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When the Magic Tree Won’t Grow

The other day my friend and co-worker ChatGPT told me a story about a bear named Benny who refused to share his toys.

Benny loved his toys. He kept them closely guarded from his fellow bears to make sure they were always safe, and that they were available for him to play with whenever he wanted.

One day, while walking through the forest, Benny met a wise old owl who told him the story of a magical tree that grows whenever someone shares something with someone else. The owl said the more we share, the bigger and stronger the tree becomes. 

Benny walked away intrigued. When he got home, he decided to try something different. He began sharing his toys with his friends.

Benny’s first attempt at sharing didn’t go so well. One of his friends accidentally broke one of his favorite cars. At first Benny was upset. He knew his friend was careless with his own toys, and he was mad at himself for trusting him with his toy car.

Benny felt angry, but he remembered the story of the magic tree, and decided to forgive his friend. He started to see that sharing would not always be easy.

A little while later, his friends invited him to a picnic. Benny brought his toys to share with everyone. The other bears were delighted, and started sharing their toys too. Everyone had a wonderful time playing together.

As Benny let others play with his toys, he realized that sharing not only made others happy, but it also brought him joy. It felt good to see others having so much fun playing with his toys. 

Not too long after the picnic, Benny walked by the magic tree again. He noticed it had even more leaves than the first time he saw it. He helped it to grow by sharing with his friends.

Benny learned that sharing is an act of kindness that brings happiness to everyone involved. He realized he doesn’t need to keep his toys to himself, and that sharing them with others is much more rewarding.

Perhaps the robots can teach us a thing or two about sharing athletes. 

In most high schools, the multi-sport athlete is the lifeblood of an athletic program, but that doesn’t mean that coaches are always quick to share their toys. 

What do we do when other coaches won’t help make the magic tree grow?

1) Build a Friendship 

When I interviewed for my current position I knew the question was coming, and our volleyball coach obliged.

How do you work with multi-sport athletes, particularly those whose primary sport is something other than basketball?

I had a prepared answer, but ad libbed an answer that dawned on me in the moment.

“Sharing athletes has always been the easiest when I am collaborating with someone I consider a friend.”

As a girls basketball coach, I knew I was talking to someone that I needed to be friends with. That meant being curious, asking questions, reserving judgment, and learning from her as I navigated the new job. Two years later, it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made. 

When conflicts arise, we talk. We work together to build a summer calendar that doesn’t force kids to choose between sports. When I encounter a new challenge or need help understanding an athlete, she is one of the first people I talk to. She has helped us build a youth program, and talked to players who were thinking about quitting basketball. The level of communication we have between programs is rare, but it has convinced me of this…

Sharing is easier with friends.

2) Root for the Athlete’s Success 

When another coach refuses to cooperate, or makes things unnecessarily complicated for the athlete, I can easily develop feelings of jealousy, resentment, and anger especially when it makes my job more difficult. In twenty years of coaching there have been a few moments when I’ve caught myself secretly rooting for another one of our teams to lose just to spite my uncooperative counterpart.

In these situations it is easy to lose sight of the person I coach. If I truly care about them as a human being first, it shouldn’t matter what uniform they are wearing or who they are playing for. My support should be unwavering, and sometimes that requires practice.

Over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of checking in sporadically on players when they are out-of-season. I wish them well before their most important competitions, and ask them how things went in the aftermath. Further, we try to watch them play at least once in their other sports to show our support. Regardless of my differences with their out-of-season coach, it’s critical to focus on the athlete’s success first and foremost.

3) Can You Do More With Less?

There once was a time when I found myself in an arms race with another program in the school. Before too long it became a competition to see who could schedule more off-season workouts, scrimmages, and other team activities. I justified each additional date by pointing at the other program’s calendar. “If they can do XYZ, why can’t we?”

After a couple years of this nonsense, we started to hear more and more complaining from parents and athletes about just how busy they had become. They were tired mentally and physically. They felt obligated to do everything for both sports because they didn’t want to let anybody down, but they were burning out because of it. More wasn’t always better.

Eventually, our basketball staff started asking a different question. 

Instead of asking, “What more can we do?” We started asking, “What do we need to do?”

From that point on, we started doing less in the off-season. We became more efficient with our time during the season. All of a sudden we looked a lot different than that other program. Our players felt like they were still getting better without being overwhelmed, and when we were able to be successful on the court despite doing less, our players (and parents) appreciated our approach even more.

4) What’s best for kids?

At the end of the day, the conversation that rarely happens is perhaps the one that matters the most. What’s best for kids? We lament how kids are exhausted, overscheduled, and burning out. Yet their schedules are largely determined by adults who lack awareness of how one activity complicates an athlete’s life when combined with a dozen activities led by other well-meaning adults.

The research is clear that unstructured time is crucial for a child’s development, so is dinner around the family table. While chasing championships does create opportunities to learn valuable lessons and lasting memories, we should also recognize the responsibility we share as adults to consider together what’s truly best for kids.

5) Treat Others the Way You Want to Be Treated

At the end of the day, we cannot control how other coaches may respond to our best intentions. You may have to work with someone that undermines you at every turn, and makes collaboration nearly impossible. In these instances, find solace in treating others the way you want to be treated.

For example, if you would prefer your athletes not participate in other sports during your postseason, make sure they know that when they are in another sport’s postseason you don’t expect to see them. If you wish that others’ off-season workouts were optional make sure yours aren’t mandatory. If you hoped other coaches would take an interest in your season, make sure you take an interest in theirs. These things may not be reciprocated, but they won’t go unnoticed. 

At the end of the day, encourage your athletes, take an interest in all of their sports and activities, congratulate your colleagues even if they offer little in return. As far as it is up to you, live at peace with everyone.

Though frustrating at times, learn to let go of those you cannot control, and take pride in doing what’s best for kids. 

You might be surprised at how quickly the magic tree grows.

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

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