Wildlife Ranger Action Guide by Mary Kay Carson

As adults, we often look at children’s books through the lens of our adulthood. We also, however, can look at these same children’s books with child-like eyes. The best books for me are the ones that flick the switch of curious excitement in my brain. As a scientist and a writer, I’m blessed (cursed?) with a youthful exuberance for new and/or applicable knowledge. As a husband and father to elementary school teachers, a fan/creator of children’s literature, and, most importantly, a grandfather, I’m also always on the lookout for interesting things to pass along.

In Spring of 2020, Mary Kay Carson, a fellow member of the From the Mixed-Up Files…Of Middle-Grade Authors STEM Tuesday team, put out a call for anyone who wanted to read advanced copies of her new book, Wildlife Ranger Action Guide. I jumped at the chance. Mary Kay is an amazing STEM nonfiction writer. Her Scientists in the Field series is remarkable. The Bat Scientists and The Tornado Scientists are books I recommend to everyone. 

When Wildlife Ranger Action Guide showed up in the mail, I unpackaged it and a weird thing happened. I couldn’t put it down. Seriously. I dropped everything I was doing, sat on the back patio, and read it cover to cover. For that one afternoon, I was that kid scientist Mike Hays again. Amazing. This book hit all the notes that I would have loved as a kid. 

Just take a look at the Table of Contents and I’m sure your interest will be piqued as was mine.

I read it a second time with my adult eyes and I had the urge to order a copy for every kid and every teacher I know. I told the teacher-folks in my family about it and then read it a third time through my kidlit writer lens. It’s an outstanding piece of creative, informational work perfect for the target audience. 

Mary Kay mixes images, information, activities, and love of nature on every, single page to create a work that is alive and can give kids hours of enjoyment. It hits on all the right notes for a young STEM reader or budding young naturalist. The field guides included at the end of every chapter are pure gold and perfect for kids to use on their own or with their adults. 

Wildlife Ranger Action Guide is a great book perfect to place into the hands of the young readers in your life. It’s even a better book to have on your shelf as a reference to enjoy the natural world all around you with the people, both young and old, in your life. Give it a try and I think you will agree with me. Once you read it, I think you’ll enjoy and appreciate nature a little more.

Happy reading!

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The American Game

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. For me, it’s always been a great day. This year is extra special because the team that’s woven into my DNA, the Kansas City Chiefs, is playing for a chance to win their second straight Lombardi Trophy. 

The Super Bowl is a celebration of the game of football. Football has become America’s Game. Rightfully so. 

It’s the perfect modern American Game. 

A contest is scheduled.

Fans, coaches, and players prepare. They can even talk some trash before the game.

The game is played. The teams tried to bash each other’s heads in for four quarters. 

One side wins. One side loses. 

At the end of the game, we shake hands, go our separate ways, and then get ready for the next game. It’s play the game, enjoy it, and get back to work. 

See what I mean? It truly is America’s Game. 

A lesson staring us in the face about what we need to do as a nation, as the United States of America, moving forward into 2021 and beyond.

It’s easy to get sidelined by things outside of our control. It’s easy to become caught in a loop of emotion and lost in confusion. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s vital and important. 

Enjoy the Super Bowl today!

Cheer and scream for our team. Eat, drink, and be merry. Most importantly, be safe and be true. 

When the game is over, shake hands, and wish your opponent well. Then wake up tomorrow and get back to the business of being a good American. We need teamwork to put the greatest nation on Earth back on the right track. We need each other.

America’s Game is asking for you to chip in. 

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No Country For Grumpy Old Men

Something hit me like a brick the other day while looking over the Chiefs Super LV Bowl Week Spirit Activities from the elementary school where my wife teaches. Something that could have instantly thrown me, a lifelong Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs sports fan, into get-off-my-lawn-you-you-you-young-whippersnappers, grumpy-old-man mode. 

It easily could have resulted in me ranting at whoever lent an ear about my long-suffering fandom, the years of terrible teams, years of gut-wrenching defeats, and years of one disappointment after another. Instead, while observing the enthusiasm the local youth exhibited after the Royals 2015 World Series Title and the recent Chiefs Super Bowl runs, I just about exploded with joy.

It’s awesome to see. The joy of being a sports fan. The joy of sports. The joy of proudly and innocently cheering for a sports team. Man, I remember those days well. Those days, in fact, help fuel my love of sports and passion for baseball and football. They helped form me into the somewhat responsible adult that I’ve become.

The young Chiefs and Royals fans in the 10-year-old range around our local elementary schools have seen two World Series, one with a championship from the Royals. They’ve witnessed an improbable three straight Chiefs home AFC Championship Games, two straight Super Bowl appearances with a great chance to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies, and a possible run at a three-peat. 

To these kids, this is normal. This is the way. 

It’s crazy but it’s true.

So instead of going grumpy old man on the enthusiastic young fans in your life, join the party! Cheer them on as much or more than you cheer on the teams. Learn from their youthful exuberance and live life with their spirit and passion.

Let kids enjoy their fandom as kids. The realities of sports and of life will one day chase them down. They will learn to win as well as lose. They will suffer defeats as well as victories. 

But for now, enjoy the ride, kids!

And in twenty years, we can sit down and tell stories about these times in our sports life. Oh yes, we will have stories to tell my friends.

Remember that one time…

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Christmas Chaos

There are many great Christmas memories of growing up in the Hays Household. Most of these memories are not tied to any particular gifts or presents. When you are a family of eight surviving month to month on a public employee’s salary, materialism plays a prominent role only in dreams. Nevertheless, we were unbelievably happy for the most part. 

Nothing is better around the last week or so of December than to be stuck inside a house with four brothers and one sister. I’m sure my mother recalls these times through rose-colored glasses and neglects the reality of the chaos which ensued but the chaos is what made these great memories. The fights over electric football frustration (Yes, electric football was absolute frustration for a child by its very design.), who played with whose toys, who ate the reserved piece of pie tucked in the back corner of the fridge behind the vegetables, etc. The list goes on and on.

I’m sure when Madison Avenue set out to create the idyllic American Christmas with smiling families drinking punch and singing carols around a fire while opening expensive but thoughtful gifts they did not have the Hays Family in mind. Who uses the wooden nutcracker as a brotherly torture challenge to see how much pressure one could take on their thumb? What houses tumble into complete pandemonium over whose turn it is to turn on the light inside the 15” plastic Santa decoration? Not many, I would guess. Certainly no houses in the Madison Avenue plan.

This year there are two Christmas memories making me smile. The first is povitica. It is a sweet bread made by my Croatian great aunts, my grandmother, and my mother. It is a wonderful food. It’s also one of the few Croatian traditions we have left. Povitica is a mixture of melted butter, walnuts, and sugar spread over a thin layer of bread dough. The bread dough is folded over and over upon itself (which is a beautiful, synchronized dance when performed by elderly Croatian women) until it fits neatly into a bread pan. The finished product is heavenly. Where bread is usually orderly and structured, a loaf of povitica is swirls of bread layers and filling layers becoming a thing both chaotic and beautiful. To this day, when I bite into a piece of Strawberry Hill Povitica on any occasion, holiday or otherwise, the taste chaos brings with it memories of my Croatian ancestry. Good memories. Chaos that warms the soul. 

The second Christmas memory is of a plywood Santa cutout. I have no recollection of where we got this thing. Perhaps it came from a relative’s storage cleanout, I don’t know. It was about four feet tall. It had an old color printing scheme of white, red, and a kind of pea-ish green. The colored, thick cardboard print of Santa was tacked with small nails onto a cut 1/4” piece of plywood. It would often be stuck against the wall between the Christmas tree and the television set in the living room. This Christmas memory, however, is not of the Santa cutout but about projectiles and homemade weaponry.

I went through a period where it seemed like a great idea to create missiles out of paper clips to be shot from rubber band launchers. It was fun, I guess, to fire the projectiles at increasing velocities from thick and larger rubber bands. We were sons of an engineer if that helps explain anything. It turns out, however, that siblings do not like to be forced to take cover or be struck by high-velocity paper clips shaped like arrowheads. I was forced into coming up with a better target than my family members for practice and experimentation. Hence, the Santa cutout. 

After several strikes, I noticed the paper clips left a mark on the paper. I should have stopped to avoid a verbal thrashing from my mother but…science called! I began to wrap the business ends of the paper clips with masking tape. Success! The mark on jolly, old Saint Nick was barely visible, plus the “THUMP!” made when the missile found its mark was now barely audible. Success!

After all these years, that sound still brings a smile to my face. Chaos created with siblings diving out of the firing line. Chaos in placing Santa at various positions in the house for a little variety. Chaos in the memory of, not only how lucky I was to have never shattered the TV screen into a million useless shards of glass, but of the fun of growing up in the family I grew up in. 

Chaos and order. That’s the core of Christmas. It is a birth from the chaos we celebrate. A birth that brought the Savior into the world while the family’s own world was tumbling into chaos. Christmas is the turning from dark to light. It is hope inside a nutshell to be cracked with a wooden nutcracker exerting about as much pressure as it took to make my little brother’s thumb throb with enough pain to make him tap out. There is light after the dark. This is hope amidst despair.

There is beauty in the chaos of our life. Every, single day.

Merry Christmas! 

Happy Holidays to all!

The actual wooden nutcracker we used as a thumbscrew.

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Learn the Gamut

If I could give young professionals, especially young sports coaches, one piece of advice, it’s to learn everything you can about your system or organization. Spend the time and energy to learn the entire gamut of what makes your system click and be the glue that hold it together.

In May of 1988, I left graduate pursuits at Emporia State University for a $12,000 a year job as a research assistant in the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Kansas State University. I went from flat-ass broke to barely-above-being-broke but it was something. The job market was bad. The research science job market was even worse. I actually had two job offers, the one at K-State and one at KU Medical Center.

The KU Med research assistant job paid a little better ($17,000/year) but it was going back to my hometown of Kansas City at a time when I wanted to set roots in a less densely populated region. Being able to see a clear and expansive night sky held great weight for me in 2008 (and still does in 2020!). So much to the chagrin of the KU Med Center professor who told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, I took the job in Manhattan, KS.

So 32+ years later, I’m still at Kansas State. I’m still working in the 2020 version of the same department I started in and doing new scientific things on almost a daily basis. The professor at KU was wrong in 1988 and is still wrong as we close out 2020. K-State has been as good for me and my family as I hope I’ve been good to K-State. It’s been a great relationship!

When I try explaining to people how I can stay at one place for such a long time, I look back at that first appointment working for Dr. Bob Phillips as the tissue culture technician in diagnostic virology. I was not the first choice for the job. In fact, I quickly found out I was the third of three applicants because, even though ESU had exceptional academic science, we lacked the hands-on experience in the laboratory. The first person they hired left after two weeks because the job was “below” his skills and the second person flat turned them down. So it fell to me. 

For those who don’t know me, I’m stubborn and hardheaded to a fault. I have always, however, scrapped and clawed and worked to make something from my underwhelming skills. The years at K-State have been marked with numerous setbacks and struggles but to this date, all successes can be attributed to hard work mixed with a healthy dose of stubbornness. Knowing I had something to prove, I set out to prove it by using those two attributes to my advantage.

What did I learn from working for Dr. Phillips? Everything! I think he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. Impressed with the way I finished my work and then jumped in to help the rest of the diagnostic virology team doing whatever needed doing, from washing dishes to making media to setting up assays, he kept challenging me to learn and do more. He put me in situations to learn the gamut of the entire diagnostic section under his supervision.

I spent a few weeks learning the proper washing and sterilization techniques in the autoclave room. I spent time in the serology lab, the sample receiving lab, the electron microscopy lab, and in the diagnostic bacteriology lab. It was a crash course in what made our operation tick. I’m forever grateful to Dr. Phillips for pushing me down this training road. I didn’t know it at the time; I thought I was just helping out in these other labs because they were busy, but he saw something in me beyond just a technician performing an essential task. He was perhaps the first person to see the potential in me as a scientist. 

This lesson to learn the gamut has served me well as a father, a scientist, a coach, a writer, and, most importantly, as a citizen. Not only does it make me a better spoke in the wheel but it helps make me a vital spoke as well by being an indispensable piece of a functional organization. It taught me to say “Yes” when asked to take on new challenges and then expand my knowledge and skillset to follow through completing those challenges.

And isn’t an important and vital member of a high-functioning team something we all want to be? 

Learn the gamut.

Carry the load.

Be valuable.

Be glue.

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Live As If Your Players Are To Be Answered

I woke up this morning and stumbled bleary-eyed to the computer to check the latest numbers. No, not the 2020 Election numbers, the Kansas high school football playoff scores. 

When I opened up my laptop, my email program greeted me with its usual, “Hello, Hays. Here are your morning distractions!” On top of the inbox was one of my favorite daily emails, the American Football Monthly (AFM) Daily Newsletter. Today’s newsletter was titled, “How To Build A Winner”. I perked up. Everybody wants to win, right? Here’s a football coaching golden ticket!

I opened the email. The first thing to catch my eye was the AFM Daily Quote. In bright red font, it read, 

“Live as if your prayers are to be answered.” -Unknown

Fantastic life advice! One of those inspirational quotes to add to the bulletin board of quotes. Dream. Prepare. Be ready.

It would be nice to end it there but I have to be honest. I was, as I said, bleary-eyed while reading the AFM newsletter. My mind was focused on the “How To Build A Winner” article potential. My mind was on championships, plaques, trophies, being carried off the field by my adoring players…

Okay, okay. Back to reality.

I read the quote as, “Live as if your players are to be answered” instead of, “Live as if your prayers are to be answered.” 

One letter makes a big difference. I laughed off my error and clicked the link for the article. Then it struck me. That mistaken quote might just be the actual key to developing a successful program. That change in one letter can philosophically change an entire program. A coach should live as if their players are to be answered. Everything a coach does, from planning to development to schemes, needs to be done to provide an environment to allow the players to improve and give them a fighting chance to succeed.

No matter what a coach’s coaching style, he or she must have this basic relationship with their athletes. There must exist the understanding that the coach works toward answering their players’ needs. This is the trust that drives successful programs. This is the contract sealed by hard work and preparation to achieve a common goal. 

The players can trust the coach.  The coach can trust the players. It’s a two-way street.

If you want to know what the “How To Be A Winner.” AFM post said, check it out for yourself. I highly recommend signing up for the free daily AFM Newsletter. It’s great football nerd material that’s definitely worth your time.  

If you want a simple philosophy for turning your program around and developing better relationships with your players, then “Live as your players are to be answered.”

Who knows? Maybe your prayers will be answered.

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Walking Through Your Door

In professional football, a team of scouts determines which athletes from a pool of thousands of athletes fit into their team’s systems and they draft them. In college, coaches scour the region and the entire nation to find athletes that fit into their systems. In high school, however, most schools draw student-athletes from a fixed region. 

The smaller the school, the smaller the pool.

“Duh,” you might be saying to me right now. I know it sounds obvious but it means a lot for a high school football coach. It changes the way a high school coach must operate. It means you have to design and run a program with the ability to change as your talent pool changes. And your talent pool will change. 

You have to coach the kids who walk through your door.

Period. End of story.

This is where the work comes in. This is where it’s important to develop multiple packages in your offensive and defensive playbooks. It’s important to have the tools available to fit the pegs of multiple shapes into the proper hole instead of trying to force a square peg to fit into your fixed, round hole.

Coach the kids who walk through your door. Give those kids the best chance they have to compete. It’s not about the coach; it’s about coaching the kids. As I’ve said more than a few times before, the word “coach” is more of a verb than a noun. 

Develop a program and a philosophy with the power to adjust to your current athletes. Put your ego in your back pocket and get to work. Study your incoming athletes. Study high school programs you respect, study college and pro games on TV or in person. Do the work and make the preparations.

Sounds like a lot of work? I’m not going to lie. It is a lot of work. A whole lot of work. But, it’s a good kind of work. Rewarding work. Work that makes a difference in young men’s lives. Work that establishes relationships with your players. That, my coaching friends, is the Golden Ticket of coaching.

Do the work.

Load up your coaching toolbox.

Coach the kids who walk through your door.

Inside those doors is the Packer locker room - Picture of Lambeau Field,  Green Bay - Tripadvisor

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My Knuckleheads

As a coach and as a player, we won some games and we lost some games.

We won because we did things right and executed a good plan. We lost because we were mostly knuckleheads.

But, win or lose (especially after a loss), it was important to remember no matter how much knuckleheadedness was exhibited, these knuckleheads were still my knuckleheads.

My people.

My team.

My knuckleheads.

Through thick and thin.

We have an election coming up in America. We’re in the middle of the toughest and strangest time most of us hopefully will ever experience. We’re as disjointed as a nation as we’ve ever been. Despite all this, we are still Team America.

After the polls close and the decisions of Team America are finalized, there will be winners and there will be losers. While the winning candidates head off to their elected offices and the losing candidates return to their lives, Team America has work to do. 

We may be knuckleheads ourselves. We may have done knuckleheaded things. We may have even accused others of being complete and utter knuckleheads for disagreeing with our opinions. Nevertheless, we are still each other’s knuckleheads. Team America has always been a roster full of knuckleheads. 

We can solve our problems. We can work together. We can be knuckleheads together through thick and thin.

We can be “We the People” when we win. We can be “We the People” when we lose.

Our knuckleheads are the best of knuckleheads.

Every man, every play.

Noah Wulf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Practice Field or Lecture Hall?

When you read the two subjects in the title, what pops into your head? Now hold those images for a few minutes.

One of the things I despised as a player was the standing around at practice. I can still feel the twinges of boredom when I think about standing in the outfield for what seemed like hour after hour waiting and waiting and waiting for a ball to be hit during batting practice. My mind would wander. I’d end up watching the cars drive by or the kids playing in the adjacent park or simply drift off into a daydream. This boredom phenomenon almost drove this borderline ADHD kid away from sports and haunted me all the way through the end of my active playing days in college. 

When I fell into the opportunity to coach later in life, I never forgot that feeling. One of the first conversations I had with Coach Rex Carlson back in 1999 at my Clay Center Community High School Rule 10 coaching interview was just about this topic.  Practice planning and organization to minimize standing around time needed to be an essential part of our program philosophy. 

This philosophy went to an even higher degree of importance when I had the honor to coach football and be the strength & conditioning coach under Coach Paul Lane at CCCHS. We needed to keep kids engaged and working to get better in everything we did. It took great planning and preparation each and every day. That’s where the magic of coaching lies.

Talk it. Walk it. Rep it. 

Sports are an active thing, not a passive thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an athlete who played because they like to listen to the adults talk about playing. Athletes like to move and perform. That’s where the joy resides in sport.

As the adults in the mix, we often forget this. Coaches become so obsessed with the schematic and philosophical side of the game, they often forget the performance side of the equations. And as already mentioned, athletes are 95% performance and maybe 5% on the schematic/philosophy side. Coaches get so caught up in what they do, they don’t realize their practice field has turned into a lecture hall. 

Recall those mental images I asked to think of in the opening? Which is more appealing to you? Which sounds like more fun to a young athlete? Where would you rather be on a beautiful spring or fall afternoon?

Time is the biggest enemy for a coach and his program. A coach can’t afford to waste time by spending it as a 2-hour lecture session on a sports field. Yet, many of us do. Day after day after day. 

Here’s a challenge to coaches. At a future practice, give an assistant or a trusted student manager two stopwatches. Tag one “Red” and the other “Green”. Track non-active practice time with the Red watch and active practice time with the Green watch. At the end of practice, record the total time in each mode. For a better representative sample, do this for several practices. Once you have the data, you can make an honest assessment of your practice and adjust accordingly. 

Coaches, never forget that it’s about building an environment conducive to giving kids the best opportunity for success and engagement. 

Are you building a practice field or a lecture hall?

Talk it. Walk it. Rep it. Rep it. Rep it. And then rep it some more.

Ole Marius Skytterholm Ringstad/NTNU / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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The Ball Will Find You

There’s this weird and strange thing in sports. I’ve witnessed it as a player, a coach, and as a fan. I saw it quite often while coaching baseball and football, especially at the JV level. You put a player into the game at a critical junction for any number of good reasons like an injury substitution, playing time, or just a hunch. Inevitably, the ball will be hit in their direction, they’ll get targeted as a defensive back against the opponent’s best receiver, or the ball will find it’s way into their hands for the last second do-or-die shot. This scenario seems to play out with great frequency. The ball will find you.

From the highest office in the land to the lowest levels of sports, it’s important to put the people in place to get the job done. If you don’t, errors occur, mistakes are made, and systems devolve into chaos. But why? 

Because the ball will always find you. 

The negative results we often see are an effect caused by incompetence in addressing each and every situation. In short, like the third-string, sophomore right fielder seeing his first varsity action in the late innings of a state playoff game, people get put into situations that are over their heads. They neither have the tools or the experience to react with competence. 

Personally and professionally, I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “You are only as strong as your weakest link”. Weak links are holes in the ship and the holes are always most vulnerable, especially in a crisis. Holes sink ships. Weak links sink organizations, teams, and systems.

This is why when it’s time for you to make a decision, cast a vote, or trust someone with a job, you need to consider if that person is up for the job. Who’s going to get the job done and who’s going to be the weak link in a system? Who’s going to be the one who, as President Theodore Roosevelt most aptly said, will “Speak softly and carry a big stick” and who’s going to be as we said back in the day, “All blow and no show.”

The choice is up to you. 

But always remember that whomever you support, honestly evaluate whether they are capable of performing the required duties in a responsible manner. 

Because they will be tested. They need to be ready to up their game and be prepared to take on the tasks at hand. 

The ball always finds them. 

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