Starting with Why
This is a second excerpt from The Athlete within You. It is where perhaps I should have started this series, because as with a lot of things, it is the very foundation of who we are. It is the beginning of Chapter 2- in many ways it was my beginning as well as a person and sports psychologist. When you understand your Why, you will find it much easier to motivate your self to succeed. You could find out that your Why is not so useful once you start looking at it. If that is the case, the answer is simple. Change your Why. Is it easy. Yes and No. Hitting a golf ball isn’t easy either. But with practice, it is something most can accomplish. Discover your Why. So please enjoy the short excerpt.
2 Starting with Why
The Little Engine That Could
Growing up one story that was a favorite of my parents was the Rob Lee story “The Little Engine that Could.” It is a story that’s been read generation after generation for the last 40 or 50 years to illustrate the value of effort. The story of “The Little Engine that Could” seems odd to me when I hear people tell the story today as it seems to have a different message and mixed into it are other stories like Thomas the Tank Engine or something like that. But as I remember the story it was truly about a little engine that was trying to get over the hill and it took all of his effort all this effort to be able to get over the top of the hill. He kept saying “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” and eventually he got over the hill to the other side where he stated “I knew I could, I knew I could.”
I got my belief about the value of effort from that story, reinforced of course by both my folks. The real importance of the story shouldn’t be lost on any of us today, because for our children or the kids that we work with, thinking you can and taking action is critical to success. Everything we do in life is based on “I think I can I think, I can I think I can.” Confidence is based on “I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could.”
All things in their Time
I have been looking back into the past to understand myself. I am doing this so that I can better understand how to help those I work with. I firmly believe that our performance, while built on past experience, is not governed or controlled by it, and we can learn to move forward despite our past experience. There are times when it is important to acknowledge that we do have a past to deal with.
For every athlete or person I work with, one of the initial conversations is directed at “Why” do you want to do what you are doing? What is your Why? Simon Sinek‘s book Start with Why is a great example of the importance of understanding your why. His book is a best seller because it demonstrates how it is we find inspiration to achieve our goals. It is based on achievement in business, but certainly applies to athletic success. I begin with talking about my “why” when working with athletes.
I was the athlete who kept failing at the next level, basically until there were no more levels to join. I also lacked a good understanding of how to be a successful athlete from a mental perspective. A good friend, Deborah Drake prompted me, as good friends often do, to think a little bit more about my “why.” I had started to share a story about my father, and as the deep listener she can be, she quickly saw past the surface level of its significance to me and my work and she has encouraged me to finish the story here. My dad was a teacher.
Actually, he had been a lot of things in his youth. He was a boxer, a push cart peddler, a roofer, a hobo, a migrant worker, a panhandler (someday I’ll write his story of panhandling in front of one of Nevada’s more famous houses of ill repute, but that is for another day.) During the 1950’s he was a successful traveling salesman. (Insert joke here if you want.) After I was born he decided to become a teacher so that he would be home and he said he wanted to make a difference. So he taught elementary school and coached on the playgrounds from the late 1950’s until retirement in 1987 at age 70. He was burned out by the system. He had spent his entire academic career teaching in a lower economic neighborhood teaching kids to read and trying to keep them out of trouble. He was in the same building for 27 years. He was an institution in his school district. He was Mr. Margolies. That he was Mr. Margolies is one of several reasons I prefer to go by Mike to everyone.
In the end, he retired from teaching, in part due to administrative broken promises that took their toll on him. But there is another side to his story that I want to focus on. It is the origin of my own “why” and it is important. A few years post retirement I was visiting my father and I went grocery shopping with him. Grocery shopping was one of the retirement tasks that he enjoyed. We were walking in the shopping center of my youth in Monterey Park, California when a youngish woman approached us somewhat shyly. She looked about my age of 35, at the time. She had a kid in tow and also a baby stroller with a little girl. She hesitantly asked my father if he was Mr. Margolies. He said yes and why (with a hint of paranoia and mistrust, which was unlike him. She said her name was Maria and that he had been her teacher when she was in the fifth grade. She couldn’t read then and he taught her to read, just as she was now teaching her kids to read.
She said she was the first person in her family to be able to read and write and she thought of him often. She said when she recognized him she had to come thank him. She said she was thanking him more for her children than for herself. After smiles and a friendly handshake, (I got the feeling she wanted to hug him, but was afraid he would not want it), we wandered away.
When she was out of ear shot my dad asked me why she had done that. I was genuinely stunned. I had been so proud of him listening to the conversation. How he had changed at least three people’s lives. It made me think how many lives had he really touched over the course of almost thirty years of teaching and coaching. We spent the next twenty minutes with me trying to explain to him the significance of this former student’s acknowledgement. At the end of the conversation he said “Hmm.” That was it, “Hmm.”
I of course retold the story to my mother when we got back to the house and a couple of other times to others with him present of course, hoping eventually it would strike him as to how significant a contribution he had made to that former student, now a young mother. He really didn’t get it. He thought of his life, his working life, I should say, as a failure. He was a retired teacher, which was almost an embarrassment to him. Telling the story to others in front of him only upset him, so I soon stopped. He never seemed to get clear on its significance. I would tell this story occasionally when giving talks to coaches about understanding that coaching is always more about the people they worked with than it was about wins and losses. It helped to me accentuate an important point with them. I didn’t really understand that I was hoping to convince myself internally, as much as them, my audience. In some ways, I had become the teacher my father had been before he burned out—unaware of his full value.
Post script. I mentioned that my dad’s retirement was not what I would want for him or anyone. Around 2000 he had a small stroke and that impacted him greatly and his remaining days. It brought on some dementia that greatly affected his memory. Not Alzheimer’s, where he lost his self, just day to day difficulty. The year he passed away was very difficult. He lived with us and conversations and care were harder than he deserved. I do remember one night that I will share. I was talking about a young athlete I was helping. This was at dinner. He interrupted the conversation, as a thought came to him with great clarity.
He said to everyone at the table like it was yesterday. Turning to me he said, “Do you remember when Maria told me I had taught her to read?” He then went on to tell the whole story, except the end was different. He said it had made him so proud to have been a teacher. He said if he hadn’t taught a single other person, he felt like he had been really happy to have had that chance. He had tears in his eyes. It wasn’t long after that that I lost him. It is one of my best memories, understanding in the end that he got it.