Athletes - Is There A Land Mine in Your Posse?

Athletes - Is There a Land Mine in Your Posse?

Phil Hueston, NASM-PES; IYCA-YFS

This piece is likely to stir some strong opinions and emotions. So be it. I think it's necessary for this conversation to begin and for student-athletes to understand the opportunities before them and how easy it can be to be thrown off the path.

It's said that we are known by the company we keep. In all the discussions about that statement, what often gets lost is this:

We are "known" by the company we keep. I know, I simply re-wrote the same statement. Let me explain.

The assumption has always been that if we keep company with people who are of good morals, solid ethics and positive values, we will become like them, or at least not permit ourselves to seem UNlike them. And, by extension, others will recognize that.

However, much of the truth in this old axiom lies in the idea of perception. How we are "known" by those who observe and judge us.

And, for the aspiring athlete, therein lies the rub.

If we seek to play at higher levels, we are well-advised to seek out friends and associates who are "on the straight and narrow" or unlikely to get themselves into trouble. The assumption is that we will also avoid trouble. This may be true.

But will these friends really help us reach the athletic goals we seek simply by doing nothing more for us than not leading us into temptation? Is the avoidance of trouble enough?

By extension, if our natural state of life is to be in such a place where, and around such people for whom, trouble and strife seem to be part fo the fabric of everyday living, can we really expect to rise above this, regardless of how we work to improve and succeed?

Certainly we hear stories frequently about kids who had hard, challenging upbringings making it in sports or other venues. These stories are great and we love them.

All too often, though, we later hear about how "their past caught up with them." The Aaron Hernandez story is one such story.

What the athletes who rise above challenging circumstances, particularly those where they grow up in bad areas or with family or social challenges seem to have in common is this: they change the people with whom they associate.

In other words, they choose a more appropriate group of people by whom to be known. Had Aaron Hernandez done this, he might be in a different uniform today.

It's difficult, often painful, to be sure. These athletes are accused of "forgetting where they came from" or "running away from their pasts."

I choose to define it this way: those athletes saw the "land mines" in their "posses" and chose to find a new, more supportive group with whom to associate. They chose to move toward a brighter future by aligning themselves with people who would support that future and who understand the commitment chosen by the athlete.

The reality for most student-athletes is that they will never face the kind of obvious challenges faced by inner-city athletes or those from family or other circumstances that put them at great risk. Most student-athletes are "normal" kids, from "normal" families, growing up in "normal" socio-economic circumstances.

And for them, the risks posed by the "land mines" their "posse" may be more dangerous in one way: they are more subtle and "normal." Harder to pick out and often harder to avoid.

If your friends or the people you associate with regularly do not share your passion for student-athletic success, do not share your work ethic or ask you to do things that compromise your values, ethics or morals, you need to move away from those people and towrad those who do.

For aspiring student-athletes, even friends who are "basically good kids" can be land mines on your path to success. Have you ever had any of these experiences?

  • You tell your friends that you can't go with them or meet them somewhere at a given time because you have a workout to get in. Those friends respond by telling you its all right to miss "just one workout."
  • You lose an important game and you are visibly upset by it. Your friends response? "C'mon, it's just a game." That is a value judgement for you, as a player, to make.
  • Your friends simply don't value athletic achievement in the same way. When an athlete on another team (even from the same school or club organization) succeeds, they make negative comments about them. Examples: "He's just a ball hog." She's not all that." (Or insert-derogatory-comment-reflective-of-insecurity-here.)
  • Your friends tempt you to do things that you know are not only detrimental to your development, but may be illegal. It may be something as seemingly innocuous as "having just one" at a party to using performance enhancing substances. No matter how trivial it seems, if it's illegal or goes against what you know is right, it's wrong.

Sometimes, the land mines aren't really obvious. Sometimes it's as simple as having friends who only want to see you on their terms and when they are available.

What you have to remember is that your friends don't have the same stake in your student-athletic success as you do. It's not necessarily that they want you to fail; they simply have nothing to lose if you do and don't have what you have to gain through your success.

> If you don't get the varsity spot and the playing time you've worked hard for, it's not a big deal to those with no "dog in the fight."

> If you fail to get into the college of your choice, it doesn't affect them the way it will you.

> If the scholarship you want goes to someone else, their lives don't change - yours does.

You have goals. You have dreams. You want something very specific that requires an investment of time, ethics, energy and love. Failure is not an option.

So am I suggesting that you dump all of your friends and make new ones. No, not necessarily.

The legendary coach John Wooden said, "Show me your friends and I'll show you your future" and "You'll never outperform your inner circle."

With this in mind:

  • Doesn't it make sense to pursue freindships and relationships with people who will challenge you to be better?

  • Wouldn't it be better for the fulfillment of your goals to have people who understand your passion?
  • Aren't you more likely to achieve your goals and live the life you want surrounded by people who active, fervently want you to get there?

If you answered "yes" to any (more likely ALL) of these, than here's what you should consider doing:

  1. Look for people who are achieving what you want. Talk to them. Ask their advice.

  2. Look close to you, within your school, club or community for people who are "on the rise" or are seeking what you want. Start by introducing yourself, if you don't know them. Ask them how things are going. People don't care how much you know if they know you care.

  3. Rather than "cutting off" your current friends, introduce them to the people you are seeking to get to know. If they don't like them or start avoiding these "new" friends, that will tell you much about them and what is important to them.

  4. Remember that whatever your current friends choose to do, it's okay. If they choose to grow with you and recognize your commitment, thereby remaining largely in your life, that's great. If not, that's fine, too.

    Every person put on this earth has a different path to walk. Some are intended to intertwine, others are not. Every person who comes into your life has been put there for a reason. Be present to that idea and you'll grow from the relationship.

  5. Don't fear value judgements. Rather, let them be an organic expression of who you really are and what is truly important to you.

    A few years ago, a high school student-athlete came to me and expressed concern that his friends, guys he played with, were pressuring him to come to parties where alcohol was being served to minors. I simply asked him "are you comfortable with the idea of being there? Are you afraid you might be pressured into drinking?" He told me "No. My goals are too important for that. I just don't want anyone, including my coaches, getting the wrong idea that I might be drinking."

    His goal was to play in college. He stuck to his guns, spent less time with those friends outside of school and guess what? He's playing at a good college AND he's still friends with most of those guys.

You can do everything right - train right, eat right, get good grades, play hard, be involved in extra-curricular activities, respect your parents, coaches and teammates - and still get thrown off course. There are potential "land mines" in your path. Some of them really like you, but just don't fully grasp how important your journey is to you.

Love them, educate them, be clear with them. But if they still don't get it, you have only one choice if playing at the next level is your student-athletic goal.

You must, at all costs, avoid the land mines in your posse. Sometimes its possible to side-step them, other times we must choose a different way to travel.

It's easy for us to point to a case like Aaron Hernandez to illustrate this point. His is an extreme and easy to grasp situation. The truth is that thousands of student-athletes miss out on great "next level" opportunities because they couldn't, or wouldn't, avoid the land mines right beside them.