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When I was younger, I was a very serious athlete. Meaning, I took athletics very seriously. And I was pretty good at it. I’m in my high school’s athletic hall of fame for football and track, I still hold some records in Ohio for track even 35 years later, and I was a collegiate athlete as well. I was a good natural athlete, but I also worked really, really hard at it. When people asked what motivated me to work so hard, I always said that I just wanted to win. But even then, as an idiot jock teenager, I knew that wasn’t quite true. I enjoyed winning of course, but not that much, honestly. I expected to win, so when I won, I wasn’t overjoyed. I was more relieved, actually.
But I absolutely hated losing. Losing was a devastating event to me. I worked hard to avoid losing, because I just couldn’t stand it. If I was losing motivation in one of my endless solo workouts, sometimes I would imagine somebody beating me, and I would literally get nauseated, and I would work out harder. I’m not suggesting this is healthy, and I don’t recommend this approach to anyone. But I didn’t choose this approach. That’s just how I’m wired. It can’t be turned off. I’ve tried – I really have.
Anyway, one of my coaches in high school (Chet Pifer) was pretty much the opposite. He probably understood me, but I didn’t understand him. He didn’t care about losing, but he loved, loved, loved winning. We’d win a meaningless scrimmage against a nobody school, and he’d just be over the moon with joy. If we lost, he’d be excited about all the things we could work on in our next practice. So after a loss, I’d be sitting on the bus wishing I was dead, and Coach Pifer would be chattering excitedly about how things were really looking up, and if we’d just work on footwork and pursuit angles, we’d win the next one. My worst death glare wouldn’t shut him up. He was irrepressible. As you might imagine, Coach Pifer drove me crazy sometimes. But when he died some years ago, it hurt, because I felt like part of me had died. Or at least, a part of my personality that I wish I had.
What’s beautiful about Coach Pifer’s approach, is that it always works. When I was great, he wanted me to be greater. When I sucked, he wanted me to suck less. Either one was fine. He was equally excited about either possibility.
I could always be better. So from my perspective, I was never good enough, no matter how hard I worked. So I was miserable.
I could always be better. So Coach Pifer was always excited, just thrilled by the seemingly limitless potential.
Both approaches led to success. But my approach made me miserable, and Coach Pifer’s approach made him happy.
He loved people and he loved kids. We had a dominant track team, and he would never stop recruiting from our student body. My high school had about 1,300 students, and we’d have over 200 kids on the track team. Talent and work habits didn’t matter. He saw potential. In everyone. I mean, freakin’ everyone.
Pifer: “Hey Bastiat, I got Johnny Smith to come out for the team! He’s gonna be great! Help him out, kind of take him under your wing, you know?”
Pifer: “Aw, c’mon! Why not? He’s gonna be great. I’m thinking 2:05 in the 800.”
Me: “He’s a worthless dopehead. Don’t waste my time. He’ll wash out in 3 days. I’ve got work to do.”
Pifer: “You never know.”
Me: “Yes, I do know. He’s a dopehead.”
Pifer: “No. You don’t know. You never know. He could be great!” * Enthusiastic manic smile *
Me: “Look, Coach, I … uhhh … ok fine. I’ll show him around. Whatever.”
Pifer: “Great! You’ll see!”
So I show him around. After a few days, Johnny doesn’t show up to practice. I of course go to Coach Pifer to point out that his boy quit. Before I can say anything, he’s got another loser for me to ‘take under my wing.’
Drove me nuts. He really did.
But we won. And we won a lot. So we got along. He made me better, and I knew it. Even though he drove me absolutely nuts sometimes.
To be fair, every once in a while, one of those losers would end up helping the team. Maybe pick up a sixth in the mile or something. Every point helps. Every once in a while. Every once in a great while. But whatever. He didn’t care. He never stopped recruiting kids. He never stopped believing in kids. Which drove me crazy, until I realized that he never stopped believing in me, either.
Which didn’t help at the time, because I didn’t figure that out until after he was dead. But it helps now. We became great friends later in life, which I’m eternally grateful for.
Despite our differences, I think Coach Pifer and I both went into athletics because we had no other choice. We both felt a visceral need to compete. At something. And we didn’t feel whole unless we were competing. It almost didn’t matter what it was. We’d both compete at anything. Whatever. But we needed it, like a drug.
But I’m fascinated by our different viewpoints. He loved winning. I hated losing.
I prefer his approach. I would choose it, given the choice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t given the choice. At least, I don’t think I was. But for what it’s worth, I’m a great admirer of Coach Pifer and his view of the world. Now I have extremely athletic kids, who are scholarship athletes at major Division I schools, and I’ve tried to teach them Coach Pifer’s way, and steer them away from mine. With mixed results. But I hope they learn his way, eventually.
I never got to tell him that. He died young. After helping countless kids in countless different ways, he died young. It’s not fair.
I learned a lot from him. Eventually. But I was a thick-skulled, arrogant teenager. Which made me a slow learner.
But I think we all have a lot to learn from Coach Pifer. Always try to get better. Enjoy the good times. Ignore the bad times. Believe in one another, even if there’s no reason to do so. Welcome anyone and everyone into your family, even if there’s no reason to do so. Find joy in the process. In every little step along the way. Ignore losses. Enjoy wins. Rejoice in the competition itself. And always try to get better. Always, always, always try to get better.
It’s beautiful, really.
My way was miserable. His way was beautiful. I chose my way.
Or, perhaps, I had no choice. That’s just how I’m wired, I guess. But I was blessed to learn from his way. Or, try to learn, at least. Eventually.
Thanks, Coach. Thanks for putting up with me, even when I was at my worst. And thanks for teaching me about joy. Even if I didn’t listen at the time. I was busy. I’m sorry for being such a twit at times. I’m sure I drove you nuts sometimes, too. But you believed in me. Just like you believed in everybody else. It’s beautiful, really.
I learned a lot from you. Eventually.
Rest in peace, my friend.Published in