Except in those years when we won the very last game in the college season, this first week of summer elicited consistently strong feelings. I would almost always be anxious to get back to work determined that next year would our year. We would be the one to ride and defend like Yale, get an early lead like Wesleyan and battle for 60 minutes like the Dukes of James Madison. I was convinced that our players certainly felt the same way and that nothing would get in the way of our pursuit of this goal.
Over the course of a long summer, that singular focus losing some of its edge. Internships, summer school, the opinions of parents and friends, the start of a new academic year, the most committed players graduating and a new group coming on board — it would contribute to the dulling effect.
I am here to tell you that the decisions you make today will have significant bearing on whether your 2019 season will have a different ending. Virginia women’s coach Julie Myers told me recently that the James Madison women lifted three times per week at 7:00 a.m. throughout the season and did not miss a single session. She also mentioned that she was not certain that her team was prepared to make the same commitment.
How about your team? It's not just the question of working hard or, harder.
Our 1999 NCAA Championship team is likely still the hardest working team of my extended career. At the same time, we won additional championships with teams that did not make the same effort. The question is “What does your team need to do?” It could be morning workouts or dedication in the weightroom, physical conditioning, social behavior away from the locker room or group dynamics in the locker room. It could be all that and more.
I have often spoken about the essence of this endeavor being a coach convincing his team and/or teammates convincing each other that it is worth whatever the sacrifices and commitments are required for success. It will certainly require a brand of individual fearlessness to stand up in front of your teammates and describe an uncompromising journey ahead. Yes, it will seem hard — hard reminds us that the task is special. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it. I can assure you that it will be facing up to the daunting mountain of anticipation that will occupy most of your time. My good friend, Hesiod, the Greek poet, wrote in 700 B.C. "Badness you can get easily, in quantity: the road is smooth and it lives close by. But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first. But when you come to the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard."
That ’99 Virginia team had to overcome 27 years of hearing how they were not tough enough to win. The willingness to work harder every day and to engage in a complicated discussion to manage behavior away from the locker room proved to be the formula required of that team for success. No one knew that beforehand, however, and the commitments made in fall and winter could not guarantee a championship in spring. What it did was give us a chance. We fought through the decisions, but I can still recall vividly in the parking lot after capturing the championship, senior defenseman Courtlend Weisleder saying to me, “That wasn’t so hard!”
While there may have been some momentary indecision about whether to hit him or hug him, his reaction is the essence of what I am trying to describe to you. The commitment comes first, then (maybe) the reward. You need to convince yourself and your teammates that this leap of faith is worth the risk. Do you have enough time between now and the climax of your season next May?
You have exactly the time you need, if you start today.