The Absence of Failure

Google “books about failure” and you will be inundated with options acknowledging the importance of falling short and “leaning into failure.” Interesting.

I’ve failed more than I’d like to admit. Two examples stand out for the important role they have played in my development.

Growing up, I was the best player on my grammar school JV and Varsity teams. The big fish in a small pond, I suppose. My first dose of high school tryouts included 80 something kids going for 12 spots. I was still pretty small and skinny for my age, but I could play. Didn’t matter, as my name wasn’t on the final roster. Cut. That hurt.

My freshman year of college found me getting little playing time early in the season. Some of this was the reality of being a freshman. The rest was self-imposed, as I was an absolute train wreck, barely attending class and staying up all night. It wasn’t long before it caught up to me and I was forced to give up my spot on the team for the second half of the season. No one to blame, but me.

Those two failures motivated me. And in both cases, by the time I was a senior I earned awards saying I was the best male athlete in the school.

I think about how things could have turned out differently.

What if there were no cuts in high school? Or what if the team carried 15…or 20 kids and I made it. How would I have turned out?

What if when I was messing up in college, my parents had been checking in with my teachers every week? Would there not giving me the freedom to fail have prevented my flaming out? Maybe. But would it have been the right thing? I don’t think so.

Failure can inspire us to work harder as it did for me, but it can also lead us down a different path.

In the middle of my coaching career, I recruited a great player from Dallas, TX. He would become one of the leading scorers in the college’s history. Another kid from his high school came along with him and was a pretty good player, a likely contributor down the road. But it was clear early on his commitment wasn’t to basketball. He really loved music. I suggested he might be better focusing on that. Years later, he is a success in the music business and thanks me on the rare occasions we cross paths. He is talented and would have eventually made it in music, but my words expedited the process.

In today’s world, “cutting” him might have been less acceptable. And in not cutting him, I may have actually hurt him more in the long run.

We don’t allow kids to fail much anymore. Sometimes, at all.

In classrooms. On teams. At home.

Our intentions might be good, but ultimately they produce more harm than good. We complain that kids are soft and entitled, but the environment around them allows for it.

Teachers and coaches then play it safe. Afraid to go against the system. A vicious cycle is born.

Now, parents are way more likely to blame the coach or the teacher when their kid falls short. And if it’s not the teacher or coach, it’s another kid…or the ref…

And sometimes, the parent is right. It is the coach or the teacher or the ref or whatever. But is the parent REALLY right?

Might it be better to instead say: “Hey, you came up short. No shame in that. Go figure out what the next step is.”

I see it a lot. And as a parent, I get it. I don’t want to see my kids hurt, either. But I know how much failure has helped me. I’m grateful for it. I’ve been molded by it (Bane voice…never gets old).

There is a thing as too much failure. I’m not advocating for kids to be beaten down by it. But we are smart enough to know the line. The danger of not letting our kids find it is scary.

Let them fail…and then be there to pat them on the back AFTER they get back up.


Good Coach/Bad Coach

This week and next are two of my favorite of the year. I get to sit back and watch high stakes college basketball. This week, teams are fighting to win their league tournaments. Many have no way into the NCAA Tournament but to win it. And next week, the madness begins.

The other interesting aspect is all the hiring and firing that goes on in college basketball. This is the week that many coaches lose their jobs after a tough season. Jim Boeheim and Patrick Ewing were two of the bigger name coaches to see their tenures come to an end.

Other, “smaller” jobs also change hands. Army fired their coach after a 17-15 season and appearance in the semi-finals of the Patriot League tournament. Mark Fox lost his job at Cal after going 3-29 in the PAC-12.

In one of the first coaching clinics I attended, Hubie Brown said a good coach will go 2-23 this year. That’s always stuck with me. It’s so easy to just label a coach as good or bad based on their record. And I get the Parcells line that “you are what your record says you are.” But as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

17-15 doesn’t sound like a great record, but at Army? They’ve only had one better record on paper since 1985. So is Jimmy Allen a bad coach?

3-29 is an awful record, but is Mark Fox a bad coach? He once took Nevada (not exactly a powerhouse basketball school) to 3 straight NCAA Tournament’s and has an overall win percentage of 55%.

Obviously, a coach can make a huge difference. We see great examples of that. No better than at FDU, where Tobin Anderson is leading a team that went 4-22 last year to the NCAA Tournament, this year.

There is always more to a story. And I’m sensitive to it as a coach who has been on both sides of winning and losing seasons. The label of “good coach” or “bad coach” isn’t so simple. There are so many other factors. Location. School and admin support. Fit. Recruiting. Player health. Chemistry.

And how the ball bounces. Luck.

It’s not popular to say, but luck does matter. Sometimes, the ball literally does bounce your way.

And sometimes, it does not.

I don’t think there has ever been a more difficult time to coach basketball. With its rise in popularity, there are more people who “know” the game. More parents and families feel emboldened to share their opinions about how the game should be played. And who should play. And there are more outlets to express those sentiments.

Coaching is not going to get easier.

I have great empathy for my fellow coaches. Some really good basketball coaches are losing their jobs this week.

Rare Air

I’ve had 8-17 seasons where with 2 weeks to go, we knew we were not going to make playoffs. That was tough. And I’ve had seasons like this one, where we tasted success and came a game away from the ultimate prize. To say one hurts more than the other is hard. They both hurt in different ways.

On Saturday, we lost 62-41 in the championship game. Outside of our performance and the result, it was everything you could possibly ask for. A chance to play a local rival for the championship. An incredible high school basketball environment. Unwavering support from our community. It was awesome.

Prior to the game, I read a recent story by the amazing Wright Thompson, about Joe Montana. It’s terrific and told in a way only Wright Thompson can. Towards the end, Joe’s former teammate, Ronnie Lott has a memorable reflection:

It’s the moment that matters. Not records. He was fine to let his trophies burn. He misses the moments. The moments are what he thinks about when he sits at home and watches Brady play in a Super Bowl. He’s not jealous of the result or even the ring. He’s jealous of the experience.

“To sit in rare air …” Ronnie Lott says, searching for the words.

“… is like being on a spaceship.”

Breathing rare air changes you. Every child who’s sucked helium from a birthday balloon knows this and so does Joe Montana and everyone who ever played with him. It’s the feeling so many kids hoped to feel when they slipped on the No. 16 jersey and let the mesh drape over their arms.

“He breathed rare air with me,” Lott says, and the way he talks about air sure sounds like he’s talking about love.

– Wright Thompson (credit Coach Bob Walsh for sharing)

That quote was perfect for me in the hours leading up to the game. Our team was breathing “rare air.” The nerves. The excitement. The buzz.

When the game ended, and the opponent celebrated, we were still breathing “rare air.” It hurt like hell. It still does. It’s a unique kind of pain. Anger, sadness, regret…all kinds of other emotions and feelings jumbled together.

But it’s a privileged pain. A pain that comes from being out there…in the arena.

Some might look at it and say, “Ah, it’s a high school basketball game. No big deal.” They don’t get it. Never will. That’s ok.

This time of the year in basketball brings a lot of jubilation. We felt it Thursday night when we won our home semifinal game. But most teams see their seasons end with a loss. Whether after an 8-17 season or the championship game, it hurts.

In the coming days, I’ll bounce back (my wife prays).

But for now, I’ll keep breathing this “rare air.” Not the kind I want to breathe, but still…

Jack of all trades…

I’m not sure if it was my sophomore or junior season of college, but my coach was going over the pre-game scout when he said something that has stuck with me throughout my 20 years of coaching.

“Jack of all trades…master of none.”

He was referring to our upcoming opponent, who played five or six different defenses. We on the other hand, played one – man to man. He wanted us to know that their playing so many defenses meant they could not possibly be good at any one of them. They were simply trying to rattle you with different looks. That if we kept our composure, we would be able to punish them.

Two years ago, I made the decision to become a zone defense team. For the previous 18 years, I would say 99% of the time my teams played man to man. And overall, we were good at it. I loved playing man as a player because there was no better feeling in basketball then shutting down the opposing teams best scorer. But, I felt strongly before the 2021-2022 season that we should go zone. That it would fit our personnel. And after some research found the zone that fit best. It’s different (which I like) and also really well thought out. It’s not easy to teach, but once guys get it, it’s a bear.

Sometimes which choice you make is not as important as making a choice and committing to it.

Matthew McConaughey

There have been plenty of times over the last two seasons where I thought about changing our defense. Either mixing in some man or fully making the switch. Because it’s a zone and it’s different, it’s easier for players and those watching to be critical of it. But through these doubts, I always come back to that quote from my college coach.

Focusing on one thing is hard. Committing to something is hard. But it can also be tremendously rewarding. Shaka Smart said it best with the idea of commitment vs. interest.

We talk to our guys all the time about the difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in something, you do it when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you do it all the time, even when you lost that feeling that you originally had when you you made the original commitment.

Shaka Smart

A coach (or person) can’t be stubborn to the point of stupidity. There is a time and place to make a different choice. But more times than not, the right answer is to double down. Not give in. Stick to the choice and get better.

I tend to be one of those people, now (not sure I was in my younger days). I want it to work. I’m willing to go to the limits to make it work…even if it is painful.

Jack of all trades or master of one? You choose.

PS – This is not an endorsement of sport specificity vs. generalization. That’s a different convo in many ways (and to come…)

Books of 2022

In 2021, I read 34 books. 2022? 14. Thanks Lucas! I can’t solely blame my third child. I struggled to get through a number of books. I mostly blame modern day times and my ever shortening attention span. I also found a great podcast that breaks down books about some awesome characters in history. But, I did get some strong reads in. Hoping for a great 2023 in the reading department.

Top 5 of 2022 (with all the rest below):

5) The Island by Adrian McKinty

The only fiction book to make my top 5. This was a page turner, anxiety inducing, hard to put down thriller. It was fun and made me want to read more of McKinty.

4) King Richard by Michael Dobbs

A fascinating look into Watergate. There is so much out there on Watergate (most of which I’ve not read), but I have to imagine this is one of the better deep dives into a crazy story. Books like this give me hope that maybe the world isn’t crazier today than ever…maybe.

3) Tanking To The Top by Yaron Weitzman

My favorite basketball book of the year. I got really interested in Sam Hinkie after listening to him on a terrific podcast. This book has lots of cool inside info on the NBA and one of the boldest (and smartest) executives to run a franchise.

2) The Tools by Phil Stutz

I mentioned previously how much I like the “Stutz” documentary on Netflix. The book is really good too. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety in my life, I find it really helpful to have some actionable tools to use. I find this take on therapy very refreshing and have used some of the tools successfully in a short time.

1) Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I had this book sitting on my bookshelf since it came out. I decided to give it a go and it was tremendous. Jobs is a tough guy to like personally, but man was he brilliant. So many actionable takeaways. I can’t get enough of reading and listening to anything on Jobs. So applicable to anyone in a creative, teaching or coaching position.

The rest:

In ‘n Out by Stacy Perman

City on Fire by Don Winslow

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley

The Match by Harlan Coben

Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Drama by Bob Odenkirk

The Tough Stuff by Cody Royle

15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer

Winning by Tim Grover

Roller Coasters

Managing emotions is one of the great challenges in coaching. No matter the level, sports bring emotion we don’t see in many other walks of life. Aside from a coach managing their own emotions, their is also the emotional energy of the group to consider. This can vary game to game and moment to moment.

This past weekend brought much of that home. Three games in three days. A team still finding itself while dealing with injuries, illness and other inevitable challenges a season brings. On Friday night, we jumped out to a solid start on a good opponent only to see that lead whittle away and turn into a deficit we could not overcome, early in the second half.

Day two, brought a quick turnaround with an opponent who also lost their game the night before. I find these “consolation” games typically come down to who can get over their loss faster. I’m oversimplifying it (is that possible?), but there is truth to that. We had good energy from the start and led handily from start to finish.

Another quick turnaround awaited with a final game against a good opponent to close out a busy first semester. Once again, a strong start could not be sustained. We battled and hung around, but ultimately lost. After the game, we hopped in our vans and made the trek back home to lick our wounds. Ten days of rest await us. A chance to sit back, reflect and prepare for the hectic home stretch.

Such is the “roller coaster” a season can be. Prior to the season I heard David Senra call that euphoria and terror the “entrepreneur’s roller coaster.” It stuck and a roller coaster is one of the images I often draw prior to a game.

A disappointing basketball weekend ended with a bright spot. My NY Giants got a huge road win over division rival Washington. Sure enough, another of my go-to sources for quotes, Brian Daboll, dropped this gem after the game:

“I don’t believe in riding the roller coasters in this league. I did it early in my career, and it doesn’t help anybody. The only thing you can control is what’s right in front of you.”

– Brian Daboll, NY Post

A huge part of my job is not to ride that roller coaster. The highs and lows are inevitable. It’s easy to get caught up in them. For me, it’s always been easier to get caught up in the frustration and self-pity that can accompany losing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some of that today. A season with lots of promise not going the way I want it to.

But I also see the big picture. I know this roller coaster well. I know what matters.

What’s right in front of you.

Play the long game.

And wait ’til Six Flags opens to get on a roller coaster.

Performance Lab for Athletes

I think it was the spring of my sophomore year in college when I signed up for a 2 credit class called, “Performance Lab for Athletes.” I mean, come on, right? No brainer!

I expected the class to be a joke. It ended up being a class that I’m writing a blog about nearly 20 years later.

The teacher of the class was an actor who was also really into martial arts and sports. He was a big, strong and calm guy. He had some aura that I found appealing. I wanted some of that confidence he projected.

One of the more memorable exercises was to think of our goals and draw that visual image on an index card. We were then to carry the index card in our wallets and look at them, regularly.

I struggle with the concept of goal setting at times (a blog for another day), but this idea of drawing them struck me. But being a words guy and not artistic, it wasn’t pretty, but I liked it. I’d take out the card from time to time and it helped to spark me or re-focus after a rough patch.

I can’t say the exercise stuck. I am a words guy, after all.

But the other night, I watched a terrific documentary called “Stutz” on Netflix. Jonah Hill directs and acts as he interviews and reveals the tricks of his therapist, Phil Stutz.

Stutz has a series of “Tools” he uses with his clients that are meant to give them an action to help them. His ideas are not revolutionary in nature, but they are different from most Western therapy. Plus, they make sense.

He draws out on an index card some visual for his Tools to help his clients better understand the point. Stutz is also not an artist. In fact, he suffers from Parkinson’s and his drawings reflect that. But they are powerful.

The other day, I had my usual game day jitters. These are especially strong early in the season when the uncertainty of what my team will be is strong.

As is typical, I spent the last 8 months learning and trying to improve as a coach (and person). I narrowed my focus a bit and kept my approach to learning simpler, but I do have a number of great ideas that I want to apply.

I decided to write out on an index card the visual for these ideas. I found it soothing to draw and seeing the visual helped drive home the behavior I was hoping to encourage.

An example would be the New York Giants logo I drew. I’ve read a lot about how Coach Brian Daboll has instilled a confidence and swagger into a team that is notorious for having a losing mentality. After their first game, he talked a lot about how he would “not coach afraid.” I wanted to remember that for myself. Don’t coach scared. Coach freely and aggressively. The logo helps remind me to be bold and act decisively.

This Tool is a simple idea and it may wear out over the course of the season. But I take comfort in knowing that I had a good experience with this concept nearly 20 years ago. History repeats itself, after all.

“He bled well…”

There’s a boxing story that gets me emotional every time I read it. It’s a story football coach Bill Parcells used to share with his teams of a fight from the 1970’s between Vito Antuofermo and Cyclone Hart. Hart, a heavy puncher, was the favorite. Antuofermo’s best quality was that…well…”he bled well.”

In Rocky fashion, Antuofermo withstands a ton of punishment to knock out Hart late in the fight. It’s what happens after though that moves me every time I read it:

“When the fighters went back to their makeshift locker rooms, only a thin curtain was between them. Hart’s room was quiet, but on the other side he could hear Antuofermo’s cornermen talking about who would take the fighter to the hospital. Finally, he heard Antuofermo say, ‘Every time he hit me with that left hook to the body, I was sure I was going to quit. After the second round, I thought if he hit me there again, I’d quit. I thought the same thing after the fourth round. Then he didn’t hit me no more.’

“At that moment, Hart began to weep. It was really soft at first. Then harder. He was crying because for the first time he understood that Antuofermo had felt the same way he had and worse. The only thing that separated the guy talking from the guy crying was what they had done. The coward and the hero feel the same emotions. They’re both human.”

Oooph. Still gets me. Maybe because I understand both sides so well.

I like the meaning of this story right now, because my 20th season of coaching is about to start up. There have been many times where I’ve thought, “that’s it…I can’t do this anymore…this hurts too much.” I’m nowhere near as brave as Antuofermo, but I have kept going. I’m not unique in this, nor is coaching basketball exclusive to it.

My favorite podcaster, David Senra, calls this the “entrepreneur’s roller coaster.” The “euphoria and terror” embedded in taking on something you might fail at…even may likely fail at.

The idea that when you take on something you care deeply about it will be hard. It helps to accept this fact going in.

Senra shares a quote from Ernest Shackleton that guides him:

“By endurance, we conquer.”

A fitting quote for the upcoming season, but also for the trials we may face in day to day life.

Keep getting up.

Taking Notes

If I could trace my transformation as a student to one class, it’s easy. American Sports History in my sophomore year of college. Up until then, I’d thought myself not very smart and someone who school was not for. I’d been told otherwise, by caring teachers and family. But it never sunk in. For me, school had simply been what I had to do to play basketball.

After receiving a 1.10 GPA in my first semester of college and losing the game I loved, I slowly started to get my academic act together. I took summer classes. I took a lighter load in the first semester of my sophomore year. My GPA improved to a 2.4. But I can’t say my confidence ticked up. I was still a “bad student” in my mind.

In the spring, I signed up for the class every athlete in the school probably ended up taking.

American Sports History.

It was with a teacher I saw sitting in the stands at all of our games, and most of the college’s athletics contests. I’d heard good things about him and it seemed like a no brainer.

The class got rolling and I made the mistake of sitting in the back of a huge lecture hall with my teammates. I might as well have stayed in my dorm room.

I crammed for the first test and pulled out a…”Come see me.” No thanks. I skipped the professor’s advice and kept plodding along. Eventually, he tracked me down and told me he was impressed with my writing and thought I could be a good history student (and student, in general). He mentioned my choice for seating as a reason for my struggles and suggested I move up. Despite the teasing of my friends, I begrudgingly took his advice. I sat in the very front of the room. When I did that, I figured I might as well take notes. This was a 75 minute lecture style class. No group work or seminar. It was old school. Sit there and listen as a master shares his vast trove of knowledge.

The topic was obviously fascinating to a sports nut like me. I found it interesting, especially the book on a boxer named, Jack Dempsey. But I also learned something else in that class. Something that would be invaluable to my later success as a student.

I was a good notetaker. Like scary good.

I would literally write down EVERYTHING the professor said. My notebook filled up each class.

I spent the days leading up to the next test looking through my notes. I earned an ‘A-‘. It was the best grade I’d received in a long time. My confidence ticked up.

I continued taking notes until my arm literally ached.

And I continued to do well. An ‘A’ on the next test along with some praise from the teacher helped me cross an important barrier. I now KNEW how I best learned. I took off from there, finding a love for history and transferred my notetaking abilities to other subject areas.

I was a Deans List student for the rest of my college career.


First, it helped me immensely to find a subject that interested me. I love history. It’s interesting…and valuable. Isn’t there a line like, “History repeats itself.”

Second, I had a teacher who encouraged me. Who saw my potential and was specific with what I needed to do…and not do. It also happened to be the right time to hear his message, as I had recently lost the thing that mattered most to me…basketball.

But in looking back, figuring out how I learned best, might have been the most important lesson.

To this day, I am an avid notetaker. I sit in meetings often and am usually one of the quieter people in the room. But I’m always listening and taking notes. This past weekend I attended a college practice with some of my players and took 5 pages of notes (front and back). I find myself taking notes even when I know the material or have heard the topic before. Hence my hundreds of marble notebooks.

Something that I have had to work on with this skill is how to use those notes. I am certainly a visual learner in that I learn better by seeing over listening. But just taking notes is not enough. I have to go back over them and dissect what is truly important. Gleam out the important stuff.

A recent discussion with my new favorite podcast host, David Senra, got me thinking more in depth on this topic. Senra takes a copious amount of notes for his weekly podcast in which he shares the greatest lessons from the biographies of successful founders. As he reads a book, he highlights and underlines. Then he writes out his key points. Then he reviews those. Then he shares them in his podcast. Then he edits them. So, when it’s all said and done he’s had five or six deep dives into the important lessons of his topic.

That’s mastery.

That’s really engaging with something and being able to own it.

It’s possible the skill of notetaking will suffer in the years to come with a continued reliance on technology.

We will rely less and less on a notebook and pen.

Not me.

I’m a lifer.

Thank God for American Sports History.

Aaron Judge

Being a Yankee fan is interesting. We’ve had mostly success in my lifetime. 5 World Series victories and 34 winning seasons in my 34 years (ok fine, whatever…41…jeez). But there is a weight attached to the Yankees. They’re supposed to win the World Series every year! And when they don’t…failure!

Not an ideal approach. After all, it’s really hard to win it all! That’s why only one team gets to do it.

One of the true joys of being a Yankee fan recently has been watching Aaron Judge. His performance has been otherworldly with numbers straight from a video game: .316 average, 60 home runs and 128 RBI’s. He’s basically led baseball in every single significant individual offensive category all season.

But it’s not just WHAT he’s doing, it’s HOW he’s doing it.

Which is part of the reason Judge excuses himself from the talk of numbers. He said “60” just once in a news conference following the game. He said “team” at least 10 times. He could enmesh himself in a debate about the real record or the rightful record. He prefers an almost-hymnal dedication to the party line by which he lives.

“To get a chance to play baseball at Yankee Stadium, packed house, first-place team, that’s what you dream about,” Judge said. “I love every second of it. Even when we were down, you don’t like losing, but I knew top of the lineup coming up, we got a shot to come back here and do something special. I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in, but I know I still got a job to do out on the field every single day.”

– Jeff Passan,

I know that time flies and I should enjoy my kids at their ages (6, 5 and 10 months), but I also wish they were a little older so they could watch Judge and learn from him.

“You see that Demps, he just struck out and the first thing he did was pass Rizzo and say “Get him Riz.” Then he stood at the top of the dugout between two young teammates, Peraza and Bader, to tell them what he saw from the pitcher.”

“See Lucas, nothing on his face. Doesn’t show he’s angry even though the ump called that ball a strike.”

“Look how happy he is for his teammates, Stephen. He’s like a little kid jumping up and down because Donaldson got that big hit.”

I can imagine saying some of those lines to my kids as we watch Judge perform and set the example I’d want them to follow. I cringe every time an NBA player put 3 fingers to his head for making an open 3-pointer. Or when a wide receiver acts as though he won the Super Bowl when all he did was get a first down.

Judge should be appreciated for performing at a level we rarely see.

But it’s the HOW that is best of all.

The poise his body language echoes. The consistency. The small acts of leadership. And most of all, the joy. He looks like he enjoys the game and his teammates.

And you can see it reciprocated when they gravitate to him in the dugout or celebrate his accomplishments. Being a great teammate is the hardest thing to fake in sports. And Judge is clearly a great teammate.

Sure, we witnessed history with #60. But we’re also witnessing history with #99 everyday.

I want to appreciate that…even if it doesn’t include seeing my sixth World Series.