A Lesson From the Yellow Tree

food for thought

A couple of years ago we were looking to add some color to our yard, so we planted a yellow tree.  This Princeton gold maple features big, greenish-yellow leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall.

While the tree’s color has lived up to its billing, there is one characteristic of this young tree that we did not expect.  It leans whatever way the wind blows.  Sometimes that lean can be dramatic.

When we bought the tree it came in a 10-gallon bucket with a bamboo stick tied to its trunk to help it straighten as it grows.  The bamboo lasted about a year before breaking leaving the tree to stand on its own.  With wide, heavy leaves and a thin, still-developing trunk, the tree looks like a windsock whenever a breeze comes up.

After a particularly windy spring, I wondered if this tree would ever grow straight, so I did some research.  Specifically, I wanted to know, “Should we provide extra support by staking the tree?”

What I found surprised me.

According to Lindsey Purcell, Urban Forestry Specialist at Purdue University, we should resist the urge to give the tree extra support.

“Do not stake trees unless absolutely necessary.  Over time, trees swaying in the wind develop extra strength to withstand directional forces. If conditions are consistent, trees will initiate changes in their development to compensate for these loading patterns. They are biologically engineered to adjust to external loading, under normal conditions.

In other words, resiliency results from enduring moderate stress.

That being said, I still wanted to know when it might be “absolutely necessary” to stake my yellow tree, so I called a local tree nursery where they shared this useful rule of thumb:

“If the tree returns to a vertical shape when the wind isn’t blowing, then it’s doing just fine.  Though it might not look like it, the wind actually helps strengthen the trunk.”

I thought about the parallels to working with our student athletes who are constantly being pulled by competing demands from athletics, academics, work, family, and the like.  Sometimes they look like a windsock, being blown around from one thing to the next.  They might seem fragile and unsteady, but like our yellow tree, that stress is necessary for their growth.

At the same time, while they are growing in resiliency, it’s important for them to find time when the wind isn’t blowing to gauge whether or not they are able to straighten out on their own, to find rest, to be present, to be rooted without leaning.

As a coach, I have some ability to affect how much wind is generated by the demands of my sport.  Am I prescribing a reasonable amount of stress that strengthens without breaking the trunk?  Do I recognize when players need time to pause, rest, and recalibrate?   Do I do this for myself as well?

Food for thought.


Nate Sanderson, TOC Mentor and Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast

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