Today on BRING IT IN at 11 a.m. ET: Erie Bayhawks coach Ryan Pannone (who goes way back with David Thorpe). Thursday on BRING IT IN: Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey.
BY DAVID THORPE
When my son Max was ten, he played baseball on a Little League All-Star team led by a local attorney and former Florida football player named Don Tinney. Don named me the team's "general manager"—with the job of acting as a liaison between parents, coaches, and players. And then he banned all the other parents from practices! The idea was to build a special bond among the players.
Little League is unlike AAU or "travel" baseball in that the players are not typically all that serious. Or experienced. Many of the players are just playing competitive sports for the first time.
The year before, our nine- and ten-year-old All-Star team had been talented enough, but had underperformed. So what was the problem? It turned out the issue had less to do with fielding grounders or hitting the strike zone—and more to do with collectively committing to a cause. We needed to be audacious in our thinking, and aspire to do big things. Coach Tinney agreed to a funny idea I had: to practice "game clinching" plays on offense and defense.
What I really wanted the team to do was to practice celebrating. My hope was that the players would literally feel what it was like to charge the field exuberantly after a win—or feel the pain of failure. Both worked, in theory, to help sharpen their focus in regular practice. Buckle down now, in this practice, and you might get to feel that in a game. Learning how to live in the moment, day after day. It pulls together a lot of conscious and subconscious urges and, I believe, makes success more likely. (There’s a lot of research about the power of creative visualization.)
So that's what happened. Often we ended practice with the coaches setting up a pretend game-winning play. Again and again, we pretended the district title was one play away, and we let the team play it out. At first, they struggled. If they “won” the district title, most of the boys had no idea how to react. Over time, they caught on.
Our team was historically one of the weakest in our district—we drew from a much smaller population than most of our competitors. In our second game of pool play we faced one of the best teams. But our boys played beautifully. Max made the fielding play of his young life. Everyone did their part, and we were winning 9-0 through three innings. Most of the people present—including many of the players, didn’t realize two spectacular things were happening:
We were close to having a seven-run lead in the fourth inning, which would end the game because of the mercy rule. That meant good things for our team: mostly that our pitcher, Alex, could finish the game before reaching his mandatory maximum pitch count, and that the next pitcher up—Max—could rest his arm entirely.
Alex was working on a no-hitter.
Alex struck out the batter for the final out. Max and our catcher did exactly what we had been practicing, and then some. They charged the mound like they’d won the World Series. My son recorded the only tackle of his life as he neck-whipped his buddy to the ground in celebration.
The rest of the team didn't realize it was a no-hitter, and most of them were unsure it meant the game ended. At our next practice I spoke to the boys about when they might get a chance to celebrate again. What would be at stake. And how if they didn’t learn how to "lock-in" now, they most likely wouldn’t be ready to take advantage of that "winning time" moment when it comes. I made them imagine jumping all over the game-winning runner, or the fielder who made the catch for the final out. They couldn't help but smile.
After going undefeated in pool play and then pounding out a win against a strong team from a huge league in the semifinals, we faced the dominating defending champs from Palm Harbor. The biggest league. With tons of talent. (Their top two pitchers, twins, both have scholarships at big-time Division 1 programs right now.) Some of their players were literally twice the size of my son, who trotted out as our starting pitcher.
But our team was fueled by love. Every parent, player, and coach believed. My son pitched almost flawlessly. When his pitch count was reached, we were six outs from an incredible win, up 7-1. Alex was out of pitches from the previous games, so in came Billy, our starting catcher, who threw soft strikes—but was heady and tough. It wasn’t a fair fight, the opposing bats woke up, and they hammered him. He kept fighting, and as the defense melted under the pressure, we scratched out a few more runs and were up 12-10 with two outs in their final at-bat. They had two runners on, so a homer would win it for them—as would a lot of different scenarios. Merely continuing to hit as they had been doing would be enough.
Honestly, I had lost faith. I was already finding moral victories, imagining how we’d talk about a well-fought game. Then, a batter hit a grounder that took a nasty hop toward the shortstop, Alex. He charged the ball and blew my mind with a miraculous play, gunning down the runner just before he got to first base. Game over.
Everything we had ever practiced happened all at once—pro-level celebrations all over. Pandemonium hit the fields, my son broke his previous speed record as he raced from centerfield to join the dogpile atop Alex. Everyone knew exactly what had happened. The parents were in tears, just as I am right now typing these words.
My wife filmed this event, and caught my cheers from the sidelines as the left field umpire slowly walked towards the infield, one of the game balls in his hand. “Give this game ball to that pitcher, #21. I’ve never seen anyone shut down that team like your pitcher did.” He didn’t know he was talking about my son. The hugs I shared with every player on that team, every coach, my parents, wife, daughter, and one of my brothers, were as good as any I’ve ever felt.
I can’t say for sure why our little team pulled off such a big upset. Our top players, Max and Alex, will be playing college hoops next year, not baseball. Their team has at least four guys who are either already in college to play baseball or are headed there next year. Our coach was perfect, and the staff was good enough to work with college teams. But having coached for a long time, I believe it really helped that we taught our guys what it means to celebrate. How to do it, how to earn it, and what primal glee there is when it happens, if done right. We let them FEEL IT, dream it. We were not afraid of failure. Our players were HUNGRY to feel that energy.
How do you make it happen? Everyone has to do their part. Everybody has to love everybody. Always expect success, but know bad things will happen. Don’t fold when they do. Stay locked in. Listen to trusted leaders. Work hard.
Big things are possible.
Every adult has seen the footage and photos. VE Day in America. The end of the war in Europe. It’s May, 1945. Everyone is out in the streets. Everyone is in black and white. Hugging. Kissing. These are the embraces that spawned a generation of baby boomers.
As a nation, 99 percent of us have never tumbled out onto the streets like the elated people in those pictures.
Sure we’ve celebrated before. But while cheering our team’s big win or a championship ring is great, it’s not the same as celebrating the end of collective hardship. I have not given my daughter a proper hug in weeks. Months may go by before I embrace my mom and dad, who are 80 and 78. I’m afraid to kiss my lovely wife of almost 30 years, at least the way I really want to. I haven’t seen my close friends. None of us has. The stakes are so high. We’re worried that being in contact with the people we love (which is the way we usually show our love) could actually make them very sick—or even kill them.
So one day, we will celebrate for real. And if we want those heady 1945 moments, I believe we need to really picture it first. Imagine how euphoric we will feel when we hear that the nation has just gone three straight days without a single positive coronavirus test. Picture reading, a few days later, that limits on movement and travel have been lifted. We probably won’t cram the streets like they did after the war, but we will most definitely celebrate. I want to dance outside with my family. I want to see the smiles on everyone's faces. I want to hear the stories from our heroes—the doctors, nurses, and health care workers who are risking their lives RIGHT NOW to save others. They will tell us about other heroes too. We won’t stop smiling for days.
Picture all that. Let it wash over you. And then understand that we build to that incredible victory by locking in now. We need to focus on making sure we do what we have to do to make it happen. Do our jobs. Follow instructions. This is a real battle—and it’s going to take real work. Ignore the leaders who are lying, but listen to those who have earned our trust.
If you ever feel like it’s too much, just close your eyes. Picture yourself at the moment of victory.
Thanks for reading TrueHoop! Thursday on BRING IT IN at 11 a.m. ET: Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey.