Aaron Moorehead: From Walk-on to World Champion

Nine games into the 2018 NCAA football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores have racked up 2,075 total receiving yards under the direction of Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead. This Saturday, Aaron’s receiving corps, who have already accounted for 14 touchdowns, will again be called upon to light up the scoreboard as Vandy battles the University of Missouri in SEC play.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Coach Moorehead, who looks like he could still suit up and play, in his spacious office in the McGugin Center down in Nashville. Check out our conversation here: https://www.goodathleteproject.com/podcast/

Aaron was a standout high school player at Deerfield High School in the suburbs of Chicago, but the option offense they ran didn’t provide many opportunities to highlight the skillsets of one of the area’s top receivers. He was a talented track athlete as well, finishing 4th in state in the 110m High Hurdles. His athletic ability was obvious. Still, the offers did not roll in as some thought they might, and he accepted an opportunity to walk on at the University of Illinois.

At 6’3” 185, the talented but undersized Moorehead redshirted that first year, opting to build his frame and work to more fully understand the offense and culture of Head Coach Ron Turner. His work paid off. He improved physically and mentally, ultimately earning a scholarship. Though he had a couple setbacks along the way (tune in to the podcast to hear the details) he bounced back, ultimately leading the team to a 10-2 record in 2001. Moorehead shined that season. The Illini won a Big Ten Championship, finished 16th in the nation, and went on to battle LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

85 career receptions, 1,293 yards, and 9 TD grabs later, he knew he wasn’t done. He was just hitting stride. Still, offers to play in the NFL did not roll in as some thought they might.  Aaron accepted an opportunity as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts.

By that time, he was no stranger to the process. He was used to overcoming obstacles and smashing expectations. So when most undrafted free agents were hoping desperately to find a spot on a roster, Aaron simply went back to work. Once again, that work paid off. Aaron made the roster, played 5 years for the Colts, and won a Superbowl in 2006 over the Chicago Bears.

That win was the perfect capstone to an athletic career. His father, Emery Moorehead, played tight end on the 1985 Super Bowl Championship – you guessed it – Chicago Bears. By beating his father’s former team, the Mooreheads became the first father-son duo to play for Super Bowl winners.

When his time in the NFL ended, Aaron was faced with an all-too-familiar dilemma. Life as an athlete is one of clear expectations, constant growth, and direct feedback from coaches. It is a life of physical exertion and psychological strain. It is camaraderie and setbacks, sacrifice and glory. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated in the “real” world. He wasn’t sure what to do next.

When the next step was unclear, it was his father Emery who told him it was time to get off the couch, pick something he was passionate about, and get to back work. Again, Aaron stepped up to the challenge. He went over to his alma mater, Deerfield High School, and volunteered assisting with the wide receivers.

From there, he started going to coaching conventions, met professionals in the field, and landed graduate assistant position at the University of New Mexico. When the wide receiver coaching position opened up a year later, he applied, excited to make the full transformation from college athlete to college football coach. Though many though he would, he didn’t get the job. Looking back on that disappointment, he says “they were right, I wasn’t ready.”

Once again, Aaron was undeterred. He went on to be the quality control coach at Stanford University, where he was able to play an important role in a major football program which was routinely in the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, he accepted his first full-time job at Virginia Tech, working for previous podcast guest and Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer. In 2015, Aaron went on to coach receivers at Texas A&M, where the Aggies were consistently among the top teams in the SEC.

Then he set Anchor Down in Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been flying ever since. Their only losses this year have been teams ranked among the Top 15 in the nation, including a one-score game against Notre Dame (#3).

He has seen success everywhere he has been, and he’s had to earn it. Still a young man with a bright future, he’s taken a simple mantra to every stage of his journey: “prove that you can provide value to your organization.” A simple strategy. A strategy that has proven to be successful.

Tune in to our podcast with Aaron to hear more strategies for success. It’s especially interesting to hear him talk about legendary coach Tony Dungy and some of his teammates with whom he went to the Super Bowl.

With Peyton Manning, there was no letdown… every snap was like the game was on the line,” he said.

His advice to athletes is amazing: “Be humble and don’t be short-sighted. Be somebody that the coaching field knows about.’

And his advice to us all is a necessary thought: “Take time to learn about people who are different than you are.”

So much to learn from Good Athlete, Kind Coach, and someone we’re happy to have as part of the Good Athlete Project family, Aaron Moorehead.

 

Understanding Stress

Part One of an Ongoing Series

Through the world travels of the Good Athlete Project, we have noticed one underlying constant in the desires of most people: less stress. It takes different forms and we name it different things, but it consistently looms heavy in the minds of many… stress about work, family, performance in a variety of fields. To have “less stress” is an understandable desire, but a misguided one. Instead, let’s learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

Stress is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to exist within the demands of our environment. We need it. The negative relationship we have to the word refers in actuality to chronic stress, which is the real culprit behind much of our pain, and should be avoided. Strategies exist to avoid chronic stress. In order to utilize those strategies, and understand the difference between stress quality and stress quantity (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are) we should take a moment to understand exactly what it is we’re talking about.

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Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system. The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed stadium for a championship game and the hairs on your neck stand up, this is why. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten many years ago. You – we – wouldn’t have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system more generously refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal. These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

They are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species.

[Stress is] necessary. [It is] the reason we survive as a species.

But there is a cost. Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that’s what’s left over when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but didn’t release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. That’s the problem with modern stress.

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We no longer live in an environment where fending off the occasional predator or tracking down the week’s feast is the main priority. We live in an environment designed to hijack our attention and retain it through a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation (more on the value of sleep in later articles). Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or don’t relax. In other words, it is not our overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Instead of “less stress”, we should aim for more balance.

A range of strategies will be released in an upcoming series of articles. Today’s performance strategy is simple: work to understand.

 

Performance Strategy: Work to Understand.

We cannot solve a problem of which we are unaware. Moreover, once we are aware of a problem, accurate assessment becomes immediately important. An easy way to imagine this is through the splinter metaphor. If you have pain in your hand, the first step to solving this problem is the recognition of the pain. The second step would be identifying the splinter as the source of the pain. If you misattribute the pain to dry skin, then your “remedy” might be applying moisturizer. Feedback in the form of continued pain would tell you that your strategy, though well-intended, was ineffective. Only through accurate identification of the problem, the splinter, can you take steps to removing the splinter, keeping clean hands to prevent infection, and ultimately solving the problem. But before you solve it, you have to understand it.

So as you Work to Understand stressors in your life, try this method:

  • 1. Identify the Need
    • What are you thinking and feeling – do you feel overwhelmed? Are you in a state of chronic stress? Might be time to take action and improve your situation.
  • 2. Assess the Situation
    • What are the sources of this pain? Write them down. Whether it’s work, bills, other people or a combination of sources, it’s important to be as explicit and honest as possible about what’s actually going on in your unique situation.
  • 3. Identify the Source of the Problem
    • Be honest. Is your co-worker actually the worst person you know? Do they really have no clue what’s going on and you can’t understand why your boss hired them? Perhaps your negative interactions are the result of a system of complicated, overlapping factors. What of those factors can you control? Are you discounting your personal wellness in hopes of workplace success while unknowingly making workplace relationships more difficult? You’d be surprised how often that is the case.
  • 4. Attempt a Solution
    • Spend a week prioritizing your nutrition. Or physical exercise. Or sleep. Or mindfulness. Based on what you have identified as the source of the problem, give something a shot and stick to it.
  • 5. Create a Feedback Loop
    • Did your attempted solution work? If so, great, move on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life. If not, return to one of the previous steps and see where you went wrong. Did the solution not solve the problem? Try another solution. Did you inaccurately assess the problem? Reconsider the situation and try again. Listen to the feedback.

If the feedback after your attempted solution does not address the identified need, try again. Keep trying. Diligent practice within this model will eventually lead to a desirable result.

When we identify external stressors like a co-worker, too much homework, or an overburdened schedule as sources of our stress, then we hope and hope and hope for less of it, then we will never have the proper, manageable amount of it. Rather, let’s take a close look at the way we interact with stress, and our role in not only reducing it but actively recovering from that which we have.

Try it. With this model, the effectiveness of your actions will improve, just by doing the work of accurately understanding.

Alabama adds another top prospect: Sports Medicine Fellow Dr. Aloiya Earl

During the month of August, in the muggy Alabama heat, Nick Saban grants his players one opportunity to acknowledge the obvious: it’s hot. After that, the athlete must make one of two decisions: find a way to change the late-summer climate, or find a way to effectively deal with the heat. Repeatedly complaining about the weather never got anyone closer to their goal.

That sort of championship-caliber mindset is a staple in Coach Saban’s program, and it’s one of the things that drew Dr. Aloyia Earl to Tuscaloosa.

Dr. Earl earned her BS in Exercise Science from the University of South Carolina, then her MD from the University of Toledo. She excelled in a variety of professional roles, including Resident Physician at the Ohio State University, before swapping Scarlet for Crimson.

aloiya earl

While Coach Saban and his staff focus on performance between the sidelines, Aloiya’s work focuses on what’s going on between an athlete’s ears. Her research focuses on an athlete’s mindset when returning to play after injury.

The body incurs regular stresses and strains which make injury an inseparable part of athletic participation. It’s part of the game. It’s part of all games, especially football. The ability to physically and psychologically rebound from those injuries can make or break a season. In 2017, linebackers Mack Wilson, Christian Miller, and Terrell Lewis all sat at one point due to injury. Their performance in the National Championship game against Georgia accounted for 20 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. Were it not for their return, the Tide’s sixth Saban-era championship might have been even more challenging.

Those who work in Sports Medicine have the opportunity to impact an athlete’s physical recovery and, given the time spent with athletes, their mental preparation during return-to-play protocol.

That is exactly where Dr. Earl’s work comes in.

She draws from her own experience as a cross-country runner at South Carolina, where she suffered multiple stress fractures over the course of her career. Each time, she built the mental resolve to push aside pain to pursue her goals. During her research, she noticed that many were going through similar journeys. Many more will report fearing re-injury when their time to return approaches. Aloyia’s research hopes to better understand that fear in order to identify the role of sports medicine providers in its alleviation.

alabama dline

While at Ohio State, she began to identify opportunities during the athlete’s rehabilitation process wherein the Sports Medicine staff can support the athlete in self-efficacy, as well as athletic performance. She will now be fine tuning those methods in the halls and on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa.

In a recent interview, she said “I could not be more excited to be working here. The athletes here have an incredibly passionate group of trainers, coaches, and physicians working to keep them healthy and performing well, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Every day is exciting. It’s a privilege to serve such talented and driven athletes.”

Championship mindset has always been a part of the Saban-era Tide, and Aloiya seems to be bringing a new and important wrinkle to the discussion.

One more way the Tide continues to roll.

 

The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

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Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

Triple Salchows, Accurate Looking, and the Role of Exercise in Concussion Rehab

Although it was a typically sunny day in Colorado Springs, it was cold beside the ice rink in the Olympic Training Center. On assignment with the Good Athlete Project, a fellow coach and I stood against the glass watching elite athletes make toe loop, axel, and salchow jumps look easy. We stood there in awe, wondering how many hours it must have taken them to reach that level of expertise. Soon, a pair of young skaters approached our end of the rink. The female partner had successfully completed a triple loop off a throw twice before, but on the third attempt her toe caught and she hit the ice, hard.

In addition to bumps and bruises on the body, it is safe to assume that there was some effect on her brain.

The high speeds she reached (due to the speed of their approach and rotational inertia) might have approached 360 RPM. The impact incurred upon landing (ice is unforgiving…) would have certainly produced the shearing effect and minor structural damage in the brain we call “concussion.” With or without symptoms, it is safe to assume this level of impact would have had some negative effect on her brain. Degree and frequency determine how dangerous these falls can actually be (a nearby coach estimated a skater falls 20-30 times per session), but the obvious fact remains: figure skating is dangerous. I say this not to demonize the sport, but to reinforce the idea that concussions are not limited to contact sports. And since the vast majority of the 2.5 million people who visited the emergency room for TBI (traumatic brain injury) went for falls unrelated to sport, it is clear that concussions are a human issue.

If concussions are indeed a human issue, we should take care to look at the issue accurately. Football, the NFL in particular, has received the bulk of the concussion concern, with some calling for its elimination. Hockey, rugby, and wrestling are under increasing critique. While we should look closely at these notably high-contact sports, we should not stop there; a responsible approach will aim to protect all athletes.

And since sports are a potential mechanism for concussion, we need to increase preventative strategy during practice and competition, limiting the number of overall impacts incurred throughout a season. Governing bodies need to continue to implement and reassess the rules of all games. Local institutions should mandate preemptive strength and conditioning programs which protect the core, neck, and head. Upon injury, we should continue to improve our readiness and strategy for quick and conservative identification of concussion; and when a concussion has been diagnosed, mandate participation in diligent and directed rehabilitation under the guidance of a professional. If sports are not going anywhere, productive allocation of resources will be aimed at making the games safer, not misguided attempts at their elimination.

Physical Educators play a huge role in prevention with improvement and widespread implementation of strength and conditioning programs. Recent research suggests that there might be a role for Physical Educators in rehabilitation as well, as exercise has been linked to improvements in TBI patients. NYU professor and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Wendy Suzuki, paired with Teresa Ashman to design an experiment to measure these effects. Their results were encouraging. Participants who exercised two times per week for eight weeks demonstrated significant improvement in mood and quality of life, and scored lower on measures of depression and fatigue (Lee, Ashman, & Suzuki, 2014). There seems to be an opportunity here for Physical Educators. The opportunity will begin to take shape after asking 5 essential questions:

  1. How often do Physical Educators communicate with the school’s Athletic Training Staff?
  2. Are you familiar with your school’s Return-to-Play protocol following concussion?
  3. How strong is the relationship between your school’s Athletic Training Staff, Athletic Department, and Physical Education Department?
  4. If exercise were to be used in Return-to-Play recovery protocol, who would be the experts on campus? (I hope the answer is you!)
  5. What opportunities are there in the existing school day for individualized exercise programs? Before school (zero hour)? During free periods? After school strength programs?

Recognizing the potential of exercise in the rehabilitation of concussion is essential, acknowledging that there are exercise experts on campus (PE teachers) is key, but answering those 5 questions will begin to build a path toward implementation. It works. The next step is to figure out how it works for you, at your school. Each school will be unique.

Among many benefits, exercise has been repeatedly linked to improved cognitive function (Cotman & Engesser-Cesar, 1985; Voss, et al, 2013), decreased stress and anxiety (Herring, O’Connor, & Dishman, 2010; Adlard & Cotman, 2004), and now demonstrates positive effects on those effected by TBI. Physical Educators can play an important role on both ends of the injury spectrum: prevention and recovery. That is, if they chose to take full advantage of their platform.

 

The skater’s partner helped her up off the ice and she dusted herself off. She did not appear symptomatic. Her coach called out to her. She took a moment and gave a quick “thumbs up” before skating on, prepping for her next attempt. She’s probably fine. The minor damage she could have incurred will more than likely fully heal. But it’s worth taking a look. Accurate looking, cautious care, deliberate thinking… that’s the whole idea.

 

*this article was originally published on SlowChatHealth

 

  • Voss M.W., Vivar C., Kramer A.F., van Praag H. (2013). Bridging animal and human models of exercise-induced plasticity. Trends in Cognitive Science 17(10) 525-544.
  • Herring M.P., O’Connor P.J., and Dishman R.K. (2010). The Effect of Exercise Training on Anxiety Symptoms Among Patients: A Systematic Review. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170: 127-133.
  • Adlard P.A., and Cotman C.W. (2004). Voluntary Exercise Protectts against Stress-Induced Decreases in Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Protein Expression. Neuroscience 124: 985-992.
  • Cotman C.W. and Engesser-Cesar C. (2002). Exercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews 30: 75-79.
  • Lee Y.S., Ashman T., Shang A., and Suzuki W. (2014). Brief Report: Effects of Exercise and Self-Affirmation Intervention after Traumatic Brain Injury. NeuroRehabilitation 35: 57-65.

 

Lost Boyz: Baseball as Education

LaVonte Stewart is not shy about his criminal record, which could “stretch across the street.” It is his past which makes his message so powerful. He is the leader of the Lost Boyz, a sports-based youth development program on Chicago’s South Shore. Students come to the Lost Boyz to play baseball and fast pitch softball, but learn far more than how to throw or swing. When you are one of the Lost Boyz, you grow as a human being. It is not where you begin that defines you, LaVonte suggests, but how you develop, and how you positively affect the world.

We first met LaVonte at the Lost Boyz headquarters and immediately respected his mission and approach. He aims for “raw, real conversations” that are missing from so many educational environments. For LaVonte, sports are the hook. Once he’s hooked you, the education begins, with civic engagement, academic preparation, cultural enrichment, and service learning at its core. Relationship building is equally important to LaVonte and his staff, since “many of the kids we engage with have toxic relationships in their lives.” The Lost Boyz do more than expose their students to positive relationships. They are also exposed to other cultures, taken “out of the homogenous area they’re in to learn about other types of people.” Exposure to new ideas adds depth to one’s thinking. It also helps develop a skill set which, once students graduate into the working world, helps people engage in respectful, productive collaboration. An important ability, since “Chicago is the one of the most segregated cities in the world.” LaVonte hopes to bridge that gap.

Service learning is another important aspect of the Lost Boyz curriculum, contributing to a deepening sense of extended community. They serve a dual purpose, as the projects also empower those reaching out, bringing young people a sense of accomplishment, “instead of always being on the receiving end of service efforts.” LaVonte looks for mutually enhancing relationships, especially since he sees Chicagoans, regardless of which side of the city they are from, as an incredibly loyal bunch. That can be good and bad, since fierce loyalty can keep communities homogenous. “We don’t venture out like we should,” he says.

LaVonte has taken it upon himself to solve issues which he believes have been sensationalized, though it has not always been an easy task. There were times when he and his family had to be on food stamps before the non-profit took off. He kept a dream of helping his community in sight, and passion kept him moving incrementally forward. He knows the importance of his work. He has seen the positive effects of it, and felt the heartbreak when members of his community fell victim to violence and lives of crime. The rampant level of sensational media has not helped – perhaps most obviously in the portrayal of police violence against people of color. As he notes, we are all aware that the problem exists, the question is, what are we going to do about it?

Beyond the Badge is one of the powerful strategies used by LaVonte and his team. We stopped by this summer, when the Lost Boyz hosted an event to demonstrate community appreciation for 34th district Chicago police. The event featured barbeque, music, and a softball game where a team of officers took on a team from the community. At one point during the day, there was an exchange of gifts: athletes gave gift bags to the officers, and the officers pinned badges on their uniforms. There were hugs, handshakes, and laughs. The event was the culmination of the year’s efforts, which included workshops at Lost Boyz headquarters where police and students engaged in some of those “raw, real conversations.” There were tense moments, but all sides came out feeling like they understood each other better. In a world of prejudice and knee jerk reaction, these sessions were allowing each side to paint a more complete picture of the other. Without further prompting from LaVonte, those police-student relationships continued. Members of the department often checked in on students, bringing school supplies and words of encouragement. Many of those relationships continue to this day.

LaVonte’s positive approach comes somewhat in response to “so-called activist groups” who would aim to capitalize on issues but only make them worse. We know the problem that exists between black men and police, it has existed for generations. “The police were started as a slave patrol – we know where the issue is, so how do we address it?” he asked. With the acknowledgment that community-police relations are bad and might be getting worse (or at least more public), LaVonte strives to find a solution other than violence. The answer is relationships, friendships – “instead of compounding the pain, we try to amend it.”  In our conversation, he brings up Dr. King, who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Light is love, he adds.

The Lost Boyz certainly build relationships. It is encouraging to see. So much of their work cannot be represented in statistics or any sort of quantifiable data, but when you are standing alongside LaVonte at one of the Lost Boyz events, you can feel it. This work has power. And you can hear it, never more than in my favorite story from the day. One of the Lost Boyz, a graduating senior and an especially friendly young man, stood about 6’4” and was a true success story. He was heading off to college, to play baseball. His talent was cultivated by the coaches of Lost Boyz, What cannot be seen when he steps on the mound next spring is that his test scores were improved and his college journey was supported by LaVonte and his staff. But that’s not all. As we stood together watching the last few kids tossing a ball in the street, this young man told us that he would be working toward a career in criminal justice. A future police officer, hoping to make the world a safer place. A young man, no longer a boy. No longer lost.

 

 

Find more about the Lost Boyz here, and hear our conversation with LaVonte here or by searching “Good Athlete Podcast” on iTunes or Soundcloud

This article was originally published online at the Good Men Project

 

JIM DAVIS is the Director of the Good Athlete Project, an education consulting foundation which helps students realize their potential through athletics. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. He is a former international semi-professional football player and current coach. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @coach4kindness

The Power of Support

I was walking up to the platform when I heard my dad’s gravelly encouragement. “Give em hell, Jimbo!” I was on my third squat attempt – I had missed the first two, so if I didn’t successfully complete the rep, I would be out of chances, and out of the meet. Months of obsessive training would be lost.

I trained differently for this meet than any of my previous competitions. Powerlifting always happened alongside my football training, and at this point in my career I was in the process of switching positions, which included a thirty pound weight shed in about three months. As a coach, I would never recommend someone try it. As a player, I had made the decision to switch from defensive line to linebacker and needed to get down to 240. Hoping to lose weight while maintaining strength, I signed up to compete in the 242lb division. Without the assistance of drugs and with very minimal supplementation (protein powder, fish oil, and multivitamins), I set some ambitious goals for myself and got to work. I lifted daily, added low impact cardio to burn some extra calories (mostly rowing and elliptical intervals), changed my diet to ensure whatever calories were coming in were from foods with high nutrient density, and limited those calories appropriately. The process worked, but by the last few weeks I was hungry. And cranky. It was a real grind, packed into a short timeline, but by the day of the meet, I felt ready.

My squat opener was 500 pounds. Nothing for me at that point in my career. It was the number I would do once or twice at the end of my working sets to be sure I could achieve competition quality depth even when tired. For my first attempt, I went down and up comfortably. Too comfortably. I got two red lights (out of three, signaling a missed attempt) for opening up my fingers on the way up. I didn’t even realize I had done it. Too comfortable. Sometimes comfort makes you lazy. It wasn’t a terribly big deal, since I had two more opportunities, but I had spent energy (which I had less of since limiting my calories to make weight) and still wasn’t “in” the meet since I didn’t have a score. After the miss I went to the scorer’s table and asked for the same weight on attempt number two, just to be sure. No big deal, I thought.

Between attempts my thoughts got the better of me. I started to wonder if I should have increased the weight for my next lift. By sticking to 500, I would have to make a big jump on my third attempt to move toward my goal. I wanted to win a State Championship. I noticed that my numbers were in range a few weeks into my training, and the closer I got to the meet, the more confident I became with the possibility of achieving them. Let me clarify what I mean by “State Champion”. Technically, winning the State Meet I was competing in would have brought some claim to that title, but for me that wasn’t enough. With powerlifting, you never know who, or how many people, will show up in your division. If only two other people showed up to compete in the 242lb weight class, Junior Division, drug free unequipped, then I didn’t feel super comfortable calling myself a State Champion. Were that to happen, I’d be grateful to collect a first place medal, but “State Champion” felt like too much of a stretch. So I set a bigger goal. To earn that title, I would have to beat the current State Record Total for my division. The current record for all three lifts (best single-meet combination of squat, bench, and deadlift) was what I would be aiming for. My lifts were planned out to do so, and now I was behind schedule. Being behind schedule made me think of the all the work I had done to arrive at that moment, including the disciplined diet, the soreness, the crankiness, the arguments I’d had with close friends and family, missed social opportunities and other experiences I had willingly sacrificed to achieve this goal. Anxious thoughts flooded in and before I knew it, my name was being called. “Davis is the lifter, please load the bar to 500 pounds.”

I missed.

It was the most vivid and explicit example in my life of mind undercutting matter. To this day, I’m upset with myself. I remember the weak feeling in my legs and, had I told this story as a younger and prouder man, I might have blamed it of my caloric deficit and overtraining, only to tell the valiant story of how I overcame such an obstacle. But that’s not the full truth. The full truth is that I was soft on that rep. Mentally weak. I let my worries overtake me and I didn’t perform. My legs were tired, but they were fine. I just missed. Once again I asked the woman at the scorer’s table for the same weight. Forget a State Championship – if I didn’t get it, the meet would have been over for me. I didn’t go back to sit with the other lifters. I went out into the hall to get my head right. Then I went to say hi to my dad. He had been there since early in the morning, and would stay all day. I explained the stakes to him. “Wait, what about the other lifts?” he asked. I told him I would not get a shot at them if I was not able to successfully complete a squat. He was devastated. Sincerely, I think he took it harder than I did, but he sprang into action. “What do you need? Want some food? I have a Snickers!”

That was all I needed to hear. He cared so much. It was so genuine and clear, and I was newly empowered. That’s how my dad has always supported me. He doesn’t always know what to say, or what to do, and I cannot recite any of his advice except for, don’t lie, cheat, or steal, but he has always been there for me. He has an incredible knack for showing up. If his kids are playing a sport or performing in some way, he’ll be there. He does not like the spotlight so he will probably be behind the scenes somewhere, taking pictures or bragging about his kids during a smoke break. And he’ll probably cry, because he’s a sensitive old guy who loves his kids. Anyway, that was exactly the support I needed to kick myself in the ass. I remember the song I played in my headphones immediately after: What it is to Burn, by a band called Finch. I waited for my name to be called and the bar to be loaded, then I approached.

“Give em hell, Jimbo!”

It was the same encouragement he gave me before football games. It was a battle cry of sorts, his way of encouraging to give my opponents all I had, that that would be more than enough. He knew how hard I had worked and all the strength I had built – he was telling me to unleash it. I did. I got the lift to the cheers of a generous audience. Then I hit my bench numbers. Then I hid a deadlift personal record. By the end of the day I had taken first in my division, won the State Championship, and was named Lifter of the Meet. Somewhere in a box at my parents’ house there is a picture of me with posing with those trophies alongside David Oyler, the 6’5” 430lb meet director who had just been named to the N.A.S.A. Powerlifting Hall of Fame. My dad was behind the camera.

The lesson is simple, I guess. Even in powerlifting, when it feels like you’re one-on-one against the bar, you’re not alone. Regardless of the arena, we only get where we’re going with support. Even if that support is subtle. And if the support we receive is subtle, we might all accomplish more if we did the careful work of being open to it, and grateful for it.

 

originally published on Elite FTS