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Know How Many Licks it Takes to Get to the Center of a Tootsie Pop (Know by Doing!)

April 27, 2011

We didn’t always have the “0’s and “1’s” of digital technology, but we always had the “Oh’s and Ah’s of purposeful story telling.” – Peter Guber, Mandalay Entertainment

My step-father used to tell stories every chance there was a group gathering, or just to make some point, and the stories would inevitably be the same stories of his time in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We all got so tired of hearing them, but I did eventually learn something about story telling. If you’re not any good at it, people stop listening to the important message you may have. If all they hear is a ‘data dump’, they tune out. When all they hear is “me, me, me”, they really stop caring about “you, you, you.” How does that one phrase go?? — “People don’t care what you have to say until they know you care.”

I once thought I knew what I would do with my life. I was 16 or 17 and put in my high school yearbook that I would graduate college and take over my father’s business. A few years in to college, and after almost dropping out, my father’s business closed and he moved to Florida. I think at the time I had expressed that I had no interest in taking over the business, but I think that was the youthful stubbornness so prevalent in my family and me! Although 25 years later I don’t necessarily regret not wanting to take on that business, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like had I gone in that direction. Truth is that my study habits at that time, and willingness to take on tough assignments, or really take on anything challenging, was less than stellar. I rarely stretched myself or did anything meaningful, thus I squeaked out a degree in Sports Marketing and Management and searched out a decent paying job to hopefully support the new love of my life, Tiffany. My time with a ground transportation company (limousines) allowed me first recognize the importance of “Know By Doing.”

All the different careers in those early days worked out ok financially, and provided a wide variety of experiences, but later on, new employers really didn’t like the constant changes I had gone through. As our family grew with the addition of Ryan, Jason and Niklas, and we moved from Indiana to Michigan, my career choices always resulted in some form of disappointment and lack of desire. However, there was a period in 2001-2002 where I found what I believed were my passions — Soccer and GuiXT.

Granted, soccer is a passion for millions all over the world and gradually catching hold in the US, but why in the world would GuiXT become a passion?!?! When I took on the responsibility to develop the GuiXT scripts for the project I was on in 2001, I’m fairly certain it was because I wanted something important to actually be responsible for. I really don’t like just being a cog or another inactive soul in a large enterprise/project. I knew I had to have something important to do and be the primary responsible person for it. I knew that really focusing on the GuiXT development and “just doing it” would help my career growth. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.

Upon completion of that project, although I felt it was a stellar job of doing something even trainers at SAP America said wasn’t possible, the GuiXT scripts met some user frustration and management pushback. It was too early in my career and personal maturity to realize that these feelings are just natural for most people as they are never satisfied with the work of others. Ultimately, I left that company and my next employer in hopes of providing my GuiXT expertise to other projects. It was my hope that really “Doing It” would lead to numerous projects and future SAP opportunities.

It was soccer where “Know By Doing” really took shape.

It was September, 2001 and I’m a newly certified referee in the city of Plymouth, MI. After a self-inflicted hiatus of 14 years from the game of soccer or any youth sports, and just a few years of coaching recreational soccer for the city, I have been volunteering for as many opportunities as possible to be involved with the program. At one particular game I’m to referee, I meet a coach for the local club’s boys Select team – I think they were U12’s or U13’s. I briefly mention that I am also a coach and would love to meet someone within the club who I could talk to about future coaching at this higher level. With my oldest son playing U8 Recreational soccer, I want the opportunity to continue coaching him for many years to come. As fate would have it, the person I was talking to was the club’s Vice President and his assistant coach was the club’s Secretary. We exchanged numbers and came across each other a few more times that fall season when I
refereed more of their games.

Later in our relationships, we often laughed about the happenings of one particular contentious game when I had to show a yellow card for Dissent to one of their players. There had been a lot of yapping by players that game – as most U13+ boys games go – but this one boy just kept talking and talking until I finally showed the card to keep him quiet and calm the game down. For many years thereafter, both coaches reminded me regularly how they just didn’t understand that card because the player was always “so quiet” with them. To this day I contend it was the correct judgment, but the reality, like many referee decisions – and many decisions in life – was that it very well could have been another player.

We also came to know each other better because of two unrelated games I officiated that fall season. It was for a particular imposing, seemingly over-confident coach for the club. I had been warned by the Referee Assignor prior to the game that this coach could be quite intimidating and loud. Although I feared the worst, nothing ever came of any of those encounters. My conversations with the other Board members always made comment to this particular coach and his demeanor. I certainly never expected any of these people to play such a pivotal role later in my soccer life.

February 2002, I was working in Oakville, Ontario, Canada – Toronto suburb – finding myself on a phone call with the self-appointed Coaching Director for the Plymouth Soccer Club. We’ll just call him Mr. Santos. It was my first phone interview with anyone from a soccer club about my background in the game of soccer, my philosophy of coaching and why I so desperately wanted to coach for this club. We talked for about an hour which turned out to be one of the shortest phone calls with Mr. Santos I’d ever have. He had a knack for yapping on and on about the same developmental tactics and club direction. Little did I know about the landscape of competitive youth soccer in the Southeast Michigan (Detroit suburbs) area at that time!

As this conversation progressed, I knew that I would be able to step into an important role for the club fairly quickly. Something in my gut just told me they needed help and I was feeling very confident that my personality fit with what they had and what they needed. Over the next few months, I was slotted as one of the two new U9 boys’ coaches for the upcoming year. Thinking it was the way to encourage boys to come to the tryout, I made up personal business cards to pass out to parents after U8 Recreational games. The looks I got ranged from confusion to utter disbelief that I would even approach such a subject. For the most part, I think it was well received since there were about 50 boys who came to those June tryout. The other coach and I divided up the boys in an attempt to make equal level playing teams and went about our business of forming our teams. While that sounds simple enough it has its own separate story that always makes me laugh.

Prior to the tryout, we met and essentially agreed to divide the players as best we could for 2 equal teams. I informed him that no matter what, there were 4 boys who committed to doing this, plus my son, as long as they could play for me. No problem.

Tryout day and we are evaluating the talent. Coach comes to me with his list of players he “must have” because they are “the best players.” Not only was this not what we agreed upon – must have been his limited English being from Yugoslavia – but all 5 of the boys we earlier agreed upon were on his list, my son included! I was stubborn enough to not let him get the best of me, even though I wanted everything to be equal. In the end, I essentially kept those 5 boys from my Recreational team, plus 6 others. This team, as well as the other team that I eventually became coach of later that winter, remained my primary focus for many years. I’m very grateful for the relationships that my family and I have been able to forge with every one of those boys and their families over the years. Many of those relationships and past experiences were pivotal in the continuing development of my own coaching philosophies, style and decisions to be so involved with the club. Quite the opposite, though, the decision to be so ingrained in coaching these teams and the club caused me to disregard and turn down numerous other consulting positions that could have been quite lucrative.

In John Wooden’s book They Call Me Coach, he relates numerous stories of his development from player at Purdue University to the progression as coach at UCLA and those dynastic years. Throughout it all, it had nothing to do with some revolutionary playing system or intimidation of his players. It came down to the incredible humility, discipline and morals that he displays every day of his life and tried to instill in his players. I’ve studied many of his writings and writings from other authors about him over the years never tiring of the same stories and lessons. In my formative youth years, I had a few coaches that had both positive and negative impact on how I played and how I became motivated to stay involved in sports. Granted, those early dreams of being “in the Big Leagues” were far-fetched, but I always reflect upon many of those coaching lessons much like I do from the silent mentoring of John Wooden.

My Little League baseball coach, in particular, is the one coach I admired the most. He was the father of an elementary school classmate/friend and still a friend to my step-father. I don’t get back to my hometown, so I haven’t seen him for many, many years. I only played baseball with him for 4 years, and those were early formative years when learning the fundamentals was tantamount to any success or glory on the field. We had some pretty good teams those years, at least from the perspective of having only 6 teams in the little town of Litchfield, NH. We won plenty of important games, got a lot of plastic trophies and I played on some All-Star teams, but the single most important thing I remember from those years wasn’t on the field of play. At one of our year-end banquets to celebrate the season for all the teams, when handing me my Championship trophy for that final season I’d be with him, he said that I would always be “a great leader when it [came my] time.” He always treated me as a team leader and I always sensed that what he was teaching me was important.

Funny thing about being 12 is that you take many things too literally. I learned over the years that just because someone feels you are a leader doesn’t mean someone else will necessarily see that or make you the leader. I know I didn’t learn how to effectively, and humbly, be a leader in any capacity until the later years with the Plymouth Soccer Club and coaching those boys teams.

Shortly after taking on the coaching responsibilities for the boys teams, I was also involving myself in more of the club’s administrative activities. It was probably more for the fact that I volunteered and the club’s Board of Directors essentially accepted me in the group as their new Secretary. No formal vote or grand meeting to ask for volunteers. I voiced my willingness and was accepted. Over the next 4 years, I did whatever it took to help improve the club in terms of image, communications, direction and general competitiveness of teams. I always felt my ’95 boys teams (we had grown to 3 teams by U11) were becoming the most competitive in the club and were seeing great on-field success at that point in time. Obviously self-centered, but I had my reasons.

At our November 2007 Executive Committee meeting it was recommended that I take on the President role as the current club President expressed a desire to step down. This was about 3 months earlier than originally planned, but I was ready for the opportunity and the club was ready for the change.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2009. Although we experienced a slight contraction in the total number of teams for the year after having the largest number – 27 down from 32 – the club was showing its members that we could offer a great value for the money being invested in their children. Professional soccer players were now on staff and the amount of training time far exceeded what most others were experiencing at other high-priced clubs. Our price structure had been built over the past 2 seasons so that better financial leveraging could be managed for coach stipends and other club amenities. We were on a very positive track forward. In retrospect, I had learned a lot, done a lot and experienced so much personal growth that I knew it took about 3 licks to get to the center of the Tootsie Pop! However, it was at this same time in our club development where some perspective was lost and some of us didn’t know what we didn’t know.

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