Home is nice too….

I have spent two of the past 3+ years living on different continents from my own. I have lived under a thatch roof in a former game reserve in South Africa. I have lived in a communist-era style flat in the Czech Republic. I have learned about different cultures and (however clumsily) embraced them. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I have had or the people I have met in those places for anything in the world.

One downside to my travels is I have missed out on the fall season the last two years here in New England. Fall in New England is my favorite season and place in the world. It gets colder but not too cold. The leaves are beautiful. Cross Country, my sport, is in full swing. Returning to America this summer I knew I had a job lined up coaching cross country. I was excited for all the expected reasons. The past couple months I have been able to live, breath, and experience the sport that I have missed for 3 years.

It all culminated this past weekend on an absolutely stunning mid-60s, mid-November day. My team had its last race, a regional championship against private schools from all over New England. My school had the privilege of hosting. Three large races were part of the race program. I could only take a small piece of the credit because I wasn’t the meet director but things went off without a hitch. People were giving me rave reviews about how well everything went.

After the day had ended I was exhausted from running around and yelling all day. It took me a good two days to recover. But it was a fantastic day and a fantastic way to end the season. South Africa was beautiful and incredible. The Czech Republic was fascinating and awesome. But there can be no doubt, sometimes Home is nice too.

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What a difference a year makes…

A year ago on my birthday I spent most of the day en route and then in a foreign hospital. I found myself in a room with 4 other men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 70s. I got demolished in chess by one them. We could speak about 10 words to each other as I didn’t speak Czech and he didn’t speak English. The following morning I was operated on in a foreign country.

This year my birthday was rather different. A lot happened yesterday, but the following anecdote will suffice to describe it. At the end of August I started coaching a high school cross country team. 16 boys, 5 girls. It is my first time as a head coach. We had a race on Wednesday and if we had won I had planned to tell them thanks for the birthday gift: my first win as a head coach. We lost so I decided to simply play it cool. My two assistants wished me happy birthday at the start of practice, how they knew I wasn’t aware. I then ran the practice as normal: warm-up, run, core exercises, stretching, thoughts about the race the day before. Then per usual we came together for the end of practice prayer and cheer. Except instead of saying LCA (the school’s name) they broke into “Happy Birthday.” And then as we broke apart as a group one of the guys breaks out a full-size birthday cake.

This was no ordinary cake. It didn’t merely say “Happy Birthday” or have candles in it. It was picture of me transposed onto the frosting. Completely edible and delicious. One of my runners had gone onto Facebook and found a photo of me (we aren’t friends…I need to update my privacy settings…), printed it out and took it to the cake store. My assistant coaches gave me a nice card with a Dunkin gift card attached. The team had all signed a paper wishing me a happy birthday.

I’ve known these people less than a month. I apparently mentioned that my birthday was in 9 days in passing 9 days ago. I cannot express how utterly surprising all this was to me.

It’s easy for me to see the negatives in the world, to be cynical, to moan about all that is wrong. But people, as capable of they are of evil, also have a wondrous ability to do good. I saw that yesterday in my team and it was simply fantastic.

Sportsmanship? #1

I have always been a pretty honest fellow, often to a fault. I’m also a sports fan and an athlete. Being honest has led me to always attempt to play with the utmost sportsmanship in games and races. Now as a coach I’m trying to instill in my players why winning the right way is much more important than winning. I thought I was going to start this series about coaches who lack all the qualities of sportsmanship. However, Derek Jeter decided to go for an Emmy and so this is my first topic.

Derek Jeter is a famous player for the Yankees in Major League Baseball. The other night in a heated game against division rival Tampa Bay he got hit by a pitch, a event that would call for him to go to first base. Except the ball didn’t hit him. As he elaborately spun around the ball hit the knob of his bat, potentially grazing his uniform around the hip area as it bounced away. What did Jeter do? He grasps his elbow in apparent pain. He goes down to first.

Let’s be clear. This is dishonest and cheating. The ball did not hit him where he pretended to be struck. In fact, it basically did not hit him at all. The only reason he benefited was he dishonestly deceived the umpires. A columnist in the Globe noted 15 seconds of instant replay would have revealed this truth. The amazing thing though is not that Jeter cheated but how upfront everyone is about it.

Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay Manager noted, “If our guys had done it, I would have applauded the performance. If our guy does it, I’m very happy if we end up getting the call.”

Jeter himself casually remarked after the game, “It’s part of the game, My job is to get on base.”

I’ve watched pro sports for the better part of 15 years. I am not naive enough to believe that professionals won’t do everything they possibly can to get an edge or win a game. It happens. I know that when I got emotional playing soccer even as a lowly high-schooler I didn’t always play fairly. However cheating is cheating and it should be called out for what it is and at the very least seen as dishonorable.

This isn’t the culture we are living in today however and so it goes. Stay tune for more entries on famous coaches who illustrate everything that is wrong with sports.

Leadership can be tricky…

I feel like leadership is talked about a lot. It’s a skill everyone wants and that everyone wants to judge in other people, especially public figures. In addition it seems like everyone has their own idea of what leadership looks like, of what it should be. The last decade of my life, stretching from adolescence into adulthood, I have been blessed to have myriad opportunities to learn about and be in a position of leadership. I have gained much experience and had many lessons on multiple continents. And here I sit and the best thing I’ve come up with to title this entry is “Leadership can be tricky.” (Eloquence has never been my strong suit…)

I’m writing this entry today because tomorrow I enter a position of leadership I have never had before. I am going to be the head coach of the cross-country program at a local high school. On one hand I am ridiculously excited to be doing this. I love running and sports in general and I am very competitive. I have the experience to do this job and to do it well. While I hope to be a teacher in coming years I want to pair that with coaching. This is my first step towards that goal and it’s a big one.

On the other hand this is totally new to me. I have never been this high up in anything. I have almost always been the follower. Obedient, smart, willing to take charge if needed, but never the actual go-to guy. I’m the decision maker now. I’m the one with the plan, the philosophy, the one responsible for how things go. I am the leader. It’s all slightly overwhelming if I let my overly analytical mind think about it too much.

At the end of the day I know that once I get the first practice out of the way things will start to fall into place. I’m grateful to have a job and I know this will be a great season. One helpful thought that has been floating in my head all week is that “Leadership is Servanthood.” My goal in leading is to serve.  My runners, my assistants, everyone I meet this fall I want to help in whatever way I’m able. Leadership may be tricky but if I keep the right perspective I’m ready for the ride.