As she approached the single rose attached to the tree, there was a note attached. "This rose is for free, but please share your pandemic story."
I'm not sure if a story was shared, so let me write one instead. Here goes...
2 years ago, I moved away from home for the second time. The first time was to pursue a dream, in which I was successful in competing at the Olympic Games. This time, it was to pursue a career.
Though I thought I would be coaching part-time, I'd never imagine I would be able to do it as a full-time job. At first, I was too optimistic. But that's normal, isn't it? We often set very high expectations of ourselves when we make a big change. I was excited to get started, but things quickly spiraled out of control.
The pandemic happened to come in full force the week after I moved, and I was out of work for three months. Eventually, things picked up again. It was a slow learning process, but it got better over time. Things got comfortable yet they were still far from normal. I was coaching a lot more and despite an additional lockdown or two, the year went by. However, without tournaments, it was hard for anyone to determine how good their training was. I wanted to help my athletes become good players, but there was nothing to compare it to.
After about a year of training only, the junior national championships took everyone by surprise. With only a month to prepare, it was difficult because of restrictions to coincide with trials for Pan Am Juniors. At first, it seemed like nobody wanted to go, then everyone wanted to go, then nobody wanted to go again. In the end, it was a small team of players that went and I was sent as the only coach.
I had limited experience traveling as a coach, despite my many years of traveling as a player, I still have uncertainties in these situations because I'm traveling somewhere I've never been to. Perhaps I hide my discomfort well, or that I understand that most things are out of my control. I can only do my best in any given situation with tools available to me. It's the same lesson I've tried to teach on the badminton court. Sometimes the best thing to do is to decide on a plan of action, act on it, then make necessary adjustments based on the results. Simple, yes. Easy, no.
Junior nationals was just the start of the story, because it taught me that there's great return in investing in others. One of the core ideas in my coaching philosophy is to add value to others. It's probably easier to focus on the best players and keep working with them, because they will become good players regardless. Conversely, there is no amount of value you can add to those who aren't willing to put in the effort. It's not that I'm giving up on them, but rather that they aren't quite ready yet.
Then there are those who make the effort, but may not get the same return as the top players. These were the players I'd see come and go when I was training and competing. It's hard to replicate the path to make the Olympics and it's not for everyone. It's hard simply because there are limited spots. But just because you don't have the Olympic experience, it doesn't mean you can't have an enjoyable badminton experience. So I wanted to help give everyone I work with the tools to become the best they can be with what they have.
This led to a memorable but busy summer, in which I had early morning coaching, followed by summer camps, and then additional private lessons in the evenings. We weren't going to have morning training at first, but I volunteered to do it and we had a solid group that came to train at 6 AM every weekday morning. I tried to add value wherever I could, including daily challenges from The Daily Stoic, and I started a "Watermelon Wednesday" where I would bring in a watermelon to eat after training. I even included additional strength training sessions, and I'm happy to say that many players have continued with their strength training today!
I've been advised from well-meaning people before to stop doing things "for free" and I would agree with them if my only concern was getting paid. However, helping others is an integral part of coaching, and doing something for others because I believe it's the right thing to do is my own choice. Whether I actually make a difference or not is largely out of my control.
I used to argue with my mom about this. She believed that good intentions were the most important, whereas I believed that it was the end results that mattered most. I guess mothers are always right, because the only thing within our control is our intentions. Despite the outcome, we can only do the best with what we have. Badminton teaches that to us all the time. Competing with limited financial resources and your opponent is fully funded? Train half the time as your opponent? Started years later than your younger opponent? Yes, but make the most of it. If you intend to win rallies, and get to 21 (or win by two) before your opponent in two out of three games, then hey, sometimes fortune favors the bold (fortis fortuna adiuvat), as the saying goes.
After a memorable summer, morning training continued as best we could, and junior tournaments started to come back in the fall, mainly focusing on the Northwest Closed Regional Championships (CRC) and the Northwest Open Regional Championships (ORC). Our club did very well in the CRC, but it was eye opening to see their relative performance compared to other athletes across the country at the ORC. A lot of it was simply based on personal beliefs and it seemed like a lot of our players didn't have the confidence to compete with athletes from other regions, namely California.
"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right" - Henry Ford
With more tournaments in the new year, including returning to competition myself, it really helped me figure things out, or at least helped direct me to the next course of action. There's nothing like throwing yourself back into competition and trying to lead by example. Fortunately, it's been a positive experience and it has been actually fun competing once again, without the need for results. Being intentional with the process and making the most in every situation has helped me find enjoyment and appreciating my time on court once again.
I only wished I had realized this sooner, but at least I can share this lesson with my players as a coach. If you're wondering if I'm making a comeback, I am not. I only hope to play where I can, and if I can give some of my players additional experience, I'll do my best. My primary goal now is not to get injured, and make the most of my abilities while I still can.
But everything ends. Just like this pandemic will probably end. And as much as I hate to think about it, players grow up and leave. Some sooner than others. It happened to me too. I moved from Vancouver to Bellevue and I never would have imagined this a decade ago when I was still competing.
Perhaps contemplating the "mortality" of these relationships helps us to cherish these moments longer, because it will end. Though I'm likely the one to stay, each of my athletes will eventually leave and I have to accept that. That's also part of life. People come, people go... but before they leave, let me do my best to add as much value as I can, so that you may do the same for someone else down the road.
“Under no circumstances ever say 'I have lost something,' only 'I returned it.' Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned. 'My land was confiscated.' No, it too was returned. 'But the person who took it was a thief.' Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver effects its return? As long as he entrusts it to you, look after it as something yours to enjoy only for a time — the way a traveller regards a hotel.” - Epictetus
Spread love. Not hate. Not jealousy. Not envy. Not anxiety. Not fear.
"Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what's left and live it properly." - Marcus Aurelius
Think of your relationships with others as ended. You will probably never see them again. Good, now that you've thought about it, make the most of the time you have left.
That's what I'm trying to do, while I still can. I've never been good with relationships, but I can only try to be a little bit better every day.
This marks my second year anniversary moving to Washington. Thank you to everyone who made this possible, and I am grateful for being part of such a wonderful community!
The pandemic story hasn't ended... thankfully. We can still write our own endings. It's not too late.