An encouraging set of words, actually, have stuck with me all these years.

I’ve always been a person eager to please. Whether it was my folks, my sister or someone else I love, I’m a people pleaser. I also love to be praised. That probably goes back to some security issues but this is a short post and you’re not getting paid $230 an hour to listen to me ramble so we’ll leave that alone.

I’ve always loved a good old “Attaboy” to confirm I’m on the right track or urge me to new heights. Sometimes those have come in the heat of battle, sometimes in the midst of a long practice and sometimes at the end of the day but they have always been appreciated.

My old track coach, Jerry Tetley, gave me one of those moments and I’m not sure he even knew it. I met Coach Tetley when I was a freshman. He was our football coach at the junior high although he taught at the high school. Coach was unique, at least in my eyes. He was the first coach I’d ever had who told our team point blank that the success of our team was dependent on us. I’m certainly paraphrasing but I think his words were something like, “It’s not my team, it’s yours. I want you to do well but it’s not up to me, it’s up to you. Your team is going to be what it’s going to be.” I’d never heard a coach sort of divorce himself from the team’s success. Years later after I learned he taught psychology things sort of started to fit together. I liked his philosophy but that wasn’t the moment I’m here to tell you about.

When I was a junior our head track coach told me point blank if I wanted to medal I was probably going to have to become a hurdler. I was a four season athlete but I had never hurdled and didn’t know a thing about it. Still, I liked helping the team and medals were nice so I said I’d give it a try. My new coach? Jerry Tetley.

I ran both the 110 meter highs and the 300 meter intermediates. The “highs” were not my race. My form was atrocious and the 3-step rhythm felt forced. The intermediates allowed me to use my speed and were more forgiving of my form but they were a bear to run. My first race in the 300’s ending with me almost literally kicking the last two hurdles down as I went through. So, the hurdles were a challenge for me both mentally and physically; except for one race.

My senior year at a cold, cloudy and rainy invitational I experienced clarity. I had snagged a fifth place in the highs (where I usually lived in the medal hunt) and the 300’s, as always, loomed near the end of the meet. Part of my trouble with the event, similar to the highs, was my steps were oftentimes off as I approached the hurdle. Chopping or breaking your stride kills momentum and drains energy needed on those last two crucial hurdles. I remember Coach Tetley’s words were direct, succinct and emotionless prior to the race. That was his way and I liked it. It was cool, calculated and simple, a matter-of-fact proposition. Nothing to do but go out and perform the way you knew you could.

I broke well from the blocks at the gun and gained speed. The first hurdle went smoothly and my momentum increased over it. I was in stride over the second hurdle also. By the third hurdle I was at top speed and honestly surprised I was not chopping. I began to get excited and I that’s when I heard it. “Come one Gif! Come on Gif! Come on Gif!!!” It was my reserved, “it’s up to you”, matter-of-fact coach screaming at the top of his lungs from the infield. I never really heard people from the stands in any sport I played. I was always too dialed in and focused on what I was doing but I heard this and I ran like I had never run before. When I crossed the finish line in first I knew I’d run the best race of my life.

I’d like to say I earned a gold medal that day but that wouldn’t be accurate. If my memory is correct I got third (I was in the slow heat). I ran a personal best 42 seconds flat and I was proud to stand on the medal platform and accept my bronze. Truth was I had won more than that medal, a lot more.

Maybe it was my own focus, my own singularity of purpose or maybe the conditions just were never right but I’d never heard someone cheer for me before. Years after high school and to this day when I think of my coach screaming my name I get a lump in my throat and adrenaline courses through me. I’m 52 but I feel like I could run through a brick wall when I recall that race. That’s the power of encouragement after all.

For each of us it’s different. Some people need someone always in their ear, constantly harping on what they have to do. Some, like me, want good instruction and calm advice. But we all want someone behind us when we’re in the thick of it. Whether it’s the track, the playing field or the boardroom, we all need someone to champion our efforts. I try to remember that whenever I am in the positon of “coach” regardless of the situation. I remember how words, emotion and support can mean enough that we carry them along with us and get choked up more than 30 years later.

Thanks coach; I hope you know what that day meant to me.

Ever have someone say just the right thing at the right time? How long did it stick with you? I’d love to hear your story if you’re willing to comment below. If you like this, please share it with a friend that might like it too.

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