we’re supposed to be doing.

We are given the gift of a day. It’s up to us to find the best way to spend it. It’s up to us to find ways to be the best stewards of our world and our communities that we can be.

God keeps us here in order to find the things we’re supposed to be doing.

Thank you Mom for the question.

Thank you Dennis for a life well-lived. 

Thank you, God, for the gift of today.

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The Favorite Place to Play

Coaches should always have a favorite place to play. This favorite place should trickle down to their entire team and organization. Everyone from the assistants to the players to the support staff should share a passion for this place.
What is the place?
Simple. It’s wherever the next game on the schedule is.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Getting your team ready to play the next game wherever it is.
Any other concerns, worries, or complaints steer the ship off course. There’s already a lot of other stuff to deal with in getting ready to play a game, especially at the high school or youth sports level, to detract from the goal of reaching that favorite place. A coach’s actions and demeanor matter. Negative thoughts spread to teenage athletes before anything can be done to prevent it and affect performance.
There’s a certain special feeling going to a game and seeing the field or the lights or the arena waiting ahead. A favorite kind of place lies ahead.
Anticipation. A touch of nerves. The heart quickens. It’s a special feeling.
So what’s a coach to do?
Put their head down and go to work whether you’re playing on the most pristine of fields or on something barely suitable as a landfill site.
Get ready for the next game, wherever and whenever it is.
Make the places and spaces we inhabit better. Leave a mark. All day, every day.
Isn’t that what life’s all about?
Above all else, enjoy the ride!

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$hit Work

I’ve been a molecular microbiologist for 33+ years. I’m just about as high as I can go on the university’s science technician ladder. Today, I needed to swap out three CO2 gas cylinders for our cell culture incubators. They weren’t completely empty but with the weekend approaching, I felt it wise to replace them before they could run out. The CO2 gas is vital to growing mammalian cells for our experiments. If the CO2 levels run too low, the cells will die. 

We have two fairly important experiments going on. One is a bacterial cell adherence experiment a visiting scientist is working on. Being a visiting scientist, time is limited, so the cells dying at this point would not be good if we want to complete this work. 

The second experiment is a gene-editing experiment I’ve been working on for almost a year. I’m trying to knockout a gene in a cell that’s could be vital for a bacterial pathogen’s entry into the host cell during the infection process. Needless to say, I do not want the CO2 to run out over the weekend and the potential gene-edited cells to die after 12 months of work. 

In short, properly changing the CO2 tanks is important.

The process of changing a gas cylinder is straightforward but it has to be done exactly right without leaks and with the proper gas flow to the incubator. The gas cylinders are stored in a locked cage outside the very north end of the building. One must use a cylinder hand cart to securely transport the empty CO2 cylinder all the way across the facility, swap it out for a full cylinder, and push it all the way back to the lab. Once in the lab, I installed the tank, check for leaks, ensure proper gas flow, and repeat.

On my second trip back to the lab with a full tank, a well-meaning coworker passed me in the hallway. The coworker laughed and said, “Why don’t you get a student worker to do that shit work?” I glared the best Coach Hays glare I could muster and the coworker politely skittered away.

But that question kept rattling in my brain as I went on the last round of drop-off and pick-up. 

$hit work? 

What the hell?

There’s really no such thing, is there?

Every job needs to be done or the system doesn’t function the way it should. The work matters. And if the work matters, it’s important it is done right no matter the size or the perceived importance of the task.

The same is true in coaching sports. The small work is often as important as the perceived important work. Coaching the lower-level or inexperienced athlete is more important for the long-term foundational success of your program than spending the majority of the time coaching the upper-level athlete. 

Just like in the lab, there’s no $hit work in sports coaching. It all matters but the work a coach does with the athletes who need it the most is often the most important thing one can do.

We’ve all heard the old axiom, “we are only as strong as our weakest link”. Those weakest links in our team, program, or organization might be considered the “$hit work”. Nevertheless, like the importance of properly changing the CO2 tanks, coaching up your weakest links makes the chain stronger.

Pay attention to the $hit work.

Do that work with purpose, pride, and passion.

Never forget how important the $hit work really is.

Agriculture in Britain during the First World War: Schoolboys fork out manure from a wheelbarrow onto an allotment during the First World War (via Wikimedia Commons).
Lance Cpl. Eithan Osborne dumps horse manure into a wheelbarrow during the Single Marine Program’s volunteer opportunity (via Wikimedia Commons).

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The Good Steward

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. –Genesis 2:15

Stewardship. The job of taking care of something. Simple enough word. Simple enough concept. 

The Bible quote from Genesis speaks of stewardship. In the Book of Genesis, right after God creates the heavens and the earth, right after creating the seas, the plants, the animals, and then us humans in his own image, what does He do next?

He creates the Garden of Eden for Adam. He pulls Adam aside, shows him the place He made for him to live, and says, “cultivate and care for it.”

God tasks Adam with stewardship. God puts his trust in Adam to take care of something special. Think about it. The first thing God tasks us with as humans is to take care of Creation.

Genesis 2:15 is one of the most influential lines in the whole Bible in my opinion. This line is one that drives me in many aspects of my life. Leave things as good as you found them and, if possible, leave things a little better off.

Stewardship is the first job as humans that our Creator gives to us beyond “be fruitful and multiply.” The call to stewardship, though, kind of gets lost in the bit of Genesis that follows about the forbidden fruit. We sometimes need a reminder we are called to be stewards. We are trusted to take care of things.

Our first job from God, taking care of the gifts we’re given, might be our most important job. Yet, do we act as good stewards of our gifts in today’s throw-away culture? 

Have we allowed the things we are trusted with to rot and fall apart instead of maintaining them? It takes dedication, work, and will to be good stewards of what we’re entrusted with.

Globally, nationally, and locally, we are called to take care of the gifts we’re given, Whether it’s oceans, lakes, prairies, communities, libraries, schools, or even parks, those that came before trusted us to do our job as stewards.

Are we up to the task or do we fail at the job we were entrusted to do? Once we neglect our responsibilities as stewards, either individually or collectively, we lose the trust of others. And trust, my friends, is a tough thing to get back.

Stewardship builds community. The ground we all walk on as we go about our daily lives and share with our neighbors is a gift.

We have to take care of the gifts we’re given. We have to be strong enough to take the first step and do the job. We need to be good stewards.

Stewardship takes work. As Sirach says,

“Do not hate hard work; work was assigned by God.” – Sirach 7:15

Be a good steward. Start today with baby steps. Strive daily to make the world and community you live in a little better place.

Photo courtesy of Phil Frigon

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Core Mission

What is the main thing you want to accomplish? That’s your core mission.

As an individual, an organization, or a team you have a core mission.

What is your core mission? What is your objective?

Once defined, ask yourself if you are focused on that core mission. Or are you distracted with the fluff and distractions that are tangents to the objective?

It happens. All the freaking time. We lose our place.

Why?

Because the fluff and the distractions become easier to pursue and provide quick gratification. But fluff and distractions don’t get the job done. The fluff and distractions don’t lead to any satisfaction. They don’t make the team better. They don’t educate kids better. They don’t help a community or society become better.

The things that lie outside the core mission suck energy and joy. They create chaos and anxiety. They keep taking without giving any back.

A lifetime ago when I played baseball, I’d occasionally hit a batting slump. HItting a baseball was my one tool as a one-tool baseball player so if I couldn’t hit the ball, I was pretty worthless to my team. While in a slump, I almost certainly forgot my core mission inside the batter’s box which was to hit the dang baseball. 

Yes, the core mission was so simple. Hit the ball.

During slumps, my mind would race on just about everything except the core mission. I’d think “I can’t fail again.” “What if I leave runners on base?” “Wow, those hot dogs cooking in the concession stand smell really good.”

My focus and energy would be all over the place. Anxiety would go haywire. My hands would sweat. The pitch would come in and the ball looked like a tiny marble while my body felt like it was encased in Jell-O. 

Once I noticed I was paying attention to everything except the core mission of hitting the ball, I could take a few deep breaths, step into the box, and block out everything (including the hot dogs) unrelated to the core mission of putting the bat on the baseball. Like magic, the slump was history.

So if you find yourself or your organization in a slump, lost, confused, floundering, or in a state of chaotic anxiety, step back and refocus on the objective. 

Get back to the core mission. If you don’t even remember what it is, take the time to find out.

Whether you’re hitting a baseball, coaching a sports team, running a business, responsible for public health, operating a school district, or simply wanting to live a more faithful life, remember your core mission. Simplify, take a deep breath, and let the fluff and distractions fade away. 

Get back to doing what you do. Educating kids, playing right guard, getting your team ready for the season, or leading the most awesome nation on the planet, aiming your energy into the direction of the core mission works.

Keep the faith. Keep the eye on the prize. Do the work. Make your thing better and you’ll make everything around you better.

And Lord knows, in the Spring of 2022, we all can use a little less anxiety and better performance from everything around us.

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Normal?

What is normal?  Normal is yesterday and last week and last month taken together.’ – Lord Vetinari from Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Since the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, people have lamented the desire to return to “normal”.

Normal. What is it? How do we define it? Is “normal” even a real thing?

We slosh through today hoping the experiences of all our yesterdays equip us to get through the day. If our experience isn’t enough, then we have to work at it, we have to find a way to navigate the challenges. We learn.

As soon as today is done, it becomes yesterday. It’s in the past and added to the memory banks, which are, in a way, our experience tank. The tank of experience is our normal. As Terry Pratchett says through his character Lord Vetinari, normal is the giant rubber band ball made from adding one rubber band a day. 

And being humans, we like to think we and our extensive experience tanks of normal are how everything in the future should be. We take comfort in believing we are in total and complete control. We aren’t.

So the overwhelming desire for things to return to “normal” is a fool’s errand. As I’ve written before, we are improbable beings moving at 492, 126 miles per hour through space. We are not in total and complete control. We are, however, blessed with our experience tanks. We have the tools to overcome the unknowns of tomorrow if we have the will to do the work.

We can’t move forward through tomorrow if our will is desperately hanging onto the “normal” in our heads. We stagnate. We fail to solve the problems that inevitably pop up on a daily basis. Normal is how you got through until yesterday. Normal can be part of getting through tomorrow but it can’t force the future to be the past.

In writing, the final resolution of a story, the ending, is sometimes referred to as the “new normal”. Something happens in the story that changes the character for good or bad. The events of the past lead to navigating the future. The events of the past aren’t the future.

Can you imagine how riveting the Harry Potter books would have been if life never left the room under the stairs and stepped out to navigate an unknown and scary new tomorrow? That series would have sold about 50 books instead of millions.

To make a long story short(er), don’t obsess about a return to “normal” as we traverse another day through a major life shift of a global pandemic. Do your best to get through today, bank that in your experience tank, and then attack tomorrow. 

Learn from yesterday. Use the knowledge to navigate today. Put it all together to attack the future. 

What is normal?

It’s what we make it to be.

But first, we need to leave the room under the stair.

formulanone from Huntsville, United States, CC BY-SA 2.00, via Wikimedia Commons

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