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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Game Breakers And Difference Makers

Before I get started I'll state that since I'm too old to be naive, I must be idealistic. Also, my grandmother once accused me of getting on a soapbox so much because I'm short and always felt the need to look taller. Those are my excuses. Now, I'm going to continue my rant Blog from last night. I spoke of the obscene salaries of professional athletes (and entertainers) at a time when schools struggle to meet operating budgets. The same lament can be expressed when looking at the financial plight of hospitals, fire departments and police departments and many other municipal areas.

In sports, there's a term for those individual athletes who extend themselves in near super-human efforts at a critical time in a game. They're called Game Breakers. They change the game in one play, they gain momentum with a flash, they weaken the will power of the opposition and they break open the game and lead the team to victory. Every once in a while an average player finds himself or herself in the right spot at the right time and they make the winning shot, hit the clinching home run or score the go ahead touchdown. That happens. However, a game breaker does this on a fairly regular basis, despite everyone in the stadium anticipating their move and expecting them to do something miraculous. It happens under tremendous pressure. It might be a Kobe Bryant jump shot at the buzzer, a clutch Tiger Woods chip out of the bunker on the 18th hole, or a Tom Brady touchdown toss to a receiver in traffic on the last play of the game. I'll admit my dream as a youngster - pitching a perfect game for the Detroit Tigers against the New York Yankees (watch the Kevin Costner movie, For the Love of the Game). Game Breakers are few and far between. Thus, these individuals are considered heroic and paid and celebrated accordingly.

Beyond the individual athlete, we celebrate championship teams. We often do this at the high school level. You can almost bet that soon after a team claims a state championship the accomplishment is proudly broadcast for all to see when they enter the school district's attendance area. You've seen them - "Welcome to _________, home of the 1987 state champions in ______." It is, understandably, a notable feat - besting all other competitors to cap off a victorious season. It takes a great deal of teamwork, focus, skill, and commitment to reach that peak. I don't discount the efforts of those fortunate enough to attain the highest status in any field. But (there's always a But), if the average high school has approximately 30% of the student body participating in athletics while 100% of the student body should be participating in academics, then why do we place such an emphasis on the accomplishments of sports?

I know that sports goes beyond what occurs on the field or court. I've posted Blogs promoting the extended value of extra-curricular participation and I've enjoyed considerable success myself as a high school athlete. One of my sister's has twice been named the top Track coach in the entire country. She has coached teams to 18 state championships (all noted on a large sign welcoming people to the city where the school is located). In addition, she has coached teams to 5 or 6 national championships. She and her husband (co-coach) have worked incredibly hard to provide the conditions for success for team members. They have justifiably earned the honors bestowed upon them. I'm not arguing the value or role of sports in schools (high school or college). I'm just questioning the degree of value and role of sports within the school's culture and mission as it relates to purpose, practice, programs and resource allocation.

For example, how many signs have you seen at the entry to a town that boast the number of National Merit Scholars from the local high school? The performance rate of the school district on state mandated tests? The percentage of learners who graduated? The percentage that have gone on to higher education? The percentage that have secured a job? The rate of attendance among the learners? The number of advanced degrees among the faculty? There are many metrics for success that are associated with and supportive of the meaning and purpose of the school district - but we only note signs of athletic prowess.

The indicators I have illustrated in the examples noted in the preceding paragraph contribute to the conditions that promote opportunities for what I would call Difference Makers. These are the people who eventually make a constructive and positive difference in the lives of others. They leave legacies of lasting impressions. The town, the region, the state, the country, or the world is a better place because of them. Sometimes it's a small idea that grows, or a little gesture that leverages a tipping point producing expanded benefits for others. We've all met them. The soldier returning home safely from duty (and those who experienced the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms) the teacher who took the extra time and care to acknowledge us and further our dreams, the fireman who helped us avert disaster, the volunteer at the soup kitchen or the hospital, the anonymous benefactor who brings cheer to underprivileged children during the holidays, the tireless person performing civic responsibilities beyond anyone's expectations. The list goes on and on. You don't have to be famous and have something named after you, or discover the cure for cancer, or make an extraordinary discovery. You just have to make a constructive and positive difference in the lives of others - enough that the recipient will endeavor to extend himself or herself in a similar manner. Recall the movie released in 2000 entitled, Pay It Forward.

There are many more possible Difference Makers than there are possible Game Breakers. You can promote both opportunities, but you should do so at a rate that consciously reflects your values. To what end should schools invest scarce resources of time, experience, and money? How do we define success? How do we celebrate success? What really matters?

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