By Jordan Johnson
“You can always rebound aggressively and you can always play tough defense.”
I climbed into the front seat of my dad’s truck and tossed my sweaty gym bag into the back seat. We had just finished basketball practice, and we were headed home for dinner. I had a sixth grade basketball tournament coming up and I needed all of the advice I could get.
“The shots aren’t always going to fall, but you can always control your effort,” my dad echoed over the sound of ACDC on the radio. “You can always rebound aggressively, and you can always play tough defense.”
I nodded my head in approval as the truck started to pull away from the old middle school gym. If you think about it, the concept really makes sense. Control what you can control.
Throughout the course of a basketball season, you are not always going to be stroking shorts from behind the arc like Steph Curry. However, you can always play tough defense like Kawhi Leonard. It’s about having hustle. It’s about having heart and doing what you can to improve your own sports performance.
In sports and in life, we must remain focused on the things that we can control. We cannot control the refs, but we can control our effort. We cannot control adversity, but we can control how we respond.
Joel Embiid is an NBA all-star for the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers that has faced his fair share of adversity. The Seventy-Sixers spent a third overall pick on Embiid during the 2014 NBA draft. The team had high expectations for their newfound star, but adversity struck like a hammer. Embiid was sidelined with numerous injuries during his first two seasons in the league. The Seventy-Sixer fans were becoming frustrated, and the team continued to struggle. Nevertheless, Embiid focused on what he could control. He worked hard to prepare himself both physically and mentally. This past season, Embiid led his team to the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2012 and he was named a starter for the NBA All-Star game. Embiid remained focused and trusted The Process.
As the truck continued to roll home, we passed by the local high school football field. The grass had just been cut and fresh lines of white paint stretched from sideline to sideline. Red and orange pastels lit up the sky as the sun set in the far end-zone. As I gazed across the field, I imagined myself breaking a tackle and racing up the sideline. I could hear the crowd erupt like thunder as I found daylight. The only thing standing between me and the end-zone was a pasture of green.
As I went through my mini-imagery routine, goosebumps ran up my arm. I could see the grass in front of me. I could hear the crowd behind me. I could feel my muscles firing and I could taste cotton in my mouth. I could only dream of running on that sacred acre.
Fast forward six years, and I was standing on the 10 yard line. It was the section championship game and there were only five minutes left on the clock. Our offense had the ball and we were up by two touchdowns. However, the opposing team was showing signs of life. We needed to run out the clock on this last drive if we wanted to secure our bid for the state playoffs. It had been over 20 years since the high school football team had been to the state tournament.
The last team to do it was my dad’s.
We had been pounding the rock all game, and our offensive line was putting on an absolute clinic. During our final drive, we ran the same three plays. Dive. Power. Counter.
I would take the handoff, settle behind the big boys in front, and start driving the legs. After each play, I would lay on the turf for a few extra seconds and catch my breath. Our team had been fighting tooth and nail for every yard the entire game. This drive was no different. My body ached, and I felt like I was breathing through a straw.
As my teammates pulled me off the turf, I heard my dad’s voice in the back of my head.
“Most guys think that when they get hit, they have to go down. There is nothing that says you have to go down. It’s a mindset. Keep the legs driving.”
As I returned to the huddle and waited for the next play call, my dad’s advice rattled around in my helmet. You don’t have to go down. You don’t have to back down. Keep the legs driving and keep fighting. Giving up is not an option.
As I looked around the huddle, I locked eyes with each one of my teammates. I had been playing with some of these guys for over nine years, and it all came down to this moment.
Coach Gaines from the movie Friday Night Lights said it best. “Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and knowing that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could have done. Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your hearts?”
For the remainder of the game, I had two thoughts running through my head.
Fight for your teammates and keep the legs driving for dad.
At the end of the game, the fans flooded the field and the emotions started to pour. We completed the drive and put a seal on our regular season record. Pictures were taken, hugs were given, and memories were formed. I will always remember that sports performance. It wouldn’t have been possible without my dad.
I have learned countless lessons from my dad over the years that I have applied to both sports, sports psychology and life.
“You can always be the hardest working guy on the court.”
“If you are going to do a job, it is better to take your time and do it right the first time than to do it poorly.”
“Be humble. Nobody likes the cocky guy.”
“The only way you are going to get better is to practice.”
I have done my best to utilize these principles in different areas of my life. If you want to create something great, you have to be willing to do what nobody else is willing to do. You have to practice and work hard. Do the little things correctly. They are what matter most when it comes to sports performance. The big picture will follow. Be confident in your efforts but remember where you came from. Walk with a humble step.
I have learned a lot from my dad over the years. He has given me pieces of advice to think about, and he has illustrated various lessons through his actions. I hold some close to my heart and I hold some at arm’s length. The beauty of becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 20 is that you get to have your own opinions and principles. We don’t necessarily see everything eye to eye — and that is ok. It would also be naive to say that our relationship was or is perfect. No parent child relationship is perfect.
As I was growing up, there were times when I became bitter with my dad. A large part of these feelings were due to my own lack of maturity.
Like many parents, my dad was very involved in my athletic career growing up. He often coached my youth sport teams and volunteered in any way that he could. My dad even helped me train for my sports. If I ever wanted to hit a round of batting practice, throw a football, or shoot hoops in the driveway my dad never said no. I even remember going on runs around the block with my dad as started to train for my first season of fourth grade football.
However, as I started to experience success in my athletic endeavors, I began to contemplate my achievements and sports performance. Was I experiencing success because of my dad, or was I experiencing success because of my own hard work and dedication?
I committed countless hours to pounding my craft, but my dad always seemed to be close by. Being the naive and prideful child that I was, I slowly started to push my dad away. I wanted my athletic achievements to be my own. I didn’t want a starting spot because my dad was a coach and I wanted the peace of mind that I earned everything on my own.
My dad also came across as overbearing at times. In a few instances, the heat of the competition clouded reality for a few moments. I remember him throwing a hat into the side wall of a metal dugout when I got picked off at third base (we laugh about it now). And I remember him slamming a ball in frustration at basketball practice (disclaimer: I may have deserved that earful because I think I was smarting off).
As I grew older and began school-affiliated sports, I would walk into the house and answer the “how was practice question” with an unenthusiastic “good.” There were even times when I ignored the question completely, hiked to my room, and locked the door.
Not my proudest moments.
Nevertheless, as you grow older, you begin to realize things that weren’t apparent when you were a kid. I am obviously where I am today because of my dad. The lessons he has taught me have provided me with the foundation for who I am and who I want to become. This does not take away from all of the hard work that I have dedicated to my own aspirations. But, it serves as a reminder to be grateful for everything my dad has taught me. I am now mature enough to admit that I made mistakes growing up. We both did. However, that is the beauty of life. You continually get to grow and learn.
So thank you dad for showing me how to work hard. Thank you for teaching me how to do quality work, improving my sports performance, and thank you for prompting me to walk humbly. Thank you for pitching me batting practice, and thank you for fielding my kicks. Thank you for never missing one of my games.
You and mom did a heck of a job and I am so proud of you guys. You have been amazing parents. Thank you for everything.
If you’re a young athlete, take a moment to step back and reflect on all of the love and support your parents give you. Think of all the practices they drove you to and think of all the games they’ve cheered at. Do not let a blessing turn into an expectation. Appreciate what your parents do for you.
Say thank you. Say I love you. Let your parents know how much they mean to you. They are the reason that you have made it this far. You put in the hard work. They gave you the foundation. Do not take it for granted.
If you are a parent, continue to support your little studs. Give them inspirational pep talks, but don’t be overbearing. Guide them down the right path, but don’t hold their hand. Allow your kids to foster their own motivations and encourage them when adversity strikes. Lead by example and play catch in the yard.
Tell your kids you love them, and let them know how much they mean to you. They are yearning for your approval. Be proud of all their hard work and do not take it for granted.
So thank you dad for improving my sports performance by teaching me to rebound aggressively and play tough defense.
I love you.