If a picture is worth a thousand words then a gorgeous photo of a ball field being kissed by the sky is certainly worthy of several posts. Fastpitch.TV was generous enough to allow me to do a series of blog posts about different aspects of this photo. The story unfolds best if you read the posts in order. But as it is quite long feel free to read it the way you would eat an elephant, one bite at a time and come back for more after each has been carefully digested.

EXCELLENCE: Requires Sacrifice

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, then this amazing photo is deserving of several quality posts. I could write one massive article describing everything I see in the photo but your head might burst. So instead, I hope to use the English language to convey to you my thoughts on just one aspect of the photo per week. That way neither of our heads will burst.

Let’s start with some of the basics you’ll need to follow along. This photo is of Doug Spears Field at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina. Spears, who began the Lander softball program in 1982, retired from the university on Dec. 31, 2005, posting an overall record of 803-474 for a .628 winning percentage. He entered the 2005 season at No. 7 on the NCAA Division II’s winningest active coaches list.

What do you think the odds are that during that amazing tenure at the Lander University Coach Spears had to make sacrifices while also raising his family? I think I could get rich betting if I had those odds.

Lander doesn’t have a football team that is on ESPN every week so no “big tv $” for them. What do you think the odds are that raising the money to construct a gorgeous facility like that took some sacrifice on a lot of people’s parts? Do you think that the people donating the money would have been as generous if they didn’t see the sacrifice of a great coach who gave most of his adult life to the program?

While the photo is beautiful, and we will focus on those things in articles to come, it is the absence of some things like dandelions in the outfield that lend to the beauty of what is there. You’ll see an absence of grass overtaking the warning track or infield dirt. The photo is void of any trash on or surrounding the field. Those small things also take the sacrifice of many people just to have the field and stadium looking the way it does so that should a random photo be snapped, it will look amazing.

I Chronicles 21 tells a story of a time when King David “fell.” Seriously bad judgment and as always there were consequences. The story concludes with King David wanting to buy a particular piece of land to build an alter to God and to make a sacrifice. The landowner wanted to willingly give the land, and everything needed to the King. But King David stated, “I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the Lord or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.”

We all find ourselves in that situation almost daily. Not building an alter to God, but the situation where we can try and take the easy way out of something, or we can do the hard work ourselves. Where we could get away with running 3 laps instead of the 5 others run. Where we can skip the personal batting time coach asks us to take. You see the point of the story was that EXCELLENCE Requires Sacrifice. King David was unwilling to pay anything less than his best.

So, let’s have a little pop quiz on how you are doing in this regard. Ready?

  1. Your hitting is struggling a bit lately. Do you blame the bat and expect mom/dad to rush right out and buy another $300 bat to fix your problem or do you get serious about focusing on better quality swings in practice and doing tee work on your own at home?
  2. Your team starts a big tournament at 8:00 AM and you need to be at the field by 6:30. Do you stay out late with your friends and then drag during the first game because it’s “only a pool game” or do you ensure that you are 100% fresh for the first game of the day to help set the tone for the tournament?
  3. Your team has a field workday at the same time your friends invited you to the beach? Do you go to the beach because you don’t really care what the practice field looks like, or do you tell your friends that your team’s image is shaped on the practice field and that this year the team is going to look better than ever?
  4. There is an instructional clinic coming up and you know you would learn a lot. But the cost of the clinic is the same amount as that gorgeous dress you’ve been looking at for prom. Do you wear last years dress again to the prom this year and attend the clinic or do you make everyone envious when you show up wearing this amazing new dress?

There are a million different ways that I could phrase the same question, but it really comes down to “what is that you are willing to sacrifice for your excellence?” Your personal excellence isn’t going to come through money that others spend for you or things that others do for you as favors.

Look again at the photo. I hope that you agree with me that this photo represents the level of EXCELLENCE that is only attained through sacrifice. But more importantly I want you to examine the “photo” of your career. Are you making the sacrifices needed to truly reach EXCELLENCE in your own life?

EXCELLENCE: Requires Recognition

You must admit the sky in the photo is absolutely superb. It has it all. Light and dark, clouds and clear sky. Bursting with all the colors of a rainbow. What I love most of all. The one thing about the photo that I’m most thankful for is the person behind the camera. You see without them I wouldn’t be able to see this image. Without them you wouldn’t be enjoying the image.

Which brings me to my next point about EXCELLENCE … it must be recognized. You can’t possibly exude an EXCELLENCE that you can not even recognize. Whether you recognize it in nature like this or recognize it in others you can only emulate the world through the lenses with which you see.

Eventually I’m going to talk about the young ladies in the photo, but for now simply look at them enough to understand that a practice is clearly underway. So, who do you suppose has the right to be on the field during a practice and would be able to take this lovely photo showcasing the EXCELLENCE in the sky and also would have the permission to take the time to snap it? 8’th string pitcher? Red shirted freshman on crutches? Graduate assistant perhaps?

Would it surprise you to know that this photo was taken by the team’s head coach? Does it seem odd that a coach would take valuable time away from one of the team’s very first practices to walk into the outfield and take this photo? What message is she sending to her team that she would walk away from them just to take a picture?

If you knew this head coach it wouldn’t surprise, you a bit. Her name is Tina Whitlock and believe me she knows a thing or two about EXCELLENCE. She was a 2 time All-American at The University of South Carolina, played for the USA Women’s Softball team for 3 years and played a season of professional softball for the Durham Dragons prior to going into coaching.

When I asked Coach Whitlock for permission to use this photo for my series on EXCELLENCE her response was simple “Please use it. I love capturing … get this … GOD’S WORK AT MY FIELD.”  Willing to bet that this is the same message she intended to pass on to her players. Willing to be that is exactly why she would take time away from talking or leading and simply help direct her players towards something of EXCELLENCE. If her goal as a coach was just to “convey information” to her players they’d never leave the field. She isn’t looking to build smart/informed/knowledgeable players and isn’t really interested in players just being busy on the field. She is trying to build EXCELLENT players and EXCELLENT women.

In my career I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of players. As I approached the keyboard for this post one player from my past jumped into my head. I had gone to a ballgame to see one of my students competing in 10U and while my student batted wonderfully, what stood out for me from the day was when the second basemen for her team made a phenomenal play. An EXCELLENT play. Well next thing I know this bubbly little 10-year-old came sprinting from deep in center field to second base to congratulate her teammate and then sprinted back. Clearly for her the traditional “Great job” yelled across the field simply wasn’t going to do. She wanted to show her teammate that she truly recognized the EXCELLENCE in the play. After the game I introduced myself to this young lady, Alaina Danielle Hall, and her family and told her/them how remarkable I thought her action was. I wanted her to know that I recognized her EXCELLENCE in team building. Over the years I’ve been blessed, truly blessed, to watch this amazing young woman that is now playing ball at Elon University grow. Through all the changes of her youth and in all of the team changes that took place she never lost the ability, the simple ability to recognize the EXCELLENCE in others and never had a problem demonstrating it in big ways.

Coaches are you spending so much time trying to convey information that you are missing opportunities to point out the EXCELLENCE that is right in front of you?

Coaches are you building an environment in practice that “things” must get done or are you fostering an environment where players can take the time to truly recognize the EXCELLENCE in others, and in themselves?

Players when was the last time you took the time to truly demonstrate that you recognize the EXCELLENCE of those around you?

Players are you so focused on taking lots of reps that you’ve lost the focus on hitting 1 ball with EXCELLENCE?

If you want to demonstrate EXCELLENCE, then be sure you are first recognizing it. Whether it be God’s handiwork or the lives and actions and plays and behaviors of those around you.

EXCELLENCE: Requires Relationships

My youngest daughter (now 28 [at the time of originally writing this]) used to love to watch championship games with me. It didn’t matter to her if it was softball or baseball. She was not much of a night owl though so she would usually last for about 1-2 innings before falling asleep. But before closing her eyes she would always beg to be woken up just before the end of the game. You see more than anything else about the game she loved watching the celebrations. You know when the players all come rushing onto the field into 1 huge pile after accomplishing what they had worked so hard to do. More than a group hug or fist bumps or pats on the back those celebrations represent an all out “we did this together” moment.

In this great picture you can see the Lander Bearcats on their field practicing. I’m going to take a giant leap and ask you to ignore the fact that they are practicing and imagine that you just see a group of players on the field. The group in the photo seems distant from one another which is a stark contrast to the image we have in our heads of Championship Teams after the final out.

Which brings me to my next point about EXCELLENCE … it requires relationships. Championship teams aren’t just made up of the most talented players in the world. To rise above the adversity that accompanies long grueling seasons players have to be truly bonded. The Bearcats in this photo have a way to go don’t they? At some point they are going to have to reach out their arms for one another and not be standing at opposite ends of the field.

But even that won’t really help. They will simply be a group of players on the field with the same uniform, distant from one another standing they’re with their arms open wide. Relationships are built strongest when they are built out of selflessness instead of selfishness. The photo will change dramatically when one of those players decides to stop waiting for everyone else to support her and she decides to walk over to one of the other players and support them. On the field it might be as simple as one of those many outfielders sprinting in to help the SS pick up the many softballs on the infield. “Hey girl great hustle. You were covering the whole infield by yourself I’m sure not going to stand out there watching you do all the pickup as well. I’ve got your back.” Off the field it might be something as simple as noticing that her roommate was really stressed after she dropped her laundry and started screaming and saying to her “Hey I really admire the extra work you’ve been putting at the cage and I know you’ve gotten behind on studying for that big exam as a result. I was going to be doing my laundry in a few days anyway how about I grab mine and just go do yours at the same time so you can study. I’ve got your back.”

I realize they are probably both silly examples, but can you imagine the impact they would have? Both are simply selfless ways of saying “I’m not willing to just wear the same uniform as you all year long and I’m willing to put aside my issues to support you.” Unfortunately, that’s not generally the case with most teams. Most teams stay at the point that they are arms length or more apart from each other. Not only do they not reach out to each other sometimes they put their fists up towards each other. By that I mean chuckles between two players in the outfield like “late again” when the SS arrives two minutes late for the second time in 3 years. Or the thoughts in the shortstops head like “Figures they need 8 girls in the outfield to shag while I cover the whole infield by myself.”

When I started hosting softball camps years ago the very first former player/coach to come and stand by my side was Ashley Tomlinson. What always amazed me about Ashley and still does until this day is that within 30 seconds, she could totally draw in whoever she was speaking with. Whether it was a 6-year-old player or a 60-year-old grandparent. A player holding the bat the wrong way or a player who had stood out after hours of training. Her eyes would just look right into your heart and tell you that she was there for you. She actively demonstrated that she truly wanted to listen to you and hear what you had to say. Another of my dear friends is also a former player who was 1 year younger than her and played against Ashley. As it happens Ashley happened to be at the final game of this other player’s career and the game and season ended in heartbreak for her. Fierce competitors and rivals for years Ashley certainly could have behaved like most players with a “Stinks to be you but that’s what you get.” Instead, Ashley reached out to this other player to try and encourage her. How would you have reacted if you were the other player? Would you have accepted it or would you have walked away? Did I mention how her eyes and her manner draw you in within seconds? She is a relationship builder, and these two though once fierce rivals are now good friends. Before you get the wrong image in your head Ashley wasn’t just some peace sign toting cheerleader on the sidelines. Although she graduated more than 10 years ago several of her batting records are still in the back of the program (at Lander University of course) as a record holder for home runs as well as for … you’re going to love this … sacrifice flies.

Players …

Can you imagine being on a team and playing with a player like that? Someone who instead of seeking praise for herself sought to help you.

Can you imagine the transformation that would take place in the photo if even one of the players started doing that? Are you even open to accepting acts of kindness from your teammates or are you still so heartbroken after being “stabbed in the back by some former teammate(s)?”

Can you imagine the risks you could take as a player if you knew your teammates had your back and would love you through failure? Can you imagine the risks your coaching staff could take if they knew they didn’t have to baby players who were the “outsiders” in the photo afraid of having the team reject them even more?

Wait better yet … Can you imagine the impact you could have on YOUR TEAM if you were the one to reach out to the others? If you were the one who like Ashley demonstrated that you cared about them instead of requiring them to spoil you with praise?

Coaches don’t think for a second that you don’t have a part in whether your team becomes a family that comes together and sticks together or has cliques that simply play together. In 2012 I was excited to hear that two of my players had been scouted for and were going to play for a man who had a great reputation in the area, the state and around the country. I saw one of the team’s first games in the fall and quite honestly upon initial observation I didn’t see anything special. He didn’t seem to whisper miraculous advice to players on the sidelines. It didn’t seem like he had taught them anything magic like how to jump 30 feet into the air make a catch and spin on the way back down to double up a base runner. He just casually watched them play the game even though they weren’t playing that well. About mid game it became really clear to me why this man, Coach Phil Berry, was so different than so many other coaches. You see for several innings there was what appeared to be a clear breakdown in communications between the signals coming in from the pitching coach and the pitches that were being thrown. Parents were beginning to chatter on the sidelines as so often happens. Was it the pitchers fault? Was she just unwilling to throw what was being called? Was it the catchers fault? Was she unwilling to call what was being requested because she knew the pitcher hadn’t warmed up very well? Was it that they simply didn’t like what the pitching coach was calling? You can imagine the whispers among parents on the sidelines. Well Coach Berry strode casually to the mound and called out the catcher. “Uh oh someone is in trouble now.” Right??? Wrong!!! He demonstrated a faith in all 3 of the people in the equation by allowing the players to talk through what was going on. As it turns out the catcher was calling the right pitch but it was difficult to see her untapped fingers, so some signals were being misinterpreted. There is no room in great relationships for blame. There is no room in great relationships for distrust. How close did the team eventually become you ask? Great lifelong friends who talk about being “family” while they watch other teams win? As a first year 16U team the place admirably at Nationals. But this past season, their second together they became the 16U ASA National Champions.

Coaches …

Are you allowing things to cause disunity and ensure that wedges are formed by assuming the worst in your staff/players or are you demonstrating a faith in everyone and taking the time to truly listen?

What would the impact on your team’s long-term success be if you used some early setbacks as ways to prove to your staff/players that you care more about them, than winning 1 particular game? That you care more about them “relationally,” than you do about wins and losses?

Are you demonstrating through your own actions that you want the team to ultimately be close? Or do you demonstrate through your actions that you are embarrassed when things go wrong because you feel like it’s a representation of yourself and you allow your pride to overshadow players or other coaches’ feelings?

I have no idea exactly what it may look like in your personal situation. But I can tell you that you will not grow in deep relationship to others until you begin SACRIFICING your own needs and begin RECOGNIZING ways you can reach out to the others around you.

You see true EXCELLENCE absolutely requires relationship.

EXCELLENCE: Requires Absolutely Nothing

I started this series by asking you to consider the “big picture” and the Sacrifices it took to make it possible.

I then asked you to simply Recognize the EXCELLENCE as the artist did who took the photo.

In my last post I asked you to look a bit closer and consider the Relationships of the players that comprise the team spread across the image.

In this final post regarding this photo, I’m going to ask you to really narrow your focus and consider a single player on the team. Imagine if you will her story. Think you have her figured out? I do.

Regardless of who you’ve chosen to focus your vision on in the photo. Batter. Pitcher. Infielder. Outfielder. I can tell you the most important the most important thing in the world about them. Not because I’ve spent a lot of time with them but because I’ve read about them.

Ephesians chapter 2 verse 10 says “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

If you happened to have selected a player who led the league in home runs last year would that make her any more EXCELLENT than the fact that she has been individually crafted by God to fulfill a special purpose designed just for her? Likewise striking out during every at bat couldn’t possibly detract from the immense value of God having designed her in perfection through Christ.

I know what you are thinking “Well that could be true, but this is a softball blog and we were talking about EXCELLENCE on the field.” I’m talking about her innate EXCELLENCE because it very much translates to the ball field. How we see one another determines how we treat one another.

It’s easy to turn your back on a teammate who doesn’t exhibit the same kind of work ethic you’ve been used to seeing. But if you consider the fact that she’s already tremendously special then YOU will behave differently towards them. YOU won’t be so quick to snicker about them. YOU just may be willing to do something crazy like take the leading in trying to build a relationship with her and figure out where her lack of drive is coming from.

It’s also easy for us to over praise a teammate/player because of the great things she accomplishes on the field. That can create jealousy among others and can create a huge amount of pressure for the player who then feels like she has to carry the team and can never have a human moment. She has to hide her weaknesses, her fears and can begin losing herself in the process.

More importantly how we view others on this 1 simple matter also plays out in how we see ourselves. We writhe in depression and beat ourselves up over what we don’t do on the field feeling that we are letting others down or feeling like we are losers. Likewise, we revolve all of our self worth around our accomplishments and then crash, hard, when we go into a slump or don’t succeed.

There is EXCELLENCE in every aspect of this photo.

EXCELLENCE in the sky that God painted by hand.

EXCELLENCE in the sacrifices of those that made the stadium possible and maintain it.

EXCELLENCE in the eye and heart of the amazing woman who took the photo.

EXCELLENCE in the relationships developing amongst the players on the team.

EXCELLENCE in each individual player.

And my friend I know there is EXCELLENCE in the person viewing the photo and reading this post. For it is when we treat each other like we truly believe each other is EXCELLENT instead of just giving it lip surface to the concept of a team that true EXCELLENCE on the field can take place.

When we make it clear to one another that we truly care and truly value each other just because they are who they are that everyone can then take risks. THEY can become more aggressive on the field instead of playing it safe. WE can become more aggressive on the field instead of playing it safe. Those errors that used to cause a huge downside, quickly get flushed because they know we truly care and aren’t going to hold it against them. We flush our own errors knowing that they aren’t going to be held against us.

The standing around on bases waiting for someone to hit us in translates into our becoming more aggressive on the bases and taking risks that can “manufacture” runs that we ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten.

The fundamental part of each great team is simply a recognition that we are already EXCELLENT, and we value each other. We highly value each other.

Coaches are you treating your players like they matter just for who they are or do certain players get all of your praise for what they do while others earn your obvious angst when they don’t come through?

Players are you treating your teammates like they matter just for who they are, or do you make it clear through your actions that you simply don’t care for some of them because they are “dead weight” in terms of productivity for the team?

Coaches and players how do you treat the umpires after they’ve made a call you don’t like? Do you treat them like human beings who have an immense value and who could simply have a different angle/view than you and perhaps even had their eyes closed on the play, or do you treat them like they are worthless.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve used more than 1,000 to describe this great scene through these first four posts on EXCELLENCE. I’ll end by using just a few more. True EXCELLENCE can only be attained when we realize that all of us already have immeasurable value. That nothing we do can add to it. And that nothing we do can subtract from it. For only then will we release others and ourselves to become all that we have within us to become. Only then can we take risks without a fear of failure and achieve EXCELLENCE on the field.

Comments are closed.