Last weekend was my 15-year high school reunion, which coincided with TJ‘s Homecoming. I was honored to be asked back by the football coach to talk to the team before the game. I’ve done this twice before and both times the team has followed up with its first win of the season. I can’t claim any responsibility for that but hopefully I at least helped!
This year the TJ football team was in a different situation. They had started off the season very strong but, as the result of several key injuries, had lost their last several games – and lost them very decisively. So I decided to focus my brief time with them on overcoming adversity:
“As Coach said, I was TJ Class of 1997. I played football for four years at TJ, three years as a two-way starter on varsity, and one year as Captain. After TJ I studied computer science and electrical engineering at Rice University, where I played fullback for the Owls. Professionally I have spent my career starting up and leading cleantech companies. I’ve had some successes and some failures – just as at TJ I had some wins and some losses.
What I recall, though, is that it was losing winnable games that hurt the most. All games are winnable, of course, but some are more winnable than others. For example, my senior year we were beaten pretty badly by a Chantilly team that went on to win the state championship and produced multiple D-IA / NFL players. That loss didn’t hurt too much. However, we also lost to a Centreville team that would could have – should have – beaten. That one stung even more because I was injured and had to watch my teammates struggle out there on the field without me. Is anyone here injured? [A scary number of hands shot up into the air when I asked this!] Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
So help me out, guys, is tonight’s opponent / game more or less winnable? [lots of agreement that this was a very winnable game] OK, then we all agree that
We CAN win
Is there anyone here, though, who believes that ability is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] Good. Then let’s talk about what else it takes.
With the benefit of 16 years of hindsight, it’s clear to me that you get much more out of TJ football than just playing a fun sport with your friends. I have four degrees from some of the top schools in the world in computer science, electrical engineering, and business, but the skills I rely on most every day didn’t come from those academic experiences; they were developed up there on the TJ football field. Skills like leadership, teamwork, discipline, determination, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to overcome adversity. [brief discussion about what “adversity” means to them]
Life is adversity. Whether you don’t get into your top choice for college, you get dumped by your girlfriend, or – something that resonates with me personally – you’re running a tech startup and one day Google launches a product that competes directly with you, life is constantly knocking you down. The question is, what do you do about it? There are two types of people: those who roll over and take it and those who bounce back up fighting even harder than before.
The ability to overcome adversity is the most important life skill to develop and it can’t be taught in the classroom or learned in a book. There is no AP exam for it. No, the good news is that the best place in the world to develop that skill is up there on the TJ football field. The bad news is that you’re running out of time. Seniors, I’m especially talking to you. You have three hours of game time left in your TJ football careers. Three hours to prove to the world – and yourselves – that you have what it takes to overcome adversity.
This team has seen its share of adversity this season. You’ve lost some key players and come up on the wrong side of some close contests. In the world of corporate strategy we talk about “must-win battles.” I believe that tonight’s game is a must-win battle for TJ football; tonight’s game will define the season for you and even your entire TJ football experience. Out on the field tonight you will show that you’re not boys who will lie there and take it but men who will stand up and fight. Can we all agree on that? [murmers of consent]
We MUST win
Is there anyone here, though, who believes that necessity is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] That’s right; it’s not the team with the greatest ability or necessity that wins; rather it’s the team that executes on the field of play when it counts. So close your eyes; I want you to visualize yourself executing perfectly tonight.
QBs, see yourself making the right read and firing a tight spiral right on target. RBs, see yourself taking the handoff, securing the ball, and making a good cut. Receivers, you’re running a tight route, turning around, and looking the ball into your hands as you catch it. Linemen, you’re dominating the man across from you, putting him on the ground and moving downfield to pick up a linebacker. Defensive players, you’re squaring up on the ball carrier,wrapping up, and driving through him as you take him to the ground. Kickers, you’re pointing your toe and seeing the ball splitting the uprights perfectly.
Now fast forward to the end of the game. The seconds on the clock are ticking down. You’re looking over at your comrades in arms and smiling. You’re beaten and bruised but the euphoria of victory is upon you. You know that tomorrow’s Homecoming dance is going to be a lot more fun now – but you’re not ready to think about that just yet. Right now you just want to savor the feeling of victory. What does it feel like? How does it smell? How does it taste? [As I had not closed my eyes, I could see smiles creeping onto the faces of all the players – visualization is such a powerful tool!]
OK, open your eyes. You’ve all just seen the future, so I think we can all agree that
We WILL win
We CAN win
We MUST win
We WILL win
[got them to say it with me a few times]
And why? Because you deserve this. You’ve worked for this. And tonight in the stands there will be 25 years of those who’ve come before you, previous TJ football players who’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears out on that same field and we all believe in you. But you are the ones who have to go out there and get it done tonight. So get out there and make us proud, gentlemen.”
This one was pretty long and the visualization exercise might have seemed a little hokey but hopefully it all helped. Long story short: they went down 12-0 quickly but rebounded (overcame adversity!) to win 42-12. It was cold and rainy but there is nowhere I would rather have been!
The rest of the reunion was great, especially introducing Katie to my classmates. The highlight by far for me, though, was the football game. Congrats to those young men; I hope they’ll all build on what the accomplished and use it for the rest of their lives!