Samuel L. Lytle

“Really you guys?” coach says, pacing back and forth.

I listen with a guilt free conscience. I haven’t even played a minute of the game. I also feel that I preformed above expectations in the warm up drills. Four for five on layups. Only three missed jump shots.

However, for the sake of team unity and caring for the rest of my teammates, I sit up right in the odorous locker room and listen intently. At the rate our opponent is pummeling us, I might just see the last 57 seconds of the game.

“You know you are better than this. I know you are winners, yet game after game you are out there playing like you are scared. It is time to stop losing.”

Luckily, it is halftime, and no clipboards have been broken… yet. The team takes coach’s words to heart, we run back to the court…

…and the season gets turned around.

It is likely that I witnessed hundreds of half time ‘pep talks’ in my storied middle and high school sports career. However, this one from my freshmen basketball season is one of the few that I actually remember because it is the one season that I can ever remember flirting with a losing record.

It is no secret that Lincoln County consistently produces well-above average sports programs. Boys and girls sports teams from both LCHS and PVHS dominate most sports, are perennial playoff attendees and produce enough championship plaques that new gyms have to be built to accommodate them.

What I wasn’t aware of growing up was that such high level of performance isn’t common. Most teams from other schools consider it a very successful season if they finish in or near the playoffs. Many schools are known for one particular sport, and if any other sports program at the school approaches a .500 record, it is good enough.

So why do we exude so much awesomeness? What makes our players and teams so good that winning is expected?

The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame the success on the usual suspects such as summer camps, basketball standards in backyards and dads that actually play catch with their kids. These have to all be thrown out, however, because they are not exclusive to our county.

Instead, we need to look at the unique culture of our rural communities.

I think it can’t be understated that the feeling of belonging attributes to well-balanced youth. These young men and women have entire towns rooting for them to succeed in not only sports, but life in general. This creates an atmosphere of caring and belief in one’s self, and confident athletes are produced.

The small school size is another contributing factor as it enables kids to play multiple sports every year. When the volleyball, basketball and softball rosters are almost identical, it means that those girls have likely played together for years, and this creates strong team unity and trust. Also related to the multiple sports syndrome is the fact that there is little to do in remote communities other than play ball. Therefore, when big city athletes are busy at the mall or skate park, ours are playing “dunkball” ‘til well past dark.

Another culprit to blame for these rarely losing teams is something I call the ‘skinny funnel.’ Think of the NFL for a second. Millions of little boys grow up dreaming of becoming pro someday. Most of these play ‘little man’ football. Many of these play high school ball. Some go on to college and almost none actually end up in the ‘League.’ This is a wide funnel that leads to a small opening.

Now contrast that with Alamo, for example. There is one each of elementary, middle and high schools. Coaches on every level collaborate constantly. The plays that the high school teams run are mirrored in some form at the lower levels. The strengths and weaknesses of each player are known and nourished K through 12. The young kids look up to the star high school athletes, and the stars actually return the encouragement. When a T-Ball team sticks together all the way until they win the state baseball championship their senior year, we call this a ‘skinny funnel.’

And finally, sports programs succeed when they have the best coaches and parents in the state. Because these mentors are in the business of making good people with winning as a secondary goal, the sort of reverse psychology works well, and young players return the favor in the form of championships in bunches.

When you are running the fifteenth meat grinder after a loss, I’ll admit you may not feel like a coach cares about anything other than winning. But when you return ten years later and can talk to your baseball coach for an hour about your life without even mentioning sports, you begin to understand that they really cared about you all along.

Then again, word has gotten out that my year-old boy favors his left hand when eating his animal crackers…

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Samuel L. Lytle is an aspiring Civil Engineer and Freelance Writer.  He currently lives in Reno with his wife Tiffany and his son Jason.  He recently released his first book, Gold Stars, which is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as an eBook.  You can learn more about his writing projects at http://www.samswritingblog.com.