Lighting The Way From Behind: A Lesson For Coaches And Parents

Photo Credit: WalkJogRun

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When I was in high school, I was involved in forensics in addition to cross country and track. Forensics tournaments are in the winter, which means short daylight hours. We often left for forensics tournaments early in the morning when it was still dark, and then got home after dark. My family lived in the country with no sidewalks or streetlights.

One winter Friday night my junior year, I was grumbling that I probably wouldn't be able to run the next day due to a forensics tournament. We'd had a lot of snow and running on icy, snowy roads in the pitch dark probably wasn't my best play. I complained that because my two biggest rivals at the state meet both lived in larger cities where they had streetlights, sidewalks, and plowed roads, they were going to be able to run on a day that I likely wasn't. I didn't like the thought of them getting that edge on me, even for one day.

My dad casually offered to follow me in the pickup after I got home from the forensics tournament so I could run in the headlights. I happily took him up on his offer and as soon as I got home the next day I changed my clothes and headed out to run. Dad idled along behind me with the emergency flashers on, allowing me to run in the headlights to see where I was going.

It's funny the tiny details that sometimes remain vivid decades later from an event that didn't seem that significant at the time. Even now, nearly 40 years later, I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath my feet, feel my breath freezing on my face mask and hear the old Ford pickup idling behind me.

We repeated this ritual numerous times over the next couple of years while I was in high school whenever I was late getting home from forensics tournaments or some other obligation in the winter. I still have my old training diaries where I noted that Dad followed me in the pickup while I ran in the headlights.

After high school, I went on to college running and never really thought much more about it.

That is, until 2008.

Photo Credit: CBS News

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My father died rather suddenly and unexpectedly from a late-diagnosed, very aggressive, inoperable brain tumor. I gave the eulogy at his funeral, and one day while mowing the yard I was thinking about what I wanted to say. For some reason, Dad following me in the truck so I could run in the headlights kept popping into my head, but I couldn't figure out exactly why.

Suddenly it hit me, and I stopped mowing dead in my tracks.

I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before.

Dad following me in the pickup wasn't just a simple act allowing me to run. It was a parable with some invaluable lessons. Right away, two things jumped out that made Dad's simple act of following me in the truck much more profound and meaningful.

The first thing I realized was something that Dad didn't do. He didn't tell me I had to run. He didn't tell me that if I didn't run I was going to get my butt kicked by my competitors. He didn't say he was going to be disappointed in me if I didn't run. All he did was remove a barrier to me being able to run that I couldn't eliminate myself. Everything else was up to me. It was up to me to have the passion and discipline to come home after being at a forensics tournament all day, change into multiple layers of clothes and go out into the cold night to run on snow-packed roads. Dad was smart enough to know that you can't make someone want to do something, but he was also smart enough to know that sometimes even motivated people need a little bit of help removing barriers that they cannot remove themselves.

The second thing Dad did was -- both literally and figuratively -- light the way from behind. Standing in the backyard, stopped in my tracks with the lawnmower still running, I realized that was a metaphor for how we as both coaches or parents need to approach our kids. It is so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to blaze the trail in front of them, removing all obstacles, giving them a straight, smooth road to "success" and showing our kid to the world. This trap takes many different forms, and none of them is helpful to the kid or flattering to the parents or coaches who do it.

It is not helpful to the kids or athletes because they don't learn how to overcome challenges when the road is made entirely smooth for them, and all difficulties, learning opportunities, and need for self-motivation are removed from their path. By doing so, they are denied the opportunities to develop the grit and tenacity that are the essential precursors to fulfilling their potential.

It isn't flattering to the parents or coaches who do it because -- let's just be brutally honest here -- those parents and coaches are making the kid or athlete's success about them, not about the kid or athlete. They're calling more attention to what they did for the kid or athlete's success than what the kid did themselves. Think about it like this: If a coach or parent is lighting the way from the front, the coach or parent with the light is the first thing people would see, with the kid being second, obscured behind them. But if a coach or parent lights the way from behind, the kid is the first thing someone would see, and that is as it should be.

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It is an easy, seductive trap to fall in to and it is usually done with good intentions. Parents and coaches justifiably want to give their kids and athletes the best opportunities possible to succeed or pursue something about which they are passionate. But what often gets lost in those good intentions is that the best chance for a kid to succeed at something they are passionate about is by allowing them to struggle, fail, learn to think for themselves, become a student of their sport, and then develop the grit to find a way to succeed.

There's no better advantage for future success you can give a kid or athlete than grit, but they have to develop it themselves. You can't give it to them.

Dad knew where he could do me the most good, and that was from behind me. On those dark, snow-packed roads Dad, again literally and figuratively, had my back.

But my back was all he had, nothing more, nothing less.

He knew that the day would come when he wouldn't be around any longer, and I was going to have to learn how to overcome hardship on my own. Sadly, that day came on April 13, 2008 and it wasn't until after he was gone that I fully understood what he was teaching me by lighting the way from behind, and what it meant for my own athletes and kids.

If you are a coach or parent, or both, it is my humble recommendation that you go and do likewise.

Get behind your kids to light the way, but let them travel the path on their own.