International Ping Pong

My wife is good and my son very good at this sport. He beats all of his friends most of the time with a variety of spin, quickness and, when appropriate, a well placed slam. So imagine his joy when we discovered that this resort had a daily tournament.

Who knew however that the caliber of play at a resort lunchtime tournament would be so high and have so many countries represented. As we were watching the warm-ups, we first came upon The Russian. The Russian was a woman in her early to mid-sixties who claimed to have been a seven time Russian/Soviet champion. She was of average height, almost as wide as tall and to be generous I will call her stocky. She reminded me of the images of Soviet and east German women participating in the Olympics in the 1970s and early 1980s.  She had quick hands and an iron will. We would see her from time to time carrying the case holding her personal paddles. Only one time during her stay did my son D see her without her paddle. More on that later.

There was a Russian male in the tournament—as there were many at the resort. There were the typical Canadians and New York New Jersey contingent. For a boy from Evanston, IL, NY/NY were close to being foreign countries.

Two of the best were a father and son originally thought to be French but later discovered to be French speaking Swiss. The boy, about age 14, was in a special ping pong club back home. Both father and son were excellent competition.

Thinking that all I was missing was a typical resort tournament I had retired to my lounge chair, sunshine and my book. It was only later that I found out that D beat the Swiss boy in a closely fought final. I was told that there had been several outstanding matches. The Swiss boy had beaten his father in the semis.

The remainder of the week brought more exciting ping pong. One day D was handily beaten by Swiss dad but another he won the tourney again.

Watching became a highlight of the day. Who would have expected to find Russians, Swiss, Canadians and Americans battling it out— just for fun?

 

PS. My son saw the Russian without her paddle. Topless on the beach. A scary sight says he. Maybe her way of intimidating other players.

 

 

MVP…MVP

No I am not referring to someone from the world champion Phillies…though congrats to my Philadelphia friends. This MVP is closer to home.

Just over two years ago, my son was trying out for the high school sophomore soccer team. He had been playing since he was 4 and excelling since he was 5. For years he would vacillate between soccer and baseball as his favorite sport. Sometime early in high school baseball clearly took the #1 spot. Here he was at the end of the summer, a summer in which he had been playing baseball almost every day, assuming that he would make the soccer team– just because. He was goofing around and not giving this tryout his all.

As the story was told the other night, the sophomore coaches were ready to drop him from the program. The kid had some talent but was not worth the trouble and there were boys working their butts off to make the team. Fortunately the varsity coach had coached D for several years when he first started playing on a travel team at the age of 8 or 9. He knew the kind of heart that D usually brings to whatever he does. They decided to have him play on the JV squad that year and see how he handled it. It may sound good to be on JV as a soph but that would be wrong. JV is mostly made up of juniors not good enough to make varsity.

Bottom line. He learned a lesson. He put his all that season into improving both his skills and his attitude. As a junior he made varsity and as a senior he really stepped up his game. He is still a baseball guy. He plays soccer during the fall and the last couple of weeks of summer. Yet, this year he played the best soccer of his young life.

As a midfielder he was moved from defensive mid to offensive mid depending on what the team needed during the game.  He was often asked to shadow the best player of the other team. Kids who were all conference, played year round on elite travel teams and expect to play Division I college soccer. At 5’6″ and 130 pounds he usually gave up several inches and many pounds. He would get knocked to the ground making runs up the field and bounce back.

It paid off. Unfortunately not in the team’s record. this team had talent but not much success hitting the back of the net. But D got noticed. First he has been invited to play on the elite travel team sponsored by the Chicago Fire, our professional team. Then he was named All Sectional, Honorable Mention. (What does that mean you may ask? I did. The recognition levels are All Conference, All Sectional and All State. His was the level above all conference.) Not bad for a baseball guy.

The final and best honor came the other night at the high school soccer awards dinner. D was named MVP by vote of his teammates. How cool is that!

In high school there are a number of good students and lots of good athletes. I was a student, not much of an athlete. it takes a special kid to be able to do school and..what ever that “and” is. For D his “and” is being an athlete, a true student athlete. I am proud of him. I am sure that his grandma is too.

He has some choices to make. He has been focused on playing baseball in college. He is now being told by many people that he could definitely play soccer in college. Possibly at a Division I level. It is an exciting possibility but to do that he would have to go to tournaments that college coaches scout at and probably have to play soccer this spring. There is not enough time for baseball, soccer and school in the spring. One will have to go. Right now I am putting my money on baseball (his choice) and school (my choice).

Oh to have your life in front of you with excellent choices. That is an MVP kinda life.

They Ought To Be Committed

Commitment.  Two of the definitions from Dictionary.com. Both apply to this story.

  • a pledge or promise; obligation
  • confinement to a mental institution or hospital

So let’s begin. First, how many eighth graders do you know who:

  1. Are ready for college? (OK, I know one extremely bright girl who skipped high school completely and is doing phenomenally well in college. Name a second. Doogie Hauser does not count.)
  2. Are prepared to make life altering decisions? ( I am not talking about hormonally driven ones. Those are not conscience decisions they are reactions to uncontrollable forces.)
  3. Would not be awed by a college making them an offer? (It would be awesome.)

Earlier this week a story appeared in Sports Illustrated.com about college basketball coaches offering scholarships to eighth graders. The headline, “The Trend of Players Choosing a College Before a High School”. This is a trend? Didn’t the NCAA/NBA just pass a rule a couple of years ago not allowing players to be drafted until they were 19? So let me get this straight, at 18 they are unable to make life decisions but they can at 14? 14! And these are jocks we are talking about, who may or may not also be intelligent, thoughtful children.

To be clear, these kids are not going straight to college, just committing four years early. Being the parent of a high school junior, I admit to a certain envy towards those who do not have to go through the college selection process. But still, can this possibly be good for the student? I suggest not.

So why is it happening? Let’s start by asking the coaches. Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie, what do you have to say after offering a scholarship to young Michael Avery (a 6-foot-4 combo guard with a sweet shooting stroke) before Mike had even decided what high school attend? According to SI, Gillispie offered because he was worried someone else would beat him to the punch. I guess it is fitting that his reasoning is at the eighth grade level.

So who might this someone else be? Have all major college coaches gone insane? Not yet anyway but at least one other. In this case, “someone else” translates loosely to USC coach Tim Floyd, who accepted commitments in consecutive years from players who had yet to suit up for a high school team. UCLA and DePaul are other schools who have offered scholarships to younguns’.

Forget that much can happen to the student-athlete between eighth grade and the end of high school. They may grow, lose some skills, get hurt, or even have a better understanding of what they want to study in college- not that this latter point should influence the choice. I get why the coaches do it. Major college sports are a big time money maker and they feel the need to get an edge. I get why the kids may agree. They are overwhelmed by the offer. But what about the parents? What the f_ck are they thinking?

SI did not delve much into the parents point of view. If they had I would have expected more quotes about doing what is best for their child. Actually if the dads were honest they would be jumping up and down, high fiving (and all the more sophisticated variations that exist today) and playing up the bragging rights. They probably have more stars in there eyes over this than their kids. Far too many parents live through their kid’s actual athletic achievements or fantasies of a pro career. They become agents or managers instead of parents.

There is some sanity in all of this btw. The NCAA doesn’t recognize scholarship offers until they are accompanied by a National Letter-of-Intent. Basketball players may sign a NLI no earlier than November of their senior year of high school. So these offers are not real until they are real.

In my view this commitment process, specifically the adults involved, should be committed.

A Beautiful Day At Wrigley

My buddy Tom had tickets for the Cubs game today so I played hooky. Afternoon game on a warm spring day. Can not be beat.

Cubbies played well. They won 8-1. They beat the hated Mets (been the hated Mets since 1969). Lots of players contributed.

It has been 100 years since my Cubs have won a world series. It is too early to make predictions…but this could be the year. Spoken/written like a true Cubs fan.

Beautiful Wrigley Field on April 22, 2008.

Duck, Duck, Goose

It is hard not to enjoy watching young kids be kids. While hanging out on the beach at our Mexican resort I was treated to watching a group of 2-4 year olds play the timeless children’s game Duck, Duck, Goose. This resort had The Adventurer’s Club where parents in need of a moment to themselves entrusted their kids to resort staff dressed in the garb of a jungle adventurer.

The one I saw had the kids form a circle (no easy chore) and gave a short explanation of how to play the game. Clearly some of them were too young to get the rules and strategic intricacies of DDG. Yet somehow there were smiles and giggles all around.

Sometimes the Goose would get up and just stand there. Other times the G would follow the one who tagged them. My favorite was when one little girl who was not going to be the first around the circle took a short cut through the circle and calmly sat down in the open spot. Her stunned playmate paused for a second and then just started around the circle again patting heads while saying, “duck, duck, duck…”

I began to wonder what it would be like if adults played DDG. I imagine a bunch of aggressive, competitive men and women standing around before the game swilling Red Bull. Then a few would be doing some stretching, adjusting their pads and tying their $200 specially designed DDG shoes (kind of like running shoes but with a special edge to help you get to your feet faster). Each person would be eyeing the other contestants looking for the weakest and strongest competition.

Once the game begins they play to win no matter what the cost. People diving head first to hit the open spot. Elbowing or tripping an opponent is just part of the game— “you don’t like it, find a baby’s game, Sucker”. Oh yeah, lots of name calling.

By the second or third round, Survivor-like alliances begin to form. I will knock out Paris if you “accidentally” trip Thad as he passes by. A little blood is part of the game. Fortunately there is an ambulance and full medical staff on alert.

By the end there is only one winner. As it should be. The DDG trophy is awarded by the league commissioner. It is a gold plated statue of two little water fowl chasing a larger one.

Oh to be a kid again.

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Kid’s Sports and Parents

Frank recently wrote about the joy of a last second victory in his son’s high school soccer game.  I applaud Frank all parents who show support for something important to their child. And victories, especially last second ones, are certainly “more fun” than losing.  Sports provide a unique opportunity for parents to show support that are not available in all areas, especially academics. (I have had this fantasy of being in the classroom while my son is taking an exam and leading cheers. Go D. Think. Think. Think. Goooo Brain!)

I believe that sports can play an important role in a child’s life. It can teach teamwork, hard work, respect for others- even opponents, discipline and many more positive qualities. However, it can also be a hugely ugly experience when parents do not know how to behave. When parents are too invested in their child’s sports activities it is rarely good for their child. I do not care what the reason may be. Some parents are living their dreams through their children, others see everything their child does as a reflection on them, and some just can’t distinguish between the cut throat competition in the adult worlds they live in and healthy competition at a child’s level.

My son has played organized sports since he was 4. For many years he did not play team sports at all without there being a referee/umpire to resolve disputes and parents on the sideline watching and shouting. It was rare that parental shouting is limited to general shouts of encouragement. Far too often the parents are yelling because their child is not doing what he/she is supposed to, at least in the parent’s mind, or worse shouting instructions– go left, no right, kick the ball, what the hell are you doing, pay attention.

Often after the game the feedback to the child comes in one of two extremes: here of the list of things that you should have done differently or wow you were wonderful. Even the latter feedback has its drawbacks. It can place importance on sports that often goes beyond what encouragement the child receives for his/her other interests.

Let me share a few examples. My wife coached my son’s soccer team from the ages of 6-10. At these ages all kids of all skill levels are encouraged to participate. The primary focus is on skill development with a side of fun thrown in. The idea is build a love of the game. One year the coaches had to ask a father to leave and threatened to ban him for the season because he was verbally abusive to his son. This was a shy awkward child that over the course of the season, while never becoming a star learned to have fun playing. BTW, the father was thrown out of A PRACTICE. Not even a game.

On the other end, once my son started playing travel soccer, we would see teams decked out in very expensive matching outfits. Often parents would line up, form a bridge and cheer as their kids ran through the bridge at the beginning of the game. I am sure that these parents saw themselves as supportive as opposed to my view–way over the top. It was typically parents from teams like this who would be shouting out for their kid to hurt the other team. Several teams were clearly coached to get away with as much illegal pushing, grabbing and kicking as possible. I am still talking about 11-14 year olds.

I wish that I could say I was always one of the good parents. Always? Not a chance. I did try to limit shouting to encouragement during the game and have D let me know what he thought of the game and his play before I said anything.

The eye opening moment came for me at the beginning of freshman baseball. The high school coach showed two videos. The first were examples of parents over the edge but in a way that one could feel that some parent somewhere could act this way. My favorite was a mom exhorting her 4 year old daughter on how to win at pin-the-tail on the donkey at a birthday party. It ends with the angry and frustrated mom slamming the door on her way out and telling her daughter to find her own ride home.

The second video is by a man who has coached from Jr. High through college. He has many messages but the main one is to release your child to the sport. Let your child make the experience theirs, not yours. 

I cannot describe in words the impact of both these videos. I just wish they were required viewing for all parents with children in sports and for all coaches. There is so much good that can come from participating in sports. Let’s allow our children to get the best of the experience.

  

Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

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That’s the cry of the Cub’s announcers after every win. They have been able to do that 84 times so far this season. Within a short time after #84, the Brewers failed to get #82 and my Cubbies are in the playoffs.

Historically, this is a very low number for a playoff bound team. Yes the hated St. Louis Cardinals took the World series last year after winning only 83 games during the regular season but that is the exception. We are not exactly rolling into the playoffs on a hot streak like most of the teams that seem like they will make it this year.

But for one moment I am going to be a fan instead of the realist I usually am.

My Cubs will join the 2004 Red Sox and the  2005 White Sox as a team to win their first World Series in a 100 years. As my 16 year old son has told me all season, “ya gotta believe, Dad.” For now, I believe!

 CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! 

Bill Wirtz: Chicago has Lost a Titan

wirtz1.jpgIn many ways Bill Wirtz was a big man. Physically he was tall, thick, and muscular. Even his ear lobes were thick– I don’t know why but that is something I always noticed.

However, Bill filled a room with his stature and force of personality more than his physical presence. Like many titans of industry he got his start in family businesses but Bill was no rich kid slacker. He grew the businesses he took over. He was a traditional business man from an age that barely exists anymore. He was honorable, commanding and strong willed. He knew what he wanted and would push his point but he would listen if you made sense and had the fortitude to push back.

Once you had his trust he was extremely loyal but could be unforgiving to those without integrity. He could get angry but more often he was generous. I have witnessed him share his disappointment with the performance of an executive working in one of his businesses and then turn around and give that person another chance–and a raise.

Bill told great stories. Due in large part to his interesting life and experiences. The Wirtz’s were into many businesses including sports, (best known for owning the Blackhawks and the old Chicago Stadium and part ownership of the United Center), liquor distribution, banking, real estate, insurance and more. These enterprises brought him in contact with well known people in entertainment, sports, business, law and government. Bill had a fantastic memory and an entertaining style of story telling.  

Though he knew many famous and important people he also seemed to know most all of his employees at every level. He was proud of the people who started at an entry level job in one of his businesses, often with no college degree who through hard work, brains and savvy would rise to middle or even senior management levels. These people he had great respect for. The Wirtz businesses provided opportunities to people you cannot find in big impersonal corporations. It was all personal to Bill.

I had the honor of working with Bill as a relatively young professional consulting to a public company’s board committee of which he was chair. At first I was in awe of this man so well known in Chicago but Bill quickly put me at ease and treated me with respect. Not all people with his credentials, and many with less, will not treat you with respect. Bill did. He later used me to advise him on some of his businesses. Through these activities I met his sons Peter and Rocky.

Chicagoans that did not know him often complained about how he ran the Blackhawks, the most public of his ventures. He was mistakenly called cheap and was blamed for several stars leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. If you had the chance to talk with Bill you would know two things about his Hawks. First, he loved the team and wanted a successful franchise more than any fan on the street. Second,  Bill was a business man first and a sports fan second. He understood that money had to be made in order for the team and the sport to endure. Bill did a lot for professional hockey. This Chicago Tribune article describes this aspect of Bill better than I can.

I will miss working lunches in the Sonia Henning room of the United Center and listening to Bill tell stories.  I will miss Bill Wirtz.

Roger Federer: My New Hero

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The professional athlete as role model has taken a big hit in the last few years with Bonds assumed steroid use, Michael Vick’s cruelty and stupidity, and  defensive football players for the Chicago Bears either having shootings at their house or crashing their new Lamborghini and leaving the scene of the accident. Even this summer’s feel good story, Rick Ankiel reportedly used human growth hormones.

Then there is Roger Federer.  He has been by far the best tennis player in the world for a few years and may end up being recognized as one of if not the best in history by the time he is through. Tonight he won his fourth consecutive U.S. Open. It was not just that he won but how he won and how he comports himself.

Several times tonight it seemed as if he was being outplayed by 20 year old Novak Djokovic. Yet at every key moment, including 5 set points on Djokovic’s serve in the first set, Federer hit the big shot. He never let the pressure stop him — and there was tremendous pressure from his opponent’s shots and from Federer’s march on history.

Roger had to deal with strong play throughout the tournament. In the quarterfinals Roger had to weather Feliciano Lopez playing out of his ass in the first set. He played nearly flawless tennis in that set as Federer could only watch and wait. He knew that Lopez was unlikely to keep up that level of play and he did not panic. Instead he took the next three sets to win the match.

It is this composure under fire and the unwillingness to give up that I admire greatly. Even more than the grand slam titles that these characteristics have brought to him. (Even more than the $2.4 million and the new Lexus he won today.)

He showed his humanity and class today as well. He gave tribute to the great play of his opponent. (No Serena Williams saying her opponent hit lucky shots.) He also admitted that he has been nervous. While most people assume that given how many times he has been in the situation he would be used to it, he said that every grand slam final feels as important as the first.

There are no known incidents of public drunkenness, casting slurs, taking drugs or any of the “normal” activities we have learned to forgive of our star athletes. Maybe the Swiss do a better job of instilling values than parents do here.

I just hope that I can learn to be more like Roger and that I get many more opportunities to watch this world class athlete and human being.

The Mental Aspect of Winning

Tyson Gay of the U.S. won the 100 meters at the world track and field championships earlier this week. He finished in a blazing 9.85 seconds missing the world record by .08 seconds. It took longer than .08 seconds to read “.08 seconds”. One of the people he beat was Asafa Powell of Jamaica, the current world record holder. Powell was the betting favorite to win the race. He led for the first 80 meters.

Both of these men have the talent and physical tools to win. It was what was inside their heads and hearts that distinguished them in this race, not the strength in their legs. 

It was Gay who proved more adept at fighting off the nerves. “I was nervous but I spoke to my mother and she helped me calm down,” he said. (Presumably before and not during the race.)

“I tightened up. I panicked. I lost it,” Powell said.  “I felt Tyson coming on my shoulder and I panicked. I don’t normally do it but I panicked and Tyson got the better of me. I knew I was in great shape and ready to go but I made a huge mistake in the final.” (I think he panicked.)

There is a minute difference between a world championship and another disappointing finish. The mental aspect makes the difference in all parts of life. Attitude, being able to deal with pressure, and keeping your cool are often what make a person successful.

I find it particularly fascinating when the mind impacts what is often thought of as a purely physical act. Such as running unbelievably fast. Congratulations Tyson!

btw. I love track. I ran track in high school until my parents subtly pointed out that I either needed to be good enough for a track scholarship or I may want to get a job to help pay for college. I consulted the stopwatch and had a job within a week.

A quick post script. This morning Tyson won the 200 meter race in 19.76 seconds, a record time for the world championships. He is only the third person to win the sprint double in the history of the world championships.

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