Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Get Your Arm Up

While throwing my first bullpen in college (Fall 2005), I heard a phrase for the first time. A phrase that would be repeated to me over and over the next 8 years.

   "Get your arm up."

Josh Hopper, my pitching coach at the time, asked me nicely the first time. Almost like a suggestion. I concentrated a little harder on the next pitch. Focusing on my arm slot being a little bit higher, I hit my target with ease. But within 5 pitches I was back to my old habits. My elbow sagging lower and lower. My hand migrating to the side or underneath the baseball. Pitches sailing up and in with no hope of ever reaching the glove. This time coach Hop looked over at me with his unmistakable scowl and yelled "STOP!"

   "I told you to get your arm up and you did. The results were much better, right? So why the hell do you keep dropping your arm? You ok with being mediocre?" He said.

That frustrated me to no end! If I knew how to do it differently in that scenario I obviously would've been doing it. Sure, I knew logically that keeping my arm angle higher and making sure I get my hand on top of the baseball were keys to executing the pitch correctly, but there were years and years of bad habits standing in the way of doing it "the right way." Had I started getting my arm up while playing catch in the front yard at the age of 7, perhaps I would've been more successful now. Had anyone told me growing up that the way I threw wasn't ideal, maybe it wouldn't have been so hard for me to do it correctly in college. My inability to consistently get my arm up wasn't me purposefully doing things the wrong way, it was the result of doing what was easier (more natural) for me to do.

I've seen this played out in other parts of my life as well. For instance, how many times have people told me that I should eat more vegetables? Too many to count. And for the longest time, my response was the same. I would go to Whole Foods (because expensive = healthy, right?), buy some leafy greens and come back home to eat salads for a week. I knew it was good for me. I knew that, in the long run, my body would be better off for it. But without fail, I would get two days into it before finding myself in the drive thru line of Chick-Fil-A, salivating over the aroma of some waffle fries and a chicken sandwich. Once again, it wasn't because I was anti-health that I fled to the nearest fast food restaurant. It was because I didn't grow up eating a lot of vegetables, and as much as I understood and wanted the benefits of eating them, eating fried chicken came more naturally.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't make these examples as an excuse. I'm not trying to explain away my shortcomings as, country music would put it, "products of my raising." In fact, quite the opposite. I've had to work everyday to correct the bad habits I developed growing up...both on the field and off. Not a day goes by during the season that I'm not in front of a mirror practicing my delivery. Trying with every bit of focus I can muster to keep my arm in a good throwing position. It's hard. I sweat a lot. I feel drained at the end of each session. But I know that when the game rolls around, my chances of doing it correctly are much higher. The same goes for my diet. I had to cut out a bunch of stuff, cold turkey. I have to plan out meals and on purpose try new foods that I might hate. I have to eat some organic gluten free oatmeal when all I really want is a warm sweet pastry. Day by day I'm getting better at it, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

The reason I want to remember those examples is so that I don't get too down on myself when I inevitably don't do it right. It's natural that as long as it took me to build up those bad habits, it'll take a good amount of time to break them as well. It's like New Year's resolutions. People get so fired up to do something differently. To make a change. Yet as soon as they fall short, it's as if it was all for naught. BUT THAT"S NOT TRUE!! No one is perfect and very few people, if any, do new things perfectly right off the bat. Breaking habits is hard and it requires patience. You might fail 1, 2 or 50 times, but don't get down on yourself. Just remember that a willingness to do hard things is the first and most difficult step, and that everyday you keep doing it, it gets easier and easier.

I'm sure I will have days where I eat chocolate cake while nobody is looking. And I definitely still have days where, for the life of me, I can't seem to get my arm up (no matter how loud coach Hop is in my head). However, I'm constantly learning that as long as I'm still committed to breaking the bad habits, those shortcomings aren't ultimate failures. Rather, they are natural steps along the path to doing things differently. Doing things better.

"Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, February 7, 2014

Good, But Not Good Enough

My wife and I were talking not too long ago about the topic of competency. She is unbelievably talented (don't trust me? check out her work), but was in this funk where every piece of her work she looked at didn't seem to stand up against her competitors'. Looking down at what I would consider a finished print she said, "I know I'm good, but it doesn't ever feel like I'm good enough." I looked at her knowingly and said, "I know exactly how you feel."

We live in this weird baseball Limbo where it seems like I've always been just good enough to get us to over the hump to the next level. But now there is this new hump, a new "good enough", called the big leagues that I can't seem to live up to. My minor league numbers are pretty darn good, no matter who you compare them to. I've had my ups and downs through the levels, but at the end of the day I was decent enough to make it to the big leagues with 2 different teams. My big league numbers, however, are mediocre at best...and at worst, downright atrocious. Like Ashley, I know that I am good. History has shown that to be at least mostly true. But I too look at myself and think "Will I ever be good enough?"

As an athlete, being competitive has always come naturally to me. I was raised with 3 siblings (2 brothers and a sister) and we all competed, literally and figuratively, for the entirety of our childhoods. We fought for parents' attention, bragging rights at the ping pong table, front seat in our Mercury Villager minivan and just about anything else where there was a perceived victor (everything). Naturally, that translated well to the baseball field. I was intrinsically driven to win every game, play every inning and make every all star team no matter the significance...or insignificance...of the honor. I never really played travel ball growing up, so it wasn't so hard for me to see myself as one of the best players in our small suburban rec. league. Once middle and high school rolled around, the competition got better and I did what was second nature to me. I competed. I finally made the Varsity squad as a sophomore, and there was a sense of school pride that permeated my on field performance. I wanted to bring home a championship for Providence Christian Academy, but more than anything I just wanted to keep playing after my 4 years there were over. I practiced and played in the hopes that I would be good enough to earn a scholarship to play college baseball. Turns out I was good enough. I attended Berry College on a baseball scholarship and I pitched there for 3 years. I wasn't an All-American (not even academically) and I didn't shock the baseball world with crazy velocity or stats. I was, however, good enough to get drafted in 2008. I played for 5.5 years in the New York Mets organization, hitting every minor league level they have to offer. Methodically (and divinely I believe), I made it through each level and onto the next until I reached the big leagues in August of 2012. Here's where the pattern breaks.

There is no next level at this point. There's the Hall of Fame (which is the ultimate all star team), but even that is simply an honor bestowed on you long after your playing days are over. Once you get to the level I am at now, there is no "good enough" that's "good enough" anymore.

Let's go through an ideal major league career:
- Made it to the big leagues
- Immediately have success and make and all star team
- Win World Series
- Get big $$$ contract extension
- Gain endorsement deals
- Win Cy Young award(s)
- Continue for the next 10 years
- Qualify for full pension
- Keep playing until you either retire or quit
- Get elected by journalists into the Hall of Fame

There is only a very small percentage of guys who have played this game that have achieved those things. And among those guys, at what point along their journey did they rest and say "Now I'm finally good enough." When they got the money? The awards? The tenure? Doubtful. My guess is that they probably used the questions of "Am I good enough" to drive them forward to succeed. But the vast majority of us are already behind the 8 ball when it comes to checking those items off of our career bucket lists, so we can't even come close to saying that we're good enough. It's easy to feel like we're on a professional hamster wheel, perpetually turning faster and faster but not actually getting anywhere. So many of us who play the game think that if we can just get to that next milestone, then we'll be good enough. "If I can just make the club out of Spring training....If I can just get to arbitration...If I can just get that multi year deal...if only..." There is no real end in sight. The thought process is completely unrealistic and, I dare say, impossible. The reality is that all of us will fall short of something. Many of us baseball players won't ever get a multi year deal or make an all star team. But even most of the guys who do won't win a world series or make the hall of fame. At the end, there will always be something that we will have fallen short of. That we won't have been "good enough" for. But is that the way you want to look at your life? Is that a healthy way to view any professional endeavor?

Let's look at a more optimistic reality. I have already been good enough to accomplish everything that I've done in the past. We all have! Every one of us has accomplished something, big or small, in our lives. And in that moment of accomplishment we were exactly good enough to complete whatever it was. So the question of whether or not we'll be good enough to accomplish something more difficult in the future should be simple...why not? If the past is any indicator of the future then why shouldn't we be able to do great things? We've all been up to the task at hand before, so it is totally reasonable to believe that with growth, practice, sweat, tears and faith we will be able to do it again...but with something bigger!

I loved Russell Wilson's (QB for the World Champion Seattle Seahawks) post game Super Bowl interview. After initially giving thanks to God for his blessings (the things we can't earn), Wilson repeated the phrase that has become their team's mantra all year. Why Not Us? His father used to ask him the same question growing up. Being a quarterback who was small in stature and better at baseball anyway, people were skeptical about his ability to become a great college, let alone NFL, QB. His father's response to the criticisms were, "Why not you?" Sure, there are plenty of reasons that we all should fall short of our goals. Maybe the cards are stacked so high against us that we can't see over them. But we have the tools to achieve great things, so why not us? Why not now? Why not this season? The critics are always going to criticize and if you let them into your headspace, what they're saying will start to make too much sense to ignore. So don't give people the power to dictate what you are or aren't good enough for. We are good enough, so why not us?

Here's the post game video with Russell Wilson: