Jimmy Chitwood, Alex Cunningham, and The Essence Of Sport
A few years ago, I had the honor of attending the ABCA Annual Convention in Anaheim, CA with my friends from The Texas Baseball Ranch®. It was my distinct privilege to be in the auditorium to hear the first speaker, Coastal Carolina’s head coach, Gary Gilmore.
Coastal had just shocked the baseball world by rising from a preseason 25th ranking and making history by slaying such NCAA Goliaths as NC State, LSU, Florida, and TCU before finally taking the title against Arizona in a thriller. I believe Coastal’s achievement is the best thing to happen to college baseball (and to baseball in general) in the last 20 years. It proved once again that in this glorious game, you don’t always have to be the biggest, strongest, or even the best team… You only have to be the better than the other team for about 3 hours. It also showed the importance of culture, the value of selflessness, love, respect and service, and the powerful synergy those qualities create.
During our summer program at the Florida Baseball Ranch, we start every day with a 5-10 min mindset segment. It really sets the tone for the day’s work ahead. It’s something I learned from Ron Wolforth, and we never miss a day. That summer after the CWS ended, I was inspired to create a mindset I called “Jimmy Chitwood, Alex Cunningham, and The Essence of Life.” It starts out with a quote from Hall of Fame motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar
“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and bringing the tartar sauce.”
So what is confidence? That’s a tough one… Confidence is kind of like being in love. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Let me show you a clip from the movie Hoosier’s that I believe illustrates confidence at its best.
First of all, if you haven’t ever seen the movie Hoosier’s it’s not your fault. In my opinion that’s just bad parenting. This is one of my top 5 “must see” movies for any serious athlete. For the children of bad parents, let me lay out the plot for you…
In the state of Indiana, basketball is a religion. Years ago — before the “participation trophy generation” — every Indiana high school basketball team competed for the same state championship, regardless of size or location. For as long as anyone in Indiana can remember, the annual high school basketball tournament has been a must see event for all. From the biggest cities, to the smallest country towns, the single elimination race to the title has always captivated an entire state for nearly a month. In 1954 one team pulled off the stuff of legend.
The movie is based on the real life story of tiny Milan High School (called Hickory High School in the film). Gene Hackman plays Coach Norman Dale, a former high level collegiate coach who’s rising star has come crashing down in the wake of an unfortunate lapse in judgement resulting in a physical altercation with a player. Attempting to resurrect his career and his life, Dale takes a job as the Head Coach of Hickory High, in rural Indiana.
The program has a rich history and the community demands success, even though Hickory only has 7 boys on the team. To the expressed dismay of the town leaders, Dale takes on an alcoholic former superstar, “Shooter” Flatch (played by Dennis Hopper) as an assistant coach. After struggling early in the season, Coach Dale learns that the county’s best player, Jimmy Chitwood whose father has passed away and whose mother has recently become ill, has become disenchanted with basketball and refuses to play. Local teacher, Myra Fleena (played by Barbara Hershey) has been raising Jimmy since his mother’s illness and has concerns about the pressure of playing in such a rabid basketball community.
Coach Dale visits Jimmy and persuades him to join the team… and everything changes. Hickory starts winning, and they keep winning, grinding through the playoffs until they find themselves in the state championship game against a much more athletic team with a much larger student body. With their beloved assistant coach, Shooter, in the hospital for alcohol rehab, and the entire town of Hickory having made the trek to Indianapolis in support of the team, they find themselves struggling in the first half of the game. But in the second half, they turn things around and mount a furious comeback. With the score tied at 40 and 19 seconds left in the game, they get a key steal and call a timeout to set up a play. This is what happens next…
So my next question is, “How do you become Jimmy Chitwood?”
How do you develop the level of confidence that allows you to look your team, your coach and your entire town directly in the eye and say… “I’ll make it.”?
The final pitch of Coastal Carolina’s historic campaign provides some insight into that question.
In the final game, with the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on second, Coastal finds itself down to their last viable arm, Alex Cunningham. In 42 appearances, he has never saved a game. The count runs to 3-2, and here he stands. He is about to make the most important pitch of his season… of his career… of his life. One way or another, he’ll remember this pitch for forever… Either as the the greatest moment of his life… or the worst. Watch what happens…
Wow… I get chills every time I see it… and when I talk about it, I’m moved to tears.
Like Jimmy Chitwood, Alex Cunningham steps up and drains it!
How did he do it? How does one have that much confidence in a situation of that magnitude?
I believe the answer can be found in his body language right after the pitch… Watch it again…
What would most people do right after throwing that pitch? They would throw their hands up in the air and celebrate of course! And their body language would scream, “Look at me!! Look what I just did!!!”
But what does Alex Cunningham do? Look at the video… He immediately turns to his dugout… to his brothers in arms… to his team. He pounds his heart (an expression of love), he salutes them (an expression of respect and service) and throws his glove to the side, welcoming his beloved teammates into his arms for an embrace that turns into a dog pile.
I’d love to meet Alex Cunningham some day. I’d love to ask him about his thoughts before that pitch. I’d be willing to bet that as he toed the rubber for the most significant moment of his life, he never once felt like it was about him. I would guess that his thoughts didn’t wander to what this might mean to the rest of his life. And I’ll bet be never once felt alone. You see, according to Coach Gilmore, he and the leaders of the Coastal Carolina squad had cultivated a culture of selflessness. They had forged relationships that created bonds so strong that no player ever felt alone. In a moment of that magnitude, it would be easy to surrender on yourself. But when you are fighting for a greater cause… when you know that your brothers’ survival is at stake, you don’t feel the pressure of “what will happen to me?”
Like a fighting Marine in a battle against an overwhelming enemy, when you know the guys in the foxhole with you will die if you don’t keep fighting, you never consider waving the white flag. And you don’t feel alone… because you aren’t fighting by yourself. You know that everyone of your teammates, your coaches, and your family is there with you… And that gives you strength… That gives you confidence. That, my friends is the essence of sport... That is why we play the game… That is the lesson I have always wanted my sons to take away from the game when they are done playing…
As baseball gradually returns to normal for most players reading this story, I would like to submit my question again… How do you become Jimmy Chitwood?
I believe you do it by intentionally building relationships and fostering a culture of love, respect, and service among your teammates. I’ve been on teams where it happened spontaneously, and I’ve been on teams where it never happened. I don’t think you should wait for it to happen… I believe you should make it happen… on purpose. But it can’t be for phony or selfish reasons. Your motivation for bonding with your teammates and coaches cannot be for your own gain. You can’t pretend to love your teammates so you can attain personal achievement and glory. That will never work.
You have to develop those relationships out of genuine love and respect for every teammate and coach. It has to be real… it has to be a projection of what is in your soul.
How do you do it?
I’d start with one or two guys and build from there. Spend time with a couple of your closest buddies. Ask questions about what is going on in their lives and really get to know what makes them tick. Find ways to help them in their struggles — big and small. Lead them through service. Soon you’ll notice them acting the same way toward you, and your bond will be strengthened.
But take caution. If you’re not careful, your immediate connection with a few guys will create a clique. You cannot allow that. Cliquish behavior will sabotage the effort and the team’s goals. As soon as your bond with a few guys is strong enough to support others, you must reach out and invite new members into the group. Before long, the light of love, respect, and service will spread through the entire team. If some resist initially, don’t fight it. Leave them in the dark temporarily and move on. Eventually that light will be too bright to ignore, and they’ll either join in or burn under its intensity.
Building these kinds of relationships doesn’t mean you’ll win every game… It doesn’t even guarantee you’ll have a winning season. But the bonds you’ll form will be unbreakable, and you’ll carry those relationships with you for the rest of your life. When you’re baseball career has ended and life presents you with struggles, all you’ll need to do is reflect back on this season and the love, respect, and service you shared with your teammates. The memories will be a constant source of strength and courage, and during the biggest pitches… during the biggest challenges of your life, you’ll never ever feel alone.
And that makes you a winner.
And THAT is the essence of sport…
Indeed the essence of life.
Have a great year everyone.
We’ll see you at The Ranch.
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