Why doing what you love is the best course

For at least 20 years, I have been a volunteer youth coach. Primarily it’s the result of being the father of 14 kids born in four different decades. Yes, 14 kids over the course of four decades: The ’80s, the ’90s, the ’00s and the ’10s. My wife is amazing, eh?

When it comes to youth sports, coaches are always in short supply. At each stop along my coaching journey, Prineville, Ore., Corvallis, Ore., and Gloucester, Va., there’s been a desperate need for youth coaches. So with a sports background and inevitably with my own kids in the Parks and Rec system, I have volunteered to coach.

One thing that has really surprised me along the way happens routinely years after I coach a kid who generally falls into the age range of 6 to 11. The kid I coached, the one who couldn’t hit a baseball, or make a bucket, or dribble a soccer ball with his feet, makes it. By “make it” I mean ends up playing varsity sports.

There are some kids who I can easily predict will go on to bigger and better things. A classic example of this is a lad named Jeffrey Hendrix. I coached him in coach-pitch baseball in Corvallis Little League around 2000 or so when he was about 7 or 8. Even at that age he had a sweet left-handed swing and it was no problem for him to hit my pitches. I soon learned where Jeffrey’s wheelhouse was and would throw to that spot and inevitably he would rip the ball to center or right field for a big hit.

One day his father came to me and inquired about my pitching strategy. I told him where Jeffrey liked the location of the pitch and where I threw it. He smiled and asked me to mix up the location of the pitches so Jeffrey could learn to hit other pitches.

Let’s just say he learned to hit other pitches because in 2015, Jeffrey Hendrix, after a great career as an outfielder at Oregon State University, was drafted in the 4th round by the New York Yankees. I’d like to think that my mixing up pitch locations in coach-pitch baseball had something to do with it … keep dreaming, eh?

But there’s been plenty of other times where some of the kids I’ve coached surprised me. These are kids who I was pretty sure wouldn’t play another season because they didn’t appear to have much interest, talent, skills, or even coordination for that matter. But then I would see them in the newspaper or hear about them playing varsity in high school. My shock would often be palpable: How did that happen?

So what happened? They stuck with it. They worked at it. For hours. They matured physically and coordination happened. They had a passion and drive to practice something they loved for hours on end and it paid off.

It’s what noted psychology professor Anders Ericsson describes when he talks about “Expert Performance.” Many years ago he discussed this with Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in an article that appeared in the New York Times that outlined his ideas.

One of Ericsson’s ideas is “deliberate practice.” This entails setting a specific goal, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating on technique as much as outcome. That old cliche that practice makes perfect is true.

One of the big takeaways of Ericsson’s work is that many of us believe we have inherent limits. It’s just not true. Now certainly we’re not all born with equal potential — my Samoan buddy Jake Moevao is built like a defensive lineman in football, which is what he played in college, and no matter how hard he trained, he very likely would not make a fast marathoner.

Yet what if there’s something we truly love? But we’re just not good at it. I’ve come late to life to woodworking. There’s something about it that feeds my creativity. I’ve made a couple of coffee tables and some picture frames. I’ve gotten some compliments on one of my coffee tables in particular and it’s been pinned on Pinterest several times. That’s something, eh? But the quality is somewhat suspect and there’s things I would do differently.

That’s precisely the point though. I’m learning what to do better. It’s just practice. My second table was much sturdier than the first. The quality was better, the craftmanship a little more refined. My third effort should be even better.

So what is it that you love? But you think you’re not all that good at. Why not give it a shot? And keep at it.

This paragraph from Levitt’s and Durbin’s article jumped out at me: “Ericsson’s conclusions, if accurate, would seem to have broad applications. Students should be taught to follow their interests earlier in their schooling, the better to build up their skills and acquire meaningful feedback. Senior citizens should be encouraged to acquire new skills, especially those thought to require ‘talents’ they previously believed they didn’t possess.”

My dad, John Sabo, is in his 70s. He was a schoolteacher who taught primarily English and Social Studies in the same city, Bend, Ore., for 30 years. He graduated from UCLA with a film degree — some guy named Francis Ford Coppola was hanging around the school with him — and decided several years ago he would repurpose ratty old cedar fencing into birdhouses and garden and yard accoutrements such as planters and little rustic containers.

He’s pretty good at it, as things turned out. Word got out about his little hobby and now he’s got back orders for his creations and can’t build his repurposed cedar fencing projects fast enough. Who knew Mr. Sabo had such skills?

The lesson here is obvious: Chase your passion. Keep at it. Set goals. Get feedback. Too often our limits may be imposed by our own false perceptions of skills or abilities we think we may not possess. It turns out passion and hard work can trump all.

J Matthew Sabo

Husband. Father. Writer. Creator.