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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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Memory Banks

Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Divisional Playoffs
January 23, 2022
Arrowhead Stadium
Kansas City, MO

Wow! What a game between the Bills and the Chiefs!

The greatest game in NFL playoff history?

The greatest total QB performance by both Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes?

Who’s to judge? I’m biased so I am a resounding “YES!” On both counts.

I tried to sleep after the game. I was beat. Worn out from a head cold and from sitting on pins and needles for hours watching the game. Okay, I was also worn out from yelling at the TV but I’ll rant about that in a later post.

I tried to sleep. Monday morning and work were staring me in the face. I needed sleep. I knew I had to trick my mind into a relaxing slumber so I pulled up a book I’m reading on orbital mechanics. Thirty minutes into reading about eccentricity and inclination and the argument of periapsis, I was not only not tired but I was actually getting really fired up about eccentricity, inclination, and the argument of periapsis. The Chiefs’ game adrenaline was still flowing.

I gave up on trying to read myself to sleep so I contemplated the game. There was a nagging familiarity during the game that jostled my memory banks. A pleasant familiarity I couldn’t quite put a finger on during the excitement of the game.

But as I lay there in bed staring at the ceiling with the joy of the unlikeliest of Chiefs’ victories being a real and tangible victory, that specific memory came rushing back.

It happened in the early 1970s. I was watching the Vikings play the Rams from the LA Coliseum on TV from Kansas City, KS. It was a beautiful, late afternoon, Southern California day. I was, and still am, a fan of the game of football so the 8-10-year-old me was soaking in all the NFL action he could find. The young me couldn’t get enough football when it was football season, baseball when it was baseball season, or basketball when it was basketball season. It was, and still is, a blessing and a curse.

Fran Tarkenton was the quarterback for the Vikings and Roman Gabriel was the quarterback for the Rams that day. What I remember is those two great QBs of my childhood throwing long passes up and down the field in an amazing offensive game. Gabriel would drop back, set his feet, and launch a rainbow of a pass that seemed to clear the upper rim of the Coliseum. Next, Tarkenton would employ his textbook scramble, moving 30 or more yards to avoid the fierce Fearsome Foursome pass rushers and let the ball fly downfield for a completion.

Burned in the memory is this pattern of incredible passing feats that went back and forth the entire game. Bomb after bomb after bomb. It probably didn’t happen this way but that is how the kid-generated memory reads in my 57-year-old mind. The memory may not be 100% accurate, but in my memory banks, it’s 100% spectacular even after all these years. It’s a feeling of pure, youthful sports joy I hope I never outgrow.

Why do I share this 1970s football memory with you? Because I hope the young kids who watched the Bills play the Chiefs on January 23, 2022, burn the memory into their memory banks like I did in the early 1970s. I hope when they’re 57, the near-perfect performance of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes in a game for the ages rushes back and puts a smile on their faces.

That’s what sports are all about. Magic and memory.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Happy New Year 2022!

The Priestly Blessing

The LORD said to Moses:  
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:  
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:  
The LORD bless you and keep you!  
The LORD let his face shine upon      
you, and be gracious to you!  
The LORD look upon you kindly and      
give you peace!

So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,  
and I will bless them.”

Numbers 6: 22-27

Sunrise, Kansas, Nov. 2021, Sometimes you just have to pull over & appreciate.

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A Numbers Game

Football is a great game. Great not in a “Football Is Life” t-shirt kind of way but in a numbers kind of way. 

Most people understand the numbers game as it relates to statistics. How many yards did he run for? What is my team’s first down efficiency rate on 3rd and 8 plays? How many tackles did my boy have? Touchdowns? Catches?

What most people don’t realize about football is behind the curtain, the sport is all about a different kind of numbers game. The numbers of advantage. This is the side game that has always appealed to me. The coaching side of the game. On the coaching side, it’s all about the numbers and gaining a numbers advantage.

At its very basic level, offensive football is about gaining a numbers advantage in your favor where you want to run or pass the ball. Think about some of the different offenses out in the game today. Spread or air raid passing offense spreads out your defense and then reads how you align. If the defense leaves 5 or fewer in the box (at the LOS), the read is usually a run read because you have a blocking advantage. If the defense puts six defenders in the box, the offense will read where in the secondary the advantage of numbers or matchups occurs and then attack that.

In the zone read, option, veer, RPO, or other read-based offenses, at least one defender is left unblocked. The QB reads what those unblocked defenders do and reacts accordingly. Away from the unblocked defenders, the offense uses its numbers advantage to block or attack the defense.

As a former offensive line coach, one of the things I tried to do with blocking schemes was to use numbers and angles to give us the advantage and put one defender “on an island”. We were almost always undersized but athletic with our offensive lineman so gaining an advantage in our schemes was necessary. We used double teams, combo blocks, pulls, and fold blocks to give us different angles and favorable numbers to help our smaller players block larger defenders. We had more successes than failures because we understood the value of the numbers game.

Defensively, the numbers game is equally important. We have to neutralize the offense’s attempt to gain their own numbers advantage at the point of attack and then pursue relentlessly to regain the numbers advantage at the ball or spot. 

Two of our biggest challenges came against a team that ran the double wing another team that ran the double tight wishbone offense. Both teams ran their offenses to near perfection. The toss play in the double-wing offense and the belly play with the wishbone offense.

I still remember how Coach Paul Lane would tell kids about the double wing team’s toss play. He walked down the scout team’s double-wing formation and point to a spot between the tackle and the tight end and say, “They’re going to line up tight and then bring 600 pounds of humanity over to THIS point!” After walking over the two backside pulling linemen and the lead blocking fullback, he showed how vital it was for our defenders to neutralize and form a wall at the line of scrimmage and then pursue to the run alley to make the play. Against both offenses, if we were to have success, we had to neutralize their number advantage attack and establish our own numbers advantage.

Double Wing Toss Play

The numbers game. It’s the cat and mouse, nuts and bolts of football. 

As a coach, if you don’t understand the numbers game concept, then all the pretty diagrammed plays, graphs, and charts in your playbook are useless. Lifeless and worthless to the success of your team. 

Below is an example of the importance of understanding the numbers game from a recent high school game I watched.

Play One – The offense lined up in a TE left, wing left with twins to the opposite side. They pull the backside guard and hand it off to the RB on a power lead play. The defense lined up pretty well on this play with the corner aligned with outside leverage on the #1 receiver and the safety over the #2 TE. Although the ILB is probably a step too far outside for my liking with this formation, the alignment look is rather neutral on the numbers game. The defense allowed about 10 yards on the run because the pulling guard and the playside blockers don’t get neutralized well enough at the point of attack and the pursuit fills a bit slow. Nevertheless, the defense did a good job establishing numbers on their alignment. The problem was in the execution and fundamentals, two things that can be fixed.

Play One

Play Two – The very next play the offense flipped the formation and ran the same play. This time the defense does not align properly, The ILB, corner, and safety are all outside the frame of the offense, subtracting 3 players from the numbers game. Even before the snap, the defense was in bad shape. In this play, the pulling guard and blocking scheme gave the offense at least a +3 number in the run alley. The play went for a long touchdown. Numbers matter.

Play Two

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Creative Autonomy

I recently read a great nonfiction book by Adam Savage called, Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make Of It. He’s one of the guys from the Mythbusters show. The book is a roadmap to making. Better yet, it’s a roadmap of what he’s learned over a decades-long career as a maker. 

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about visiting his friend and movie director Guillermo del Toro on the set of Pacific Rim. Adam was amazed at the scope and depth of the worldbuilding and creation going on with the hundreds of people working on the set. That night at dinner, Adam asked Guillermo how he’s able to manage a large group like that into a cohesive vision. The director replied, “You have to give everyone complete freedom within a narrow bandwidth.”

Adam calls it “creative autonomy”. He expands on the idea in regards to creating successful teams. After you get the team’s buy-in on the larger vision, you need to strictly define their roles in the fulfillment of that vision. Once everyone knows where they’re going, then you need to set them free to do their thing.

Within a good organization, an effective leader lets people do what they do while keeping them anchored to the overarching goal. Creative autonomy may be properly suited to only certain endeavors where creativity reigns but it’s equally important in managing or coaching a sports team. 

Creativity, in the case of the sports team, is talent unleashed. It’s using your tools to solve problems. Just as in making a movie, publishing a book, or designing a factory, the sports organization is a team of specialists with the goal of using their individual tools to successfully achieve or create.

In the two sports I’ve had the opportunity to coach, football and baseball, establishing creative autonomy is vital. Vital not only for ultimate success but vital to have athletes who enjoy participating and enjoy doing the necessary work to be successful. A culture of creative autonomy lets athletes feel part of something, which I believe is one of the major reasons we are drawn to these activities. 

In today’s world of teenagers, making them feel truly part of something is a foundational coaching skill. There are too many other places and activities calling their name and 99% of those are much less demanding activities than sports.

Building a successful program through creative autonomy means work on the coaching end. Take football for example. The offensive and the defensive schemes we implemented had to be simple enough for all our kids to understand but variable enough to give us the tools we needed to face anything an opponent threw at us. We had to not only understand all the facets ourselves as a coaching staff but we had to understand the specific job of each position. Once the specific jobs were defined, then we could break them down into teachable bites for coaching those particular athletes. 

One of the most overlooked coaching skills is the ability to teach a player they need to do this one thing, this is how you do it, and then trust them to do their job. One of the things I feel most proud about from coaching football is the way we played defense. We had more successes than failures and most of those successes were because of creative autonomy. The schemes were simple, yet multiple. The athletes, for the most part, knew their jobs. They were allowed to play with a physical, aggressive style that became our hallmark. Alignment. Assignment. Attack. 

Young coaches getting started or a coach looking to turn around a program, never underestimate the power of creative autonomy. Establishing this culture and philosophy up and down the ladder of your program, from the incoming freshman to the top of the coaching staff, is a huge leap toward excellence. Plus, athletes have more fun and more joy from playing in an environment of creative autonomy. 

And at the end of the day, isn’t your athletes enjoying playing sports the ultimate goal?

Happy athletes are more fun to be around every day and get more work done. They just need to know where they’re going, what they need to do to get there and to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Teach your athletes; trust your athletes. 

Every Tool s a Hammer  Life Is What You Make It

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