Finish the Job

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“That’s one thing you learn in sports. You don’t give up; you fight to the finish.”

–Louis Zamperini, WWII Veteran, Olympic Runner

If there’s one lesson that is taught and re-taught in sports, it is to never let up until the clock is 0:00, the final out is made, the runner crosses the finish line. If you do, the outcome may be different than expected. As Satchel Paige is quoted: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Never is this ethic so clear as in sports competition, and once neglected, the pain is the price of learning.

Coaches spend sleepless nights searching for ways to prevent the unnecessary upset even before the season ensues. One team may adopt the theme of being “blue collar,” symbolic of being true to the task. Another team may make a lunch pail its symbol of work ethic, doing the job. Regardless of how talented athletes/teams are, the wrong approach can derail success.

Several examples come to mind from events I have observed over the years. There was a superb running back at one university who broke free for what should have been an easy score. But he paused to look around, to enjoy the moment; before crossing the goal line, he was blindsided by an opponent who was doing his job. Before the runner could score, he had been tackled and separated from the football by the defender.

During the NBA Finals, by all measures the more physical and overpowering team should have secured the championship in game 5. However, while they were sensing victory a bit prematurely, they were lulled into the trap of a seasoned opponent. After a furious display of determination and dominance with only two minutes left on the scoreboard, a timeout was called. When teams resumed play, the satisfaction of superior performance was their demise. Their opponents sensed overconfidence, and made their move. Before you knew it, they overcame the deficit to win by one point.

My favorite play in basketball is the fast break score. But not the kind where only one player is involved. It is when the trailer rebounds the lead player’s errant dunk or missed layup, and with precision taps it in for a score. I love that play because the second man does his job, and is rewarded. Persistence and focus pay off. The score is not ensured until the ball falls through the net. Similarly in the Kentucky Derby, the apparent winner was disqualified after the race. The horse in second place as they crossed the finish line was rewarded for finishing his job, because you never know.

Something as a coach that I observed was the wasted tenth or hundredths of a second a runner concedes when he slows up to celebrate finishing first in a race. Watching the NCAA championships recently, an amazing sprinter blazed down the lane until the victory seemed secure. Then she slowed as she crossed the finish tape. She set a new record and won the race and the championship. The sportscaster even commented that she showed potential for faster times because of her deceleration. However, there is no guarantee that there will be another opportunity for a faster time. Wouldn’t it have been better to just run through the finish as athletes are coached to do? Perhaps the record set would have been one for the ages. We’ll never know for sure.

When my son-in-law’s basketball team reached the national championship round of their division, I wondered what could be said that had not been said to establish the right mindset for this unique level of competition. I asked my daughter, who was herself an accomplished athlete and familiar with competitive scenarios. She told me this. They just need to “finish the job.” That resonated with me and unlocked an important mindset of the elite athlete. It’s not about celebrating getting there. It’s about maintaining focus and determination to fight to the finish. Just another life lesson that sports offers which makes the experience truly valuable.

Key Tips

  • Look for the valuable lessons in sports and be intentional about making the comparison from the game to life.
  • Affirm your child for finishing the job, not only for wins and awards. It’s the value of the work ethic and seeing a task to its end that endures.

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