Saturday, May 27, 2023

Road Trips (and Development) Aren't All About the Destination

Let's say you and I lived in Omaha, Nebraska and one day I woke up and wanted to go on a road trip. "Let's go west!" I cry and start packing my bag. "You want to be a little more specific?" you ask. "I want to jump in the Pacific!" I reply. "It's a big ocean," you muse. "Then it will be hard to miss!" I retort as I go on packing. After more witty repartee, we look at the map together. "Decision time," you mutter, "which way do you want to go?" "That way," I reply, well aware of how unhelpful I am and also aware of how little I care. "We've got hours before it's even close to decision time," I say, somewhat cryptically. "Do you even know how road trips work?!?" we both exclaim simultaneously.

Here's what I've come to accept about road trips: they don't care about the plans we make. That goes double if you're in the passenger seat. Here's something else I've learned about road trips: the journey and the destination are separate experiences. The trip can be brutal and the destination can be beautiful but the opposite is just as likely to be true. It can all be dead medium, despite our best efforts to make it special or we can find little joys sprinkled throughout. Not only is it all possible, you've probably experienced a few of the combinations yourself.

Another thing about road trips is that they can become something completely different after we start them. What if we had set out for L.A. only to decide in Denver that San Francisco was more our style? Would our trip now be a failure? Would we have to go home and start all over again? Or could we just take a right turn and head for a new destination? What if we saw the purple mountains' majesty of the Rockies and decided to stop there? Would none of it be worthwhile because I originally set our sights on the shining sea? Are we quitters? Sure we are, by some definitions. But it's also perfectly fine to say that what we experienced was valuable and beautiful in its own right. Our choice doesn't lessen the beauty of the ocean and maybe we'll even go there another time. It's okay to have another road trip. All this is to explain that, despite our best efforts (or lack thereof), the trip will have its say and we are all along for the ride.

As coaches, teachers, and mentors, we can learn a lot from road trips.

First, let's consider what we can learn about our own development. We can have well-laid plans about how we're going to advance but learning and development are almost never linear and aren't interested in our timetables. Sometimes we don't see the lessons we have to learn and sometimes we think we can get away with skipping crucial learning. Sometimes skipping stuff works out and sometimes we have to pay the piper. Regardless of how our journey unfolds, we want to believe that we have more control over it than we really do. We'll pat ourselves on the back harder than we should when we succeed and we'll kick ourselves harder than we deserve when we fail because we think that it was all about our choices and skill and nothing to do with luck and happenstance. This is to say that we won't, we can't, stay true to the road trip plan that we laid out for ourselves because sometimes there's construction and traffic jams along the route. And that's all okay if we let it be. We don't have to be on a schedule to learn and grow. We can still be committed to getting better and learning more, despite not knowing exactly what that will look like or when it will happen. It doesn't matter if we were trying to get to San Francisco or Los Angeles and it doesn't matter how long it takes us to get there (wherever "there" becomes). The more specific our plans for growth are, the less likely we are to follow them exactly. This is not to say that we are less likely to achieve our goals, just less likely to check all the boxes along the way. Not all of our goals need to be S.M.A.R.T. to work or to be motivating.

The comparisons between road trips and our own development hold true for the development of the learners and athletes in our care as well. The first crucial difference is that now we're passengers, not drivers. The second difference is that we're not along for the whole trip. The result of these differences is that we have even less control than we would if it was our trip. Imagine that we are hired guides for a small portion of a much larger journey. We are experts on our little stretch of road and our suggestions for navigating that section may be well-received. We know where the potholes and the speed traps are, we know where the restaurants and the gas stations are. We can suggest whatever we'd like when we're in the passenger seat, but we shouldn't be surprised or offended if and when our advice isn't taken. Much as we may care what happens after we step out of the car that's not part of our journey together. Our planning and coaching can become more fluid and free when we allow for the end result to be relative to the time we spend together instead of relative to an imagined distant goal. We overstep our bounds when we extrapolate out beyond our stretch of road and start handing out advice about the stretch of road up ahead because of our concern for what happens outside of our time together. We will often ask ourselves if we have prepared athletes in our care for "the next level" and I think that if their minds and eyes are open and their bodies are healthy then we can say that we have prepared them sufficiently. Our practices and training plans don't have to be made with some far-off destination in mind, they can embrace a much more proximal version of progress. I can rest easy knowing that there will be other guides that will accompany them in the future, I don't have to do all the work myself.

When we coach, we're riding in a car that isn't ours and we would do well to remind ourselves of that from time to time. All we can do is strive to give the drivers our most accurate view of the road they're on now and let them decide if they want to keep going and how. It's okay if the athletes in our care don't make it to where we thought they should, and that may not be because of how we planned and coached. They don't have to make progress according to our timetable. Our challenge is not to get them somewhere or even to make sure they keep moving, it is to help them create their road trip memories. Maybe they keep their intended destination throughout their time with us and maybe they don't. When they change their minds, we don't have to convince them that they're making a mistake. It helps to remember that some of the beauty of road trips is in their inefficiency. If they decide to take a detour, we can point them down new roads. If they choose to stop, we can help them find a place to stay. Maybe they'll change their minds again further on down the road. Maybe they'll even choose to readopt their original destination. It's not for us to say that they're road tripping wrong or that they have wasted time and energy. The ocean will still be there, and they will still be happy to jump in it if that's where they choose to go. They'll have had a few more experiences and have made a few more stories to tell. That's how road trips work.

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Road Trips (and Development) Aren't All About the Destination

Let's say you and I lived in Omaha, Nebraska and one day I woke up and wanted to go on a road trip. "Let's go west!" I cry...