What makes for a championship team?
If you think you'll find the answer from the athletes themselves, you'll likely be disappointed. It's the rare athlete who can articulate why he triumphed in any given game, or explain what drove him to defeat. After Rafael Nadal won his ninth French Open earlier this month, he said "I had enough courage. I made the right decisions at the right moments and ended up on top." When Roger Federer lost in the fourth round of the same tournament, he said "A lot of regrets. I just couldn't kind of figure it out." Baseball, football, soccer, golf, basketball, and every other sport: the players typically offer up some variation of "I just had it out there today," when they triumph, and "I just didn't have it out there today," when they don't.
Sports are like that. It's hard to put into words what makes an individual athlete, or a team, strive harder than the others to win the competitions.
This year, for the first time in school history, the girls' cross-country team at Kent Place School , a collection of kids ranging widely in age and experience -- and a team that I coached -- won a state championship. As well, every girl, varsity and junior varsity alike, ran her fastest time ever over five kilometers. In 10 years of coaching, I've never had such a winning team. What drove it? Forget for a minute about natural talent, because that's beyond anyone's control, and it's presumably spread evenly among the non-recruiting teams in our state section. In looking back over the season, I've identified five reasons for the team's wins:
First: They were prepared. Every year, we coaches tell the girls that success in the fall is determined by work over the summer. And this year, all the returning girls took that advice to heart. They figured out, to paraphrase legendary coach John Wooden, that it's what you do when no one's cheering that determines how successful you're going to be. For running in particular, victory comes to those who can pull themselves out of bed on hot summer mornings and get their solitary workouts in before the rest of the world has woken up.
Second: They had spirit. Imagine heading out to a poorly marked course after a long day at the office and then busting a lung trying to beat your nemesis. Think about staying up all night finishing a presentation for incoming clients and then being told to sprint up a long, steep hill, several times -- oh, but faster on the next one, please. That's what this winning team did all season. But thanks to the enthusiasm of one senior for all things Katy Perry, and to the generosity of a certain sophomore who honored every birthday with a homemade treat, and to the relentless optimism of the team's leaders, these daily crucibles morphed into happy adventures.
Third: They wanted it, and there's no substitute for this. You can't fake it. You can't pay for it. You can't impose it. Desire is something that comes from within, and these girls had it. They wanted to win, to see what they could do as runners, and that desire propelled them to the finish line ahead of their less-ambitious peers, and faster than they had run in previous races. Desire is the greatest intangible of team success, and something we coaches have minimal control over. These girls wanted it for themselves, and because they did, they took home the state title.
Fourth: We coaches were partners with the girls. Though we didn't physically race with them when they hauled themselves up hills and dashed furiously to the finish, we might as well have. Their victories were our victories, their losses our losses. I still relive our devastating, razor-thin second place finish in the conference championship, but levitate with delight when recalling that glorious state-championship victory. Coaches have to suffer along with their team, care as much as any athlete about the results, and be willing to confront their own role in an unhappy outcome. Teenagers have a finely tuned antenna for adult hypocrisy -- the rigid English teacher who sermonizes about creativity, the fat gym teacher preaching about "healthy lifestyles" -- and coaches, with our insistence on effort and dedication, sit in the cross-hairs of their judgment. To be effective, we have to be partners with our team, not dictators.
Fifth: They internalized the team mottoes we tried to instill in them from the get go. These included "the cross-country team isn't late" -- because it's attention to detail at the margins that wins championships -- "success creates passion as much as passion creates success" -- because you don't wait for passion, sometimes it follows results -- and most important, "you don't know how good you can be." Never has this last truism felt more right than with this group of girls. They discovered possibilities within themselves that none of us knew they had. We discovered it together. How fast can they go? How good will they be? This unknown drove them forward this season and motivates all of us for next year.
There are scads of other reasons for the team's success, many having to do with timing, luck and the vagaries of the human body. But show me a team that's prepared, spirited, and hungry, one that's willing to partner with their fallible coaches and heed their collective advice, and I'll show you a team of champions.