Monday, August 19, 2013

Identify the caterpillars

Isn't it funny, perhaps even odd, where we find inspiration? I found it earlier tonight on Twitter, which in turn caused the gears in my head to spin at mach one speeds. Hence, I sit at my desk as others in my house peacefully (I presume) slumber, desperately trying to control the thoughts
wildly whizzing through the axons and dendrites in my brain.

It all began while I was doing my due diligence in connecting with coaches who might be interested in my latest book ("Best Season Yet: 12 Weeks to Train"). I read through endless bylines of fellow Twitterers and Twitterettes. And then I saw it. The words stopped me dead in my tracks. I'm not talking still sauntering, floundering, or even wiggling on the ground. I mean motionless. Dead. Done for. Slapped-up-side-of-the-head stunned. A football coach from Mesquite, TX, Daniel Penrod, had tweeted these words.

"Identify the caterpillars. Most have no idea they'll one day fly. Tell them, help them, guide them."

In that moment I knew I found the answer to a question posed to me so often these days. "Why do you teach? Why do your coach? Why did you leave your medical profession?" Though difficult to answer in the past, I now know. It's to become an entomologist. It's to identify all those crazy caterpillars.

Caterpillars are interesting little creatures. They are the larval form of butterflies and moths. Some are decked out in an array of colors. Some are hairy and bristly while others are smooth as their silk cocoons. Sometimes they can inch along an extended finger, tickling the touch receptors in our skin. But some caterpillars, harmless as they look, inject a stinging poison that surprises the unsuspecting.

For the few weeks that caterpillars are, well, caterpillars, they eat ferociously, able to chomp their way through entire fields of crops. The estimated 20,000 known varieties are often considered agricultural pests, doing more harm than good. But their period of robust activity and youthful destruction is short-lived. Soon they spin a silky cocoon to hang harmlessly from a branch during the pupal stage of life. To the bystander, it doesn't look like much is going on for one cannot see through the trappings and into the heart of the matter. To the outsider, the dormancy can be as frustrating as trying trying to bail out a sinking ship with a thimble.

A few weeks pass. Still nothing. Still nothing, that is, until one day when the cocoon opens to reveal a winged creature, the only insect with scaled wings. Not until the butterfly's body temperature rises to eighty-six degrees can it take flight. Some can fly to up to thirty miles per hour while others resemble slow moving targets at a blimp-like speed of five per hour. Varieties abound. Some sport colorful, beautiful wings, resembling a work of art and gaining quick attention. But some are not so bright, drab, even. These motley moths blend into their surroundings, hoping, at best, to avoid ravenous predators. I doubt, however, that neither the bold and beautiful nor the drab, not fab types ever thought they would fly high in the sky!

Can you see where I'm going with this? My students and athletes are like caterpillars. There are too many varieties to count. Each has his own story, her own background. Some are easy to admire but the poisonous ones make them hard to embrace. Still, we labor on and watch them enter a mysterious period, never quite sure about how (or when) they will emerge from waiting. As adults, we know the general outcome but sometimes forget to remind them of their own futures. If we did a better job telling them they're destined to fly, perhaps they would be less likely to be eaten up in the process.

"Do you love teaching and coaching?" I am often asked. Sometimes yes but no, not all the time. I don't always love those precious little caterpillars who can be demanding, annoying, and content in their mediocrity.  But do I love mile eight-four of a one-hundred mile race? No. Do I still race? Yes. Do I love toiling in my garden in anticipation of a bumper crop? Not when the sun is scorching. But do I still plant? Sure. Do I love the long hours of lesson preparation and planning? Nope. Not often. But do I still pour over the material? Absolutely. Did I love the pain of childbirth as I delivered a long-awaited child? Seriously? You're joking, right? Yeah. I even did that twice. But here's the thing. Not loving those difficult moments (maybe even hating them) is a fleeting emotion when the final outcome is considered. Just because a warm and happy glow is allusive does not mean the process is not to be embraced, not to be loved.

I want to see my caterpillars take off and fly, soaring high and far. I want them to understand the process. I want to remind them of their futures. I want them to see a bright hope. I want them to understand this:

"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

Go ahead, inch along, all you caterpillars, for one day you will surely fly.

This is why I teach. This is why I coach.

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