I have always wanted to share this story as it has meant so much to me. It is all true, except I have changed the name of the student involved. Hopefully it can impact you even a percentage of what is has impacted me.
Several years ago, I had a grade 9 student in my math class who was constantly bothered and bugged by other students. Although it was something that we talked about the kids, and was in no way malicious, it was wrong. I always knew that. When I looked at “Chris”, I knew that he was a unique kid and others were missing the gift this student had. He was extremely intelligent, kind, and had a heart of gold. How could people not see that?
When Chris was in Grade 10, I was the head coach of the basketball team. Plainly put, Chris was terrible. I had seen him play sports before and a few years earlier this was not the type of student I would have encouraged to play on my team. Higher level sports in high schools, were about doing your best to win. I had always done my best to get the best athletes on my team.
Knowing Chris wanted to play and knowing that he had these gifts that others didn’t see, I talked to him into playing basketball, hoping that the teasing would not increase when his athletic ability was on full display. I pulled him aside and said, “Chris, I want you on the team, but I want to be clear that you will not get as much playing time as others. With that being said, I think that there will be a real benefit for you playing. Are you okay with this?”. Chris looked at me and said he wanted to play.
As the season progressed, I made a special point to really take time with Chris and joke around with him the most in front of the kids. Although he rarely said anything, Chris smiled a lot more then what I was use to. What I also noticed was that the more that I spent time talking with him, so did the other team. He was slowly coming out of his shell and his teammates were starting to see the same gifts he had. He was still a terrible basketball player but with that being said, he worked so hard and pushed others in practice. That was his role on the team and he did his best to fulfill expectations.
His acceptance by his team led to acceptance by others in school. I would usually see Chris on his own at lunch, but now he was hanging out with others at lunch. He not only was sitting with others, but he was actively participating in the conversation. The more he came out of his shell, the more everyone loved him, including myself.
As the season had come to a close, Chris had not scored a single point. Not one the entire year. As we were up in a game by about 20 points, I had put Chris into the game but pulled him aside and said, “I don’t care where you are. If you get the ball, shoot.” I talked with the others on the floor and said the sole objective was to get Chris to score and we needed to make it happen.
Chris was so unselfish and was not comfortable shooting. Every time he touched the ball, he passed it to his teammates even though I was on the sideline yelling, “Shoot! Shoot!”. I called a timeout and told Chris, “You need to shoot. I need you to score.” The gym was full and EVERYONE knew what we were doing and started cheering his name. Chris ended up with the ball about 10 feet behind the 3 point line and I was about 5 feet away from him yelling at him to shoot. Chris launched the ball into the air in a shot that I would have benched any other player for taking. I will never forget the arc of the ball as it seemed to hang in the air forever. Then it happened. “SWISH!” The gym went nuts!
At school the next day, everyone was talking about the shot Chris made and how it was something really special. After that game, Chris was probably never alone again or without friends. Everyone saw what I saw and Chris has been doing fantastic things in his adult life.
At the end of that season, after losing out to go to our provincial championships and being devastated, we went back to our school to pack up our stuff. When we walked out of the gym, I pulled Chris aside and simply said, “Thanks for playing this year. It was a lot of fun.” Chris who had barely ever initiated any conversation with me, stopped me and said, “You’re a good coach.” I immediately had tears. A kid who had barely played at all, and never saw the floor for probably more than 20 minutes the entire season, told me I was a good coach. I probably have never had a more meaningful moment in my career.
I would love to say that I was smart enough to have the foresight to see what was going to happen here, but in reality, I just liked Chris and I wanted him to do well. I didn’t have any clue how his life and my focus would change. Sports to me was about winning first but Chris taught me so much more. As my student, Chris taught me that my influence and impact can go far beyond the classroom. My impact on kids will last for a long time, whether it is good or bad. I need to always be cognizant of this. He also taught me about what “success” really means.
Sports and school were never the same for me. At the end of each season, only one team can win it all. If that is how you define success, you will fail more than you ever succeed. Once the focus changed for me though, I found a way for myself and my kids to be successful every single year.
What does success look like to you?