This July, my youngest son Peter was going through his first training camp of organized tackle football, and I was very excited. With football, as with most other team sports, practices are pretty much all the same—start off with a warm up, move to position fundamentals, follow with some group/team work, and finish up with conditioning. It was during the conditioning portion of my son’s football practice that I heard one of the greatest motivational lines I’ve heard in my 34 years of playing sports and coaching.

On that humid summer evening, Coach Phillips was running his team of twelve year olds through sprint drills. The sight of those boys running sprint after sprint, arms flailing and heads bobbing, was one that made me laugh. I knew some of them were running for the first time all summer. Coach Phillips probably knew it also because when he noticed several boys lagging, he yelled, “It’s not a race for last! It’s not a race for last.” As soon as I heard it, I knew it would be a great line to use down the road. I didn’t want to forget it, so I quickly texted it to myself. So thank you Coach Phillips. I have officially stolen it.

Now as I watch conditioning drills for my own team, I keep this quote in the back of my mind. I have yet to use it as motivation for my athletes, but I try to think about what it actually means to me. I have an idea of what Coach Phillips was trying to get out of his team, but I’m looking for something deeper. I continue to evaluate my team as well as the quote. In doing so, I think of past summers with other teams at different universities for a way to define it. I contemplate how to apply it to my athletes, staff, and colleagues.

As I look to define “It’s not a race for last,” let’s examine this scenario—a typical interval conditioning session. Whatever distance you’re running, you will have athletes that fall into several categories.

The first category is what I callthe rabbits. These athletes are the ones who set the tempo for the rest of the group. They pride themselves on finishing each rep at the front of the pack, and they beat designated goal times.

The next group of athletes are the back of the pack group. No matter how hard they try, they will never make the designated goal times because goal times are based on average norms. Some of these athletes may be the fastest on your team in short sprints, but on distance intervals, they’re cooked. Other athletes are just not meant to run. I have a tremendous amount of respect for these athletes. My goal with these athletes is for them to improve and for me to bring them closer to the third group that I call the pace.

Pace athletes are divided into two types. The first type are those who perform drills with solid effort but finish slightly behind the rabbits. The second type are the newly named “It’s not a race for last” group. These athletes do just enough to finish the drill and remain invisible. They cross the goal line just as you say, “time.” They extract just enough energy to “not be called out” but never enough to get them to the next level. They think no one is watching them. Really good coaches have every eye on them because these athletes will get you fired.

The “It’s not a race for last” group can occur on any team, staff, or organization in any situation. That’s because the simple definition of “It’s not a race for last” is complacency. Every large group working toward a common goal will have individuals who are just trying to get by. They are satisfied with the current situation and want no more or no less. Some don’t see themselves as this type of person. These are the ones who become problem issues. They can’t see why they are asked to give more or step out of their comfort zone. These individuals always have an excuse as to why they can’t do something or why they were late, absent, or missed a deadline. It’s never their fault. When things go badly, they become locker room lawyers. They don’t like to be called out in front of their peers for lack of effort and usually try to bring others down with them. In my world, these athletes may have extreme talent, but they lack motivation and are easily distracted. In their minds, they are “ballas” who are going to the “league.” As for me, they think I don’t know what I’m talking about. If you get too many of these athletes on one team, you’re sure to find failure.

So how do you correct this problem? Whether through recruiting or interviews, make sure you have a process that allows you to evaluate an athlete’s positive tangibles. Does he look you in the eye when introductions are made? Does he have a passion in his voice when discussing the possibility of being part of your program? Is there a strong work ethic built into his family makeup? Is being part of a successful venture important to him? Is he willing to evaluate his skills to be the best at his position? Does he have a leadership gene? In my opinion, leadership is an innate ability that can’t be taught. I’ve been involved in numerous projects designed to teach leadership skills to student athletes only to find out that leaders already know how to lead. You can give individuals the tools to lead, but you can’t get them to operate those tools if they don’t want to.

How do you change the culture of athletes in your organization? You must be willing to judge each athlete individually. Each athlete will have something slightly different that makes him an “It’s not a race for last” athlete. You must be willing to draw out his best qualities. In some cases, it will be easier to assign someone else to work with or supervise him. Having a diverse staff will be to everyone’s benefit. A diverse staff with slightly different personality traits blended to match your overall coaching culture will help you bring out the best in every athlete. Sometimes an “It’s not a race for last” athlete for you will be a different athlete for one of your staff. Together, you can figure out what motivates the athlete, building and mending the relationship so that the athlete feels you care for him and have his best interests at heart.

Keep the “It’s not a race for last” athletes engaged in the developmental process. It can be as easy as playing the type of music they like to hear or an incentive program in which they are rewarded. Be open to new ideas and consider numerous ways to motivate them. Good luck and thanks for reading.


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