A common theme in the teaching philosophy of two of the most successful coaches in recent memory is putting unexpected pressures on their athletes. Bob Bowman guided Michael Phelps to a record breaking eight gold medals at the Beijing Games and Bill Belichick has led his New England Patriots to four Super Bowls in the past nine years. Though their sports are completely different, the unifying belief that good things come to athletes conditioned to accept the unexpected is intriguing, something that I admittedly have played with when working with my son.
Drew and I haven’t spent much time on our bikes since the move to Connecticut. The trails down here are scarcer and frankly much harder to navigate than those we were accustomed to in Hingham. Down here, there’s much more up and down action and the roots and rocks offer a constant challenge to a skill set that neither one of us has fully developed.
But yesterday was a perfect 60 sunny degrees and when I suggested a bike ride to my eight year old on “real” trails, he was more than excited for the trip. We headed over to Huntington State Park, a preserve that offers up some bumpy carriage trails and a decent amount of single track. I’m a big fan of the park and get over there whenever time allows for some of my longer runs. Though none of the climbs are all that lengthy, they are steep and numerous.
We entered on the “upside” of the park, traversed its length and then dropped down into the large bowl of its valley. Heading down, the generous space the carriage roads afforded us was balanced by the technical nature of the surface. Big rocks, ledges and washouts kept our speed in check and our butts out of the saddle and over the rear tires.
I found the experience slightly challenging and so I was sure Drew would too. At one point, I suggested that he could walk his bike if he wanted to.
“No, I’m all right” was all he said and bravely made it to the bottom.
For the next forty minutes we pedaled around and up trails of varying degrees of difficulty. There was plenty of climbing and while a couple of the hills beat him early on and he had to walk his bike, as the ride progressed Drew pushed his pedals to the summits with increasing success.
When it was time to return to the car, we started talking about the climb he’d have to make to get back to the parking lot. Rising up from the carriage road that got us on our way was a long, steep grassy hill. I remember the first time I’d seen it, I had immediately thought of what a phenomenal run it would give to a sledder. Drew had some different thoughts. I could see on his face that he was unsure if he’d be able to manage it.
“Have I ever climbed a hill that big?” he wanted to know.
“Well, you’ve done a couple that are close,” I said, “but I’ve got no doubt you can do it.”
I could see he wasn’t convinced but was willing to give it a try just the same. Throwing into my big ring, I powered up to the top, I wanted to see how he’d get there himself.
Though his pedals eventually slowed to a creep, he mashed them down with admirable tenacity. His face contorting with every downward stroke he climbed up the 200 meters of incline. At the top, he burst into an enormous smile, slipped his feet from the pedals and deeply drank from the satisfaction of what he’d just accomplished.
Were I a decent man, I would have gone over and joined him in his celebration. I would have broken out the Gatorade right there and lifted a plastic bottle to his job well done. But I’ve been reading about Bowman and Belichick and I know that they think their athletes are made special by the pressures they constantly put on their minds. I decided to put a little on Drew’s.
Instead of joining the celebration (which was truly worthy) I turned my bike towards a long 600 meter stretch of grass.
“Where you going?” my young charge wanted to know.
“Come on, we’re not done yet.”
Had he reacted differently, I would have called off the dogs and just put our bikes in the car and called it a day, said I was kidding. But Drew, without complaint or question, hopped back on to his saddle and pedaled up to me.
“What are we doing?”
“We’re going to coast across this field. See where the trees are? We’re going to take it easy over there and then we’re going to race back to here.”
Fresh off the biggest climb of his life, Drew put his head down and got to work. There were no tears, no whining, he just got it done. And when he was finished, his smile was bigger than when he’d climbed the hill.
I have no illusions that Drew will be any kind of supreme athlete. I’ve been around enough of those individuals to appreciate how extremely rare they are. But what I do hope my son will be is an individual that never rests too long on his achievement or imagines that there’s not more work to be done: whether its on the bike, in the class or in the office.
For so much of my life, I’ve limited myself by what I’ve learned to think is “enough.” The farther down the road I get, the more I appreciate that the concept of “enough” is a self-supporting one. At the very least, on special afternoons, it should be challenged and by so doing, allow for a little better reality.