Jim, my friend from college who, as I shared here, died suddenly last fall, had spent years coaching his sons’ Little League baseball teams. As the new season opened in their hometown recently, the league honored Jim with an unveiling of jerseys bearing his initials, the welcoming of his younger brother, Mark, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and a reminder to the league’s players to do as Jim always coached them to do—to play the game right.
Jim wanted to win as much as any coach, but that’s not why he spent so much of his free time guiding Little Leaguers. He loved instilling in his players his love and respect for the game. You never saw one of Jim’s players lollygag on or off the field—they ran with purpose. No player ever showed up with a uniform shirt untucked or a hat worn askew. And it was Jim who invented the “Right Field Hero” award, regularly presented to his right fielder who would sprint from his outfield post to back-up every throw to first base, a practice that took discipline for a player to do consistently, but was sure to save at least one errant throw per game.
Jim’s players had fun playing and competing. But even more importantly, they were proud of the way they honored the game. Baseball comes with its share of hard knocks—strike outs, errors, missed signals—even the best-coached teams have their off days. But the players Jim coached could always hold their heads high. Even on those rare occasions when they didn’t play the game well, they always played it right.
You don’t have to be an athlete to play your game right. Some of the best college essays I ever brainstormed with students came from those who honored and respected the activities they participated in. The ocean lifeguard who talked about how difficult but important it was to keep a watchful eye for hours at a time because rip currents don’t announce themselves ahead of time. The computer programmer who swore there was such a thing as beautiful code if you knew what to look for. The Eagle Scout who took guff from his friends for always carrying a first aid kit, but who’d been called upon to use it on more than one occasion. It wasn’t about winning, garnering accolades, or cementing a college admissions advantage. Each of these students took pride in honoring the craft they’d chosen to commit themselves to.
Colleges know that the teen artist, musician, writer, journalist, budding mathematician, day care volunteer, emergency medical technician, placekicker, mechanic, etc. who plays their respective game right, and who takes pride in honoring their craft, has the capacity for that instinct even if it redirects to a different game in college. They’re the ones who will get up early for a class in their chosen major or go the extra mile for the club they’re helping to build. They’ll improve the refereeing for intramural sports programs and lobby for funds to repaint the dorm walls. They’ll visit professors’ office hours and make regular appointments with their academic advisors. Playing the game right makes you, the game, and everyone else who’s playing better.
However you’re choosing to spend your time, whatever game you’re investing your energy into playing, remember how much value there is to be found when you bring your heart to it. Follow the example Coach Jim taught his players and show your pride by playing the game right.