Call it a rain delay, a sabbatical, a redshirt year…whatever you feel like calling it, but it’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts! It’s just that time of year when things tend to get a little crazy around a college athletic department!
But crazy is good! Especially when you have the privilege of watching young men and women work hard and achieve their goals. Goals are an interesting concept in sports. Great coaches and leaders set high goals and expectations for their team, then set in motion a plan to achieve those goals.
There are numerous challenges and changes along the way, and often those goals must be re-evaluated mid-season—sometimes you can raise the expectations, sometimes they must be lowered. The important thing is for coaches to help student-athletes remained focused on challenging, but achievable objectives.
Six months ago, I made a personal decision to run my first full marathon. I’ve completed 5 half-marathons, and have run consistently for the past 12-14 years. But 26.2 miles is a long way to run. When I started, my goal was to finish the marathon in under 4 hours. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I set a goal. A few months into my training, I began surprising myself with my times in workouts, and based on a few race results, some research and counsel from various sources, raised my goal to a three hour and 40 minute marathon. My performance allowed me to raise my expectations, and they were realistic, although challenging.
About eight weeks prior to race day, I developed a nagging foot injury, and for the next 8 weeks, was forced to reduce my weekly mileage and adjust my training efforts. Who knows the reason for the injury, probably out of my control, but being a competitive person, however, I refused to lower my expectations for race day. I’d run at that pace numerous times over long training runs, and I was confident I could still achieve my goals.
Crossing mile 15, I felt great, and possessed a continuing confidence I would achieve my goal. But marathons are tough, and lack of training shows up over the course of 26.2 miles. Just three miles later, the situation had changed drastically. My legs began to tire, and the injury to my foot began to flare up. My pace slowed, and achieving my goal suddenly seemed like a long shot.
By the time I crossed the 21-mile mark, my goal of a three hour and 40 minute marathon was ancient history. My lack of training for the past eight weeks was becoming apparent, and my legs were nearing the point of “shutting down.” But, like any good coach or athlete, quitting was not an option. I simply re-evaluated my goals. At that point, the time I crossed the finish line didn’t matter. I set a new goal – just finish the race.
I suffered through the next three miles, and at about mile 24, did some quick math on the run, realized that my original goal of four hours was within reach, but it would take some work and the ability to endure some pain. I picked up the pace, pushed through the pain, and came in at three hours, 59 minutes, and 5 seconds. It wasn’t the goal I wanted, but given the circumstances I faced during the race, it was a nice goal to achieve.
Now – what was the point of that story? Certainly most of you couldn’t care less about my marathon, and that’s fine. But, in all of our athletic efforts, the ability to re-evaluate expectations and set new goals mid-season is a huge key to long term success. If I’d dropped out at mile 21 when my goal was not achievable, I’d have missed the satisfaction of completing a marathon and achieving a goal set six months prior, even if that goal was lower than I’d hoped.
A college athletic season is a marathon, regardless of the sport. Throughout the season, variables come into play that change the circumstances, sometimes beyond your control, and the ability to set new goals and focus on the next game is the key to success.
Every team who takes the field on the first day of practice has lofty goals – conference championships, NCAA appearances, national championships—the goals are set. Of the 10-12 teams in a given conference, only one will win a championship, only a small percentage will make the NCAA tournament, and only one team will win a national championship. Throughout the course of a season, most teams will see their goals become unrealistic – that’s when it’s important to re-evaluate your goals and focus on the next objective.
I witnessed this first hand from our women’s soccer team this season. Like all teams, they entered the season with high expectations. Injuries and other circumstances beyond the team’s control placed them in a challenging situation early in the season, but they continued to fight toward their goal. Throughout the season, our young women fought hard, but failed to catch a break. In five double-overtime games, they emerged winless. It seemed they didn’t get a break all year, very few balls “bounced their way.”
The team found themselves in the unenviable situation of needing to win their final regular season game to qualify for the postseason tournament, a long way away from their preseason goals. Much like my marathon, they were in the final miles, and forced to re-evaluate their goals. They responded with a convincing win, and were rewarded with a first round game (on the road) against the #1 seed, Lees-McRae, a team with one conference loss and just three regular season conference losses in the past three seasons.
Facing a daunting task, the team responded with a thrilling 1-0 upset win, becoming the first King women’s soccer team to advance to the Conference Carolinas semifinals. Given that three days prior they weren’t even sure they’d be in the conference tournament, this was a remarkable achievement, a goal attained. The celebration was intense – but short lived. Within 3-4 minutes, coach Simon Duffy had the team assembled, and like a runner calculating the pace mid-race, new goals were set before the team – win the semifinals and advance to the championship game.
Ultimately, the team played hard, but fell short against the eventual conference champion Pfeiffer University. Despite the outcome, the season had many successes, including the deepest run in the Conference Carolinas Tournament in program history.
Every season is like a marathon – it’s long, requires a lot of hard work, and to achieve your goals, you need not only to work hard, but you typically need a little luck along the way. When injuries or bad luck derail your original goals, successful coaches and teams set new goals and work towards those goals.
For some teams, they get the bounces and everything falls into place, allowing them to achieve their goals. Much like the innumerable runners who passed me in the final six miles of my marathon, our women’s volleyball team marched to a 17-1 conference record and a regular season Conference Carolinas championship, achieving a goal they set in August. That goal has been achieved – and now a new goal is laid before them, as they open postseason tournament play on Saturday in their quest for a Conference Carolinas Tournament championship and NCAA postseason berth.
Our women’s cross country team achieved a goal by winning their second consecutive Conference Carolinas championship, and senior Hannah Witt achieved a personal goal of winning the NCAA Southeast Regional Championship. Hannah will be joined in the NCAA National Championships by our men’s cross country team, who by finishing second at the Southeast Regional, achieved a significant goal by earning their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships.
Our winter sports are underway. Women’s wrestling is ranked #1 in the country and has had some key victories over top the programs early in the season – their goals are clear. Men’s basketball earned the Conference Carolinas coaches’ votes for preseason favorite, and put together an impressive 131-point performance on Wednesday night. They’re on the right track. Not to be out-done, our women’s team racked up an equally impressive 102 points in a season opening win over Pikeville, while our swimming teams continue to set school records in the pool and accumulate wins early in the season.
Yes – goals have been set, and teams are striving to achieve them. Much like a marathon, some teams will re-evaluate their goals mid-race. Sometimes you raise your expectations, and sometimes circumstances force you to lower them. But either way, it’s important to have identifiable goals and work towards them.
Successful teams do this. Success athletes do it as well. Successful people do it in the real world – in their lives. And that’s what’s important. That is what we are teaching our student-athletes at King. Through sports and the challenges presented – we are teaching our student-athletes how to be successful in everything they do.