your son, in a struggle


Last week the Boston Celtics eliminated the Chicago Bulls from the NBA playoffs in what ended up being a dramatic series with storylines that grabbed national attention. First, Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, who we referenced in last week’s newsletter, overcame the tragic death of his younger sister and poured in a heroic performance. Then, the top-seeded Celtics stormed back to win four games in a row after losing the first two games at home to the #8 seed Bulls. It was an impressive and inspiring turn-around. 

One storyline from that turnaround that didn’t get much attention was the one involving Amir Johnson, the Celtics big man. Though not a household name, Johnson led the Celtics, the winningest team in the Eastern Conference this season, in both games played (80 out of 82) and games started (77 out of 82). He’s been a centerpiece in Boston’s lineup and has played an important part in their regular season success. But after losing those first two playoff games to the Bulls, Celtics coach Brad Stevens decided his team’s best chance to win meant putting Amir Johnson on the bench, and leaving him there. 

As I’m sure you’re aware, nobody likes being on the bench. After a long, successful season, it was certainly not where Amir Johnson wanted to be. If your son finds himself on the bench, it’s probably not where wants to be either, or where you’d like to see him. Especially when a challenging situation like this one exists outside our control, not getting what we want can be tough. Imagine your son starting and playing in more games than anyone else on the team all season, and then the playoffs come and coach relegates him to the bench. How tough would that be to experience, for a player or his parent? In this day and age, you might be surprised by Amir Johnson’s response. 

Like all moments of adversity – especially the ones that exist outside his control, a player’s response to being put on the bench usually reveals a lot about his toughness and his character. For a young player who experiences this or any other kind of adversity, it probably also reveals something about the toughness and character of his parents. Whether it’s this specific struggle or any other that your young athlete faces, there is a great lesson for all of us – players and parents alike – in the response of a champion athlete like Amir Johnson. As the waning seconds of the Celtics-Bulls series ticked off the clock, and probably after most people had changed the channel and left the arena, commentator and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy made some enlightening comments about Amir Johnson and any player who finds himself in a struggle.

Guys with a mentality like Amir Johnson’s, "who find themselves in a struggle," Van Gundy says, "always have a chance to find their way back." Of course being benched isn’t what Amir Johnson wanted, and it's not what he’d choose if he had any say in the matter. But it’s clear, in this moment of challenge, that he's come to understand a few important truths that every champion athlete understands – truths that your son needs to accept if you want him to be a champion athlete, too: 

*Adversity will be a part of the champion athlete’s story. 

Sometimes he will be the one responsible for that adversity, and sometimes it will exist outside his control...but it will happen. The champion athlete isn't surprised by it.  He's prepared for it when it comes. 

*The champion athlete will be defined by more than his circumstances.   

He understands that usually, in fact, it’s his response to those circumstances that will ultimately define him. The challenges that come with playing the game – especially those that exist outside his control – don’t have to destroy him. In fact, no decision, event, or experience has the power to destroy any of us unless we give it that power. If you’re a champion parent, you see that regardless of what he’s facing, none of his circumstances have the power to destroy you, either. 

*The champion athlete will be rewarded for his toughness, grit, & perseverance. 

Maybe that reward will be what he gets in return for his determination, like more playing time or another chance to contribute. Maybe, instead, it will be who he becomes in the process – tougher and more resilient for the new challenges to come – that will be his reward. Either way, there’s something valuable waiting for those willing to press on. 

If you’re hoping to raise a champion son, then you are responsible for instilling these powerful beliefs. Of course, before you can help instill any belief in someone else, you’ve got to believe it for yourself. These are the insights that will help your son reach his full potential on the athletic field, but more importantly, these lessons from the game will change who he becomes for life. When his playing days are over and manhood beckons, there’ll be more adversity to face. It will likely be bigger, tougher, and more challenging than anything he faces as an athlete, but who you’re helping your boy become in sports today will go a long way in determining who he’ll be in life someday soon.   

The choice, of course, will be yours to make. You can avoid taking on this responsibility and hope your son picks up these important lessons from someone else or figures them out on his own. If you aren’t intentional in helping your son develop a champion’s mindset, then you've got to accept that he probably won’t be prepared for the inevitable struggles coming his way. He’ll more likely be one of those “lesser character players,” as Jeff Van Gundy calls them, who “always crack under adversity.” And more importantly, he'll more likely become a lesser character adult, likely to crack under the bigger challenges awaiting in manhood. 

I hope today you’ll feel challenged to prepare your son for the struggles he’ll soon be facing, as an athlete and beyond. It may feel like a lot of work and a long, slow process of growth and improvement, but it will be worth it. The lessons you’re teaching him today, and the example you’re modeling for him in your own life, will be echoing in his mind forever. They will change who he becomes. And people will notice. It may be after most people have changed the channel or left the arena, but who knows?  Maybe someday someone will say about your son what Jeff Van Gundy said about Amir Johnson – that guys with a mentality like his, who find themselves in a struggle, always have a chance to find their way back.