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Teaching Your Kids: Don't Look Back

The difficulty of being brave, of course, is that you have to constantly reaffirm that bravery. Otherwise, at every opportunity, you risk making a different choice. So is there a way to put yourself in a position to have a better chance of staying the course? Fortunately, there is. And the best example I've ever seen of that was when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, he famously burned his ships. Literally, he completely destroyed all of his ships. And he did that because, with no way home, he knew his men would be more motivated to accomplish their admittedly rather gruesome goal, which was to conquer and colonize the interior of Mexico. Cortez knew that with such a dangerous mission, his odds of success were much greater with the complete commitment that comes from knowing that neither failure nor retreat was a viable option.

So, there's actually a decent lesson in Cortez's wisdom, even for smaller and less gruesome objectives. I put that wisdom to the test myself when I was a sixteen-year-old junior in high school. And the result was one of the proudest moments of my young life up to that point. Here's how.

A high school track team is like any other sports team—there are a limited number of positions athletes have to compete for. In track, each team typically fields its two best runners in each event. If you're not one of the two best, you don't make the team.

I had the number two position for the mile run on our team at Conway High School. I'd been to several meets with rival schools but hadn't finished in the top three in any of them. That was important, because only the top three finishers in any race earn a ribbon and points for their team. And, the only way to earn a letter jacket was to score at least one point in a sanctioned track meet. Well, halfway through the season, I was ribbonless, pointless, and still wanted desperately to earn my letter jacket.

So, I decided my best odds of scoring in a meet was to compete in a shorter race. I told my coach I wanted to try my luck at the 800-meter event, a half-mile race. He agreed but explained the risk. "In our next meet, if you still want to, I'll let you run in the number two spot in the 800 in place of Matt Cooper, and he'll run your number two spot in the mile. You think about it and let me know what you decide."

Well, he didn't have to explain further. I understood the risk. If Matt ran a better time than my best time in the mile, and I failed to beat his best time in the 800, then Matt would hold the number two spot in both events. And I would essentially be off the team. As much as I wanted that letter jacket, sitting out the rest of the season was not a pleasant thought.

So, I thought about the offer for the rest of the week. My best practice time in the 800 was several seconds slower than Matt's. I'd even had the chance to run against him in a practice meet and lost. But there's something about the adrenaline rush of a full-on competition that brings out your best performance. Matt's best recorded times were in those real competitive situations. Mine were just in practice. And maybe if I knew he could take my spot in the mile, I'd be even more motivated at race time.

So, I decided to take the coach up on his offer. In the next meet, Matt and I switched events. Now, as fate would have it, the mile run was two hours before the 800. On the infield, I watched Matt run my race, four grueling laps around the track. In my head, I was battling the conflicting thoughts of wanting my teammate to do well, but not too well, or he'd take my spot.

Well, I huddled near the finish line to see the official times. And I watched as Matt finished the race a good ten seconds better than my best time ever. Cortez was burning my ship. And Matt Cooper had just put me out of a job.

So, I had the next 2 hours to muster every ounce of speed I had. Because now I wasn't just fighting to earn a ribbon, but to keep a place on the team. So, when it was my turn to race, I knew exactly what I had to do. I had to beat Matt Cooper's best 800 time, around 2:05. But the problem was that without a huge clock to rely on, the only way to gauge my speed was in relation to our number one half-miler, Keith Gatewood. Matt usually finished one or two seconds behind Keith. But how close would be close enough? And would this be an off day for Keith? The bottom line was that in order to be sure I'd stay on the team, I needed to beat Keith Gatewood.

Well, I started my race with high hopes. But two-thirds of the way through, Keith was twenty yards ahead of me, and I was in about tenth place out of sixteen runners. I knew every runner would put in his final kick in the last one hundred yards of the race, the final dash at full speed down the last straightaway. In order to even get close to Keith, I would have to start my kick sooner than that, on the final curve.

But even a high school geometry student knows that trying to pass anyone on the outside of a curve means you'll be running farther than everyone else. And the inside lane is taken by the runners ahead of you. So passing on the curve is a high-risk strategy. But I was already in a high-risk game, so it didn't matter.

Well, I started my sprint well before anyone else, and I passed four runners from the third lane around the curve. And coming into the straightaway, Keith was just a few paces in front of me.

Now, it's hard to explain to someone who's never run a race like this what it feels like to sprint all out for the final two hundred yards of a half-mile race. Your heart is racing at over two hundred beats per minute, at the very edge of your cardiovascular limit. Your legs start to feel numb and rubbery as they near complete muscle failure. If you kick too soon, you could literally collapse on the track before the finish line. The point is that every single second, you struggle to decide between keeping this excruciating pace or breaking stride just enough to relieve the strain on your heart, lungs, and legs.

Well, with a hundred yards left to go, most of the runners were just starting their final kick that I was already one hundred yards into. Maintaining that pace was a constant battle of will between my mind and my body. But I wasn't just fighting for a ribbon. I was fighting to stay on the team! So I pressed on. And it worked.

I passed Keith at around fifty yards to go, plus two other runners just before the finish line, placing third in the race. A friend of mine ran onto the track to meet me with a huge smile on his face. "You ran a 2:03! The coach almost choked on his whistle when he saw you passing in the third lane!"

So, in that meet, I kept my spot on the team, earned my first ribbon, scored one point for my team, and earned my letter jacket—everything I wanted to achieve over the rest of the season, all in one race.

Now, both Matt and Keith were better athletes than me in high school, earning letters in both track and football. Thirty years later, they're still better athletes than me. But despite being outclassed by better athletes, I accomplished my mission that junior year and learned a valuable lesson about motivation. Removing your retreat option is definitely a risky strategy, but it's also a highly effective one.

So, if your child needs some additional motivation to achieve something great, even if it's great only to them, consider ways you can help them follow Cortez's wisdom in your situation. See if there's a way they can burn their ships.

Until then, share this story with them and have a conversation. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Would you have taken the coach up on his offer to switch places with Matt Cooper? Why or why not?

  2. What's the most competitive situation you've ever been in, where you felt the most highly motivated to succeed?

  3. Can you think of a situation where you could use the "burn your ships" strategy to better motivate yourself to achieve something important to you?

  4. In what kind of situation would you not want to employ that kind of high-risk strategy?

Okay, in the final lesson, we'll talk about how if you can't be brave, at least be smart.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith