It’s been 14 years since I participated in an off-season/summer workout program. 14 years since I committed my heart and body to an athletic program, and yet still, as I walked up on the team this morning, every emotion came back. Of course the thoughts and emotions of today are filtered through the 20/20 vision that hindsight provides, but nonetheless, there they are, as if no time has passed.
When you try to put words to the emotions of sports, they typically fall short. Unless you are talking to someone who has also experienced the same feelings. In that case, the feelings will be shared through a knowing nod. They will swallow the lump in their throat that makes itself known anytime they allow their memories to surface. When brought to the surface, the feelings will almost always feel overwhelming because for a moment in time, you were a part of something bigger. You were a part of a team. A team that believed they could do something big, one that was willing to ride the waves of competitive sports to reach a common goal. One that believed that at their best, they could accomplish great things.
Until I was in college, I thought I knew how far my body could be pushed. College ball pushed me beyond what I thought I could do straight to what I was capable of. There is a pride that develops when you reach what you thought was the end of yourself and you still push further. For a player like me, off-season was not an option, it was essential. I was 5’6”, couldn’t jump as high as others, wasn’t as quick as others, and sure wasn’t as “game smart” as the others. The off-season provided for me a time to even the playing field just a little bit. I did not miss a workout in the off-season and when I felt like skipping, thankfully, I had a dad that reminded me that there was someone out there that wasn’t skipping. He would get out of bed every day of the summer to take me to the track and get my workouts in before the sun came up. I did not always appreciate this then, but oh how I do now. When you recognize that your actions directly impact your teammates you become less selfish and more accountable. You become the kind of person that people want on their team.
When I look back on my Volleyball career, it is not the games that shaped who I am and built my character. Don’t get me wrong, the season brought with it, its own lessons and emotions, but the off season, that’s where the magic happened. It was there that I learned about perseverance, integrity, motivation, etc. It was in those moments, when I pushed my body beyond its capability, that I became an athlete. It is where my belief about hard work paying off became solidified. Where I learned that shortcuts don’t yield results. It is where I learned that showing up is half the battle, but a big part of it was also my attitude while being there.
Man, I wish I could do it all again. I would go back in a heartbeat, with the knowledge I have now and the ability I had then, I would be a force. It seems a little unfair that we experience life in real time without the benefit of hindsight. But as it turns out, the 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight actually develops through life’s lessons. Instead of doing it all again we take with us our knowledge and apply it to new seasons of life. We try to impart our knowledge on the younger generations hoping that they will somehow just take our word and figure it all out sooner than we did. Alas, this is not how it works. The emotions tied to the learning are what make it stick, and kids can’t feel all the emotions by taking someone’s word for it.
At the core of off-season is the realization that there is no “off-season”. There is hope that the work that is done in the “off-season” will pay off in the next season. The short term payoff would be a win-loss record that proves how hard everyone worked. But through my lens, the payoff is so much more. It is the character that developed within the off-season. The traits that I developed in the off-seasons of life are the same traits that I call on when things get hard, when I need to believe in something bigger than myself.
The overwhelming emotion that I felt this morning when I saw the team beginning summer workouts was a gift. The opportunity to reflect on my time as an athlete. The chance to feel, even for a moment, like I was 18 again and I was a part of something bigger than myself. Allowing myself to look back and say, not only was it all worth it, I would do it again.
Remember to encourage the kids working in the off-season, it is not easy work. It is easy to get discouraged in the day to day. Help them develop the grit that it takes to overcome obstacles. In the difficult moments help them develop the life skills that they will need in sports and ultimately in life. Do not accept their excuses but instead, give them the gift of relentless support and encouragement. Tell them to live it up and enjoy every second, even the hard parts. Through our nostalgic lens we see that champions are built in the off-season and that soon enough they will blink and it will be over.