Why does it take a hospital to teach us about perspective. As a coach, I struggled many times with losing my perspective. Baserunner misses a sign and I lose my mind. Quarterback makes the wrong audible call, libero gets aced, official misses a call, you lose a hard-fought game. Watch Last Chance U on Netflix to see what it looks like when coaches completely lose perspective. Whatever the scenario, I am guessing most of us coaches- if we are honest- would admit that we have struggled with losing our perspective on what's important. I am humbled as I think back on some of my own tirades. I need to learn perspective. I need to learn how finite my time in this world is. In the midst of missed signs or shanked passed, I need to learn what really matters and Bob Stoops and Mike Krzyzewski have important experiences to share with us.
I wouldn't call Atul Gawande's book, "Being Mortal," a coaching book. Gawande is a doctor and a New York Times Bestselling author. The subtitle is "Medicine and What Matters in the End." It's not a memoir or a coaching philosophy book. But, one short anecdote can teach us about perspective. The book talks about aging and Gawande talks about how we shift our thinking as we age. We focus on "being" rather than "doing" and on the present more than the future. Why does this shift occur as we age? Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen did some influential work in this area. Understanding her work will help us see how Stoops and Krzyzewski learned perspective early in their coaching careers.
One of the key questions of the book is this: "If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we're old?" The author points out that these lessons are hard to learn. In many cases the calm and wisdom of old age are achieved only over time. As Gawande says, "Living is a kind of skill."
But Carstensen had a different explanation. What if the change in needs and desires had nothing to do with age per se? Suppose it merely has to do with perspective- your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is. Carstensen had a different explanation because she had a near-death experience at the age of 21-years-old. She barely survived a car accident. A serious head injury, internal bleeding, and multiple shattered bones put her in the hospital for months. She had plenty of time to think. Listen to how the now-Stanford-psychologist describes that near death experience at 21-years-old. "I got better enough to realize how close I had come to losing my life," she says in Gawande's book. "And I saw very differently what mattered to me. What mattered were other people in my life. I was twenty-one. Every thought I'd had before that was: What was I going to do next in life? And how would I become successful or not successful? Would I find the perfect soul mate? Lots of questions like that, which I think are typical of twenty-one-year-olds.
"All of a sudden, it was like I was stopped dead in the tracks. When I looked at what seemed important to me, very different things mattered." In his second year as the Head Football Coach at Oklahoma University, Bob Stoops started his own, very private ritual. Every Thursday, he would spend time at the Children's Hospital. If you study Mike Krzyzewski, you know that he spent time with Jim Valvano as his long-time conference rival and eventual close friend lay in the hospital dying of cancer. Gawande says, "As your horizons contract- when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain- your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you."
Kenny Mossman, Senior Associate A.D. at Oklahoma, once asked Stoops why he went to the hospital every week. Mossman says, "He told me he did it because it balanced his perspective. It kept football from getting too big." For most coaches and players, college football has gotten too big. I'm entrenched in the volleyball world. Believe me, Division I volleyball has gotten too big. Club volleyball has gotten too big. Basketball has gotten too big. Youth sports has gotten too big.
I learned about Stoops' hospital visits when I read his book, "No Excuses." At the What Drives Winning conference, he also spoke about the visits. You can view those talks on YouTube. Otherwise, his weekly visits were not public knowledge. Stoops never allowed cameras to follow him on his visits. Something about that didn't feel authentic to him. His motives were pure. The visits weren't about Bob Stoops. They were about the children. He wanted the visits to be personal, authentic connections, not media events. A refreshing thought in our world of Instagram Stories and self-promotion.
Bob Stoops spent every Thursday visiting children on the tenth floor of the OU Children's Hospital's Jimmy Everest Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Not all, but most of the children that he visited were terminally ill. Bob Stoops played cards, played dolls, talked football, and took selfies with the kids. What started with a visit by Stoops and his players, turned into something Stoops wanted to do the following week, on his own. One week became two. Two weeks became three. Three weeks became twenty years and those weekly visits helped shape Bob Stoops the leader, Bob Stoops the coach, and Bob Stoops the man.
Stoops said, "If you think you're having a tough day, go spend time with those brave kids and their families. They keep me grounded. They put life and death in perspective. They give joy when you don't think joy is possible." His former quarterback, Jason White said, "When we walked into the Switzer Center, it was always football: 'Make sure you're throwing this route...do this, do that.' But as soon as you walked out of the facility, it was never football with him. It was, 'How's your mom doing? How's school going? I'm going to the Children's Hospital, why don't you just ride up there with me?' With him, there was more to life than football."
More to life than football. His Thursday hospital visits gave Bob Stoops an experience like the 21-year-old Laura Carstensen. Carstensen had to suffer through a near-death car accident. Bob Stoops spent 20 years visiting terminally ill children every Thursday. Those experiences change your perspective. Very different things matter. For Mike Krzyzewski, it also took a hospital to help him gain some wisdom and perspective. Coach K suffered through his own medical issues and hip replacements, but he also spent valuable time with Jim Valvano as Jimmy V died of cancer.
Valvano coached at NC State. Krzyzewski at Duke. They both came into the ACC the same year. They were rivals. Cancer made them friends. When Valvano quit coaching, he went into broadcasting. The two rivals became friends as Jim covered ACC basketball games. Krzyzewski and his wife eventually heard that Jim was struggling. Some pain in Valvano's back led to a battery of tests that revealed a rare form of cancer. A short time later, Valvano began receiving treatment at Duke University Medical Center. During the season, Krzyzewski went over as many times a week as he could. After the season, he visited just about every day.
Mike Krzyzewski got the call to come to the hospital when Jim was near death. He watched his friend die. In Mike's book, "Leading With The Heart," he talks about his friendship with Valvano and spending time with Jim during his last few months. Krzyzewski says, "Even though everybody was expecting it, a part of me would not accept the fact that Jim was going to die. I guess it has to do with being a coach. We never think about losing. We always feel we’re going to win—especially if a person has the will to win. And Jim certainly had that will.
"But he was suffering. He really took a beating during those final few months. I just kept thinking that he’s too young. He’s got too much to give. This can’t happen. It wasn’t the time. It seemed that he should have so much more time, that his family should have so much more time together with him. But all of a sudden, time had run out. The game was over. At that moment, it ended completely for him. And I never felt so helpless in my entire life.
"I was pretty quiet for a long period of time after Jim’s death. I reflected on the last six months of his life, the time we spent together, all of our conversations. And there are two things he said to me that come to the forefront. 'I didn’t do it right,' he said, referring to the fact that he spent too much time trying to achieve and too little time taking care of himself and his family. 'I was really wrong. Don’t screw it up, Mike.' Another statement he made was, 'A person really doesn’t become whole until he becomes a part of something that’s bigger than himself.' Sometimes, when I think of those remarks, I just want to take my family and go back to the old neighborhood in Chicago and coach. Once in a while, when I’m in church, I’ll light a candle for my friend Jimmy. I’ll think about him, about our time together, and about our very special friendship. It’s friendships. Friendships are the best."
I was never a Duke fan. I hated Christian Laetner, I didn't like Bobby Hurley, and I loved the Fab Five. That's when I was a high school kid. As I got older- and with every season I coached- I appreciated and respected Mike Krzyzewski more and more. I'm not necessarily a Duke fan, but I am forever a Coach K fan. I never considered myself an OU fan, but I'm a Bob Stoops fan. Those legendary coaches have much to teach me. I am listening to them. I don't want competitive sports to get too big.
I collect quotes and stories. That's what this site is all about. Coaches are an endless supply of wisdom and leadership lessons. Maybe my all-time favorite story comes from Mike Krzyzewski. If you know your history, you know that Coach K has had two hip replacements. He also missed the majority of the 1994-1995 season following complications from surgery to repair a severely herniated disk. In 2002, the Duke Men’s Basketball team was attempting to win back-to-back national championships when they were upset by Indiana in the Regional Semifinal.
In the postgame press conference Mike Krzyzewski was asked if he was stunned. “I'm not stunned, he said. "I'm 55 and I need a hip replaced. I coach a game where I know we can lose every time we go on the court. Somebody wins, somebody loses. I'm proud of my guys. I love my guys. I'd rather lose with them than win with others, and they have been terrific for me all year. It's hard for me to be sad about one game when I get the opportunity to work with these kids on a day-to-day basis."
If you think you're having a tough day, go spend time with the terminally ill. Spend time with a close friend or family member battling cancer. Not just one visit. Visit every week. Spend consistent time with them- every week, for months or years. They will keep you grounded. They will help you put things in perspective. They will help you realize what really matters. It's hard to be sad about a close loss or angry about a missed call when you have a chance to work with great kids every day and teach the sport you love. Let's live and coach and act like there's more to life than sport.
Thanks for reading. Quotes from this article came from two books I highly recommend for coaches: No Excuses by Bob Stoops and Leading With The Heart by Mike Krzyzewski.