When I was entering high school, my parents told me they wanted me to join a team. My father was then a coach himself and they knew the experience would be valuable. I ran on the cross country, winter track, and spring track teams. Frank LaBianca coached all three of these teams at my high school, for both boys and girls. He was one of my best teachers and I learned as much about life from running on tracks and fields as I did from sitting in classrooms.
Coach studied John Wooden and Vince Lombardi and we all heard their words and were taught their lessons before knowing their names. We heard their quotes, along with others that came from writers, philosophers, and world leaders. Coach was also the print shop teacher. This is important to this story, as he taught his students by giving them assignments to print words of wisdom that were then displayed on the wall in the room our team gathered in before and after practice every day. Some were also printed on business cards Coach kept in his pockets to hand out when we needed them most.
So here's the thing about words of wisdom: They can be words printed on a page or they can really mean something to you. When you hear phrases or expressions or even full speeches again and again, you will remember them. When those words are tied to emotions and experiences? Boom. That gives them weight and meaning. You hear a word or a phrase and it triggers something—and you can be lifted, encouraged, inspired, and driven to pick up speed and go, go, go.
In recent years, a group of teammates began to connect on Facebook. One teammate helped establish a scholarship at our high school in Coach’s name and reached out to us for support. Then someone suggested we get together to have a lunch to honor Coach—to thank him all these years later for what he did for us. Coach’s nickname was “Labo” and a teammate asked us all to share our favorite “Labo-isms” for the event—things we remember Coach saying to inspire us again and again. Here are my favorites.
“A team is only as good as its slowest runner.”
You’ve heard “there’s no ‘I’ in team”—everyone has a part to play. In cross country, there are seven runners and only the first five score in a race; your individual point score is simply where you place in the race and the team with the lowest collective score wins. So what about the other two runners? Any one of the seven can finish in the top five. These last two runners can help keep pace and offer support to other teammates. and they can act as displacers by finishing ahead of another team’s top five runners (in a close race that comes down to a matter of points, finishing one second ahead of a runner from the other team could make all the difference). You don’t have to be the fastest—or the best—to make a difference, but you have to show up and run as hard and as fast as you can to be an integral part of the team.
“Be a champion in practice—that's where champions are made.”
Also: “Champions are made, not born.” No doubt about it, physical ability makes a difference. But it’s not everything, and talent will only get you so far. I was never the fastest on my team and no one would have dared suggest I run the 100-meter dash. But a 5K cross country race requires more than just speed; you need endurance strength that comes from running every day, remaining committed to your training goals, and listening to your coach. It means running in the sand with your sneakers on and sprinting drills around the track, even when your muscles are burning, you feel like you can’t catch your breath, and it’s taking everything you have not to cry over that blister on the back of your heel. Those who work hard and are committed to their goals are the ones who succeed. Practice makes perfect? No, but it will make you strong.
“You don't know how strong you really are.”
During cross country season, we used the same course as the boys’ team and they would be stationed throughout the course to cheer us on, along with Coach (yelling louder than anyone). I am certain I surged ahead at their encouragement—before our home course’s legendary “Cardiac Hill,” approaching the last long stretch before the finish line, or simply mid-way through the course when my legs were feeling heavy and I wanted the race to just be over already. But I was always surprised and amazed when I found the strength to pick up my pace or the energy to kick at the end. Endurance training gives you strength. (And encouragement from the sidelines helps you find it.)
“To have a friend is to be a friend.”
Also: “Don’t kick a man when he’s down.” We all struggled at various times—in practices, in races, and in our lives. Coach insisted that we respect and support one another and we did. I loved being on those teams and it wasn’t because I loved running or competing (though I did). It was the experience. We were truly bonded: we practiced and competed together, cheered each other on, rode the bus together to and from meets, carb-ed up on bagels or pancakes before big races, crammed into crappy hotel rooms for overnight competitions, socialized on weekends, and went to running camp every August. Blisters, sweat, and tears? Check. We were a team. Some of us stayed in touch after high school, others drifted away, but we all still share the bond. And at the reunion lunch for Coach, we felt it.
“ ‘Tis better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.”
Also: "Never feel shame for trying and failing, for he who has never failed is he who has never tried." You have to try. Really, that is all.
“What are you afraid of?”
Fear has no place on the field. “What are you afraid of?” I heard this one a lot. I believe Coach knew just when to ask me that—when my confidence was low, when I was tired, when I wondered if I might be better off spending my time doing something else. At the lunch, many of us took turns sharing stories about our experiences on the team and with Coach, and this was mine:
I remember being in the print shop, listening to Coach give me a pep talk about fear and taking chances. "What are you afraid of?" he asked. He likely repeated that question a second time, and probably tilted his head to the side and used his hand to punctuate each word like an orchestra conductor. Then I remember clearly that he pointed up to the wall, where he had posted dozens of inspirational quotes for us to read. On the far right-hand corner was a passage from Theodore Roosevelt and it was the longest of all the quotes.
"Far better is it…." he began. But then I interrupted him. I had heard this quote so many times and I jumped right in to finish it: "Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." In that moment, I know I felt smart and a little sassy for standing up and reciting the quote word-for-word. I don't think I realized then that he had already taught me to believe those words, which were certainly about a war or at least about life and death or something more dramatic than a track meet or a poor showing at practice. My teammates also remember that quote and I saw heads nodding when they heard me repeat it. I told Coach then that I still hear those words all these years later, how they’re often triggered when I am facing a challenge, or when I have lost focus or confidence or faith. Those words guide me.
Photo courtesy of Frank LaBianca.
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