Summer is about choices.
Do I do the dishes before I go backpacking, or do I just leave?
Do I focus on work today, or is it so nice that I go home early?
Should I go on vacation, or should I buy that hot tub I’ve been thinking about (and maybe leave it in the bed of my truck all summer)?
High school athletes know this as well as anyone. In Washington, the summer is the only time that all sports have freedom. In the fall, winter and spring coaches can only coach you during their season, not outside of it. That way athletes aren’t overworked, and coaches aren’t competing with anyone else in their building for their athlete’s time and attention.
Sure, there are some ways around that — through clubs or loose definitions of the word “technique work” — but in general it kind of works.
The summer is when that changes. Every team can coach every athlete in any way the desire. So athletes have to choose. Am I about summer football this year, or basketball? Track camp or wrestling camp?
Where I’ve worked, head coaches have done a pretty good job of cooperating. Putting football practice Mon/Wed and basketball Tue/Thur for instance. Football right after school and baseball that evening at 7:30.
Even in the best of circumstances though, families have to prioritize. There is only so much juice in an athlete’s legs-even if they are 16.
All of that isn’t even considering family vacations, summer camps, backpacking and mountain biking. Watching siblings, summer jobs, visiting family, etc.
A lot of coaches get pretty good at pressuring kids to make good choices for the coming year, but when a kid tells you he can’t workout this summer because he needs to go to Alaska to fish with Dad for 7 weeks ... there isn’t really much you can say, and even less that you should.
What do you say to the parent who is taking their senior for their “last family vacation ever” the exact week you’ve scheduled summer camp? What should you say?
In the face of all of that, then, are choices. What will you do with your summer? What even *can* you do? What is your capacity, and what are your values? Maybe the biggest difference between high school programs that are successful, and those that are not, are the collective choices of their athletes in the summer.
Will they lift? Will they practice? Will they mountain bike and stay up till 4 a.m. playing Fortnite?
What *can* they do? Do they have to work? Watch a kindergartener at home? Find food whenever and however they can?
Programs that win, year after year, tend to have one answer to these questions. Programs that don’t, tend to have the other.
Which is why college programs do what they can to give their athletes, with all these choices and concerns at their fingertips, an offer they can’t refuse.
Stay. Lift. Eat. Run. Practice. Learn.
This is volun-mandatory. The NCAA forbids the program from requiring you stay. However many are the backup, the walk on, the sophomore who leave for home a stalwart of the two deep, only to return to Pullman buried somewhere out in the desert.
So summer is the season of choices.
I’ve been watching a lot of Martin Scorsese movies lately, if you can’t tell, and they always peak with some kind of choice. A moment in the story where the main character chooses one path or another, and — because it’s a Scorsese movie — almost inevitably their life gets worse (and likely ends) because of that decision.
***Spoilers for years- to decades-old gangster movies in the next line***
They kill Billy Batts in Goodfellas. Ace fires the Sheriff’s brother-in-law in Casino. Frank kills Jimmy Hoffa in the Irishman. Almost every movie comes down to one decisive choice that ruins that characters’ life.
Except that it isn’t just that moment, is it? In each of those instances, those characters spent lifetimes making choices that led to those moments. Hours of screen time representing decades of life that all added up to that moment, one choice. One decision that spins everything else out of control. That moment is less about making a decision, and more about cashing on in a lifetime of choices made up to that point. That’s the power of those moments.
For athletes, each season seems to have a moment or two like that. When the whole season is boiled down to a few seconds. Even bad teams, though in those cases the experience isn’t so much fun. Do I throw the hitch or the go route? Do I take this pitch or swing away? In 2007, we won the apple cup in Seattle when Alex Brink hit Brandon Gibson for a touchdown on Naked 17 G Grey Bubble A *option*.
Meaning, there was a decision to be made — immediately before or during the play — on exactly what route Gibson would run. Choices in a moment. But also choices in other moments. Time spent in film, reps in practice, reps in the summer, conversations and communications about running option routes during and after every game that season, and the one before. It was a defining moment, yes, but it ended up being a good definition because of everything that team had done together that whole year.
High School athletes experience the same phenomena. Why did she have the guts to take the game winning three? It was a choice, sure, but she also spent all summer playing summer league, practicing, playing pickup, and had caught that pass from that teammate hundreds of times already. Did she make that choice as time ran out, or did her muscle memory just kick in? Did she make a decision then, or did she reveal the choice she had made all summer?
In track and field I tell this to throwers all the time. We could skip practice the week of state, and it wouldn’t really matter. The hay is in the barn, as my high school throws coach would say. Did you lift hard in February and March? Did you stay and practice over spring break? Did you make good choices at prom? Those things are what make the difference for those six throws in the state meet. Those choices are revealed, more often than not, in the 7 feet of a shotput ring.
It’s predictable in sports. Track more than most. We literally know which meets matter and which don’t and build entire training programs around peaking athletes at the exact right time.
In real life? Not so predictable, and not so regular. You might have one or two a decade. I had a friend once who interviewed for two different jobs right out of school. One he wanted, and one he would settle for. The latter came back with a yes first. So what do you do? Take the fallback or pass and hope you got the preferred? I can’t tell you his choice, in case he’s reading and can tell who he is, but I can tell you the job he ended up with has been his only one for twenty years.
You’re probably reading this because of such a choice. What college should I go to?
I remember the moment I choose WSU, in January of 2007, alone in my bedroom. I remember telling my decision to my parents the next day, like a jerk, yelling it from the kitchen to the living room at 9 p.m., like it was no big deal.
But just like in a Scorsese movie, that choice was years in the making. It was more than a year of visits and coaches’ dinners. Phone calls and summer camps. It was singing the fight song in my 6th grade class, wearing my Ryan Leaf jersey that went down to my knees. It was packing up in a car right after a Friday night game to head to Pullman with my mom and uncle. It was watching Kellen Winslow be carried off the field for the chargers on ESPN classic, and thinking “I want to do that”.
Life is full of choices, some big, some small, some memorable.
Right now Cougar athletes and their high school counterparts across the state are making many of the choices that their seasons will depend upon. We will get to live through those season-defining moments with them again, but we don’t get to live through the summer with them. We don’t get to help them build the flag, but we do get to watch them plant it on Husky Field.
As a coach, I’ve often told an athlete that they’re making the choice to win next fall this summer. But just like that kid will probably forget that fact when faced with Mountain Dew and an Xbox, I think I often forget that I’m making my next life-changing choice everyday as well. It’s just on a less predictable timeline, and lets face it — I’m staring at something a little stronger than Mountain Dew.
Probably the same Xbox, though.