Four Valuable Lessons I Learned from My Uncle

About the Author: Eric Cressey

This past Friday, I received the terrible news that my Uncle Marty had passed away extremely unexpectedly at the age of 57.  The world lost an absolutely amazing man – and certainly the best uncle I could have possibly imagined – with his passing.  While it was a tough weekend of grieving for our entire family, as Monday rolled around, we all started fondly reminiscing about our memories of him.

My uncle was one of my biggest sports influences, particularly with respect to my youth soccer career.  There were always pick-up games going on in his yard – whether it was soccer, wiffleball, or basketball.  He arranged for me to go to soccer camp on a number of occasions, and he was always someone with whom I could talk soccer – or anything, for that matter.  Uncle Marty would take my cousins, my brother and me to U.S. National Team, professional, and college games all the time.  In fact, one of my fondest memories of him was seeing the U.S. National Team play Greece in a 1994 World Cup Qualifier at the Yale Bowl.  We got there hours before the game started so that we could play pick-up games in the parking lot.

As I thought more about these experiences, I began to realize just how much my uncle – a youth soccer coach himself – had influenced me as a strength and conditioning coach.  Below are a few key lessons I learned.

1. Show up; your presence alone always matters.

As you can imagine, Uncle Marty wasn’t just one of my biggest influences; he was one of my biggest fans.  I’ll never forget the night he drove all the way up to Maine from Connecticut to watch me play in my first varsity soccer game.  After the game, left me a hand-written note (before email was around) about how proud he was of me for such a big achievement.  It would have been really easy for him to just get the report from my mom over the phone and call to congratulate me, but instead, he drove six hours just to watch me play only 15-20 minutes.  I remember how much it meant to me to be able to play in front of him, because in spite of all the soccer time we’d spent together, he had never seen me play in an actual game until then.   I don’t remember the score of that game, whether we won or lost, or even what team we were playing, but I distinctly remember his presence and that note.

This is one reason that I always emphasize to our staff that we need to get out and watch our athletes during their seasons.  And, even if we can’t see every game, we need to keep track of them and do our best to reach out to them and know that we care. Wins and losses are very temporary in our minds, but friendships are for life.

2. Always be calm.

In the 30 years I knew my uncle, I never once heard him yell. Ever.  He didn’t even raise his voice, or ever get flustered.  Uncle Marty wasn’t shy, by any means, but he was a pensive and effective communicator – and had unbelievable patience.  This was the case whether he was a soccer coach or at work as an accountant/CFO: always calm and collected.  I think a big reason for his success on this front was that he was unbelievably prepared; he took a ton of pride in preparation for everything that he did, whether it was long days at work, or even just preparing dinner.

This is something I’ve tried to emulate as a coach.  I very rarely yell, and have a tremendous amount of patience when it comes to long-term athletic development, as I firmly believe that we have put in the right amount of preparation so that things should work if we just communicate effectively with our athletes.  It’s been my experience that extreme “highs” and “lows” are counterproductive in the life and development of a young athlete, so we try to be a stable, patient influence in their lives.

3. Always be positive.

There is enough negativity in the world – particularly in the world of sports.  The pressure in youth sports is over the top, and we’ve never had more stories of over-the-top parents yelling at kids, coaches, and referees/umpires at Pee Wee and Little League games.  Sadly, when you look at the behavior of many professional athletes, it doesn’t get much better.  In fact, this week in MLB alone, two high profile players both had DUI and hit-and-run charges against them.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of outstanding coaches doing the right thing, and they don’t get the attention they deserve. My uncle was one of those guys.

His attitude – win or lose – was always the same, whether he was a coach or fan. I simply never saw him get down about sports, even though he was one of the biggest sports fans I knew (particularly for UCONN basketball).  Uncle Marty had perspective, and he could always make people laugh, even if it only took a few candy corns.

My rule is simple: be unconditionally positive – especially when dealing with young athletes.  Kids don’t have bad days unless someone else projects that behavior on them.  My uncle coached hundreds – if not thousands – of kids as head of the youth soccer program in his town, but I never heard of him having a bad experience with a single one of them.

4. Always be approachable.

After my uncle’s passing, we were looking at some photos from this past Thanksgiving at our house.  One that jumped out at me was a picture of my uncle on our living room couch chatting with a Cressey Performance athlete.  This athlete had moved out from Colorado to train for an extended period of time, so I invited him to spend Thanksgiving with our family.  They’d never met before, but wound up chatting for almost an hour.

That was Uncle Marty.  While he wasn’t an extrovert, by any means, he was a tremendous listener with a great demeanor, and for that reason, he could talk with anyone.  In fact, after my sister-in-law met Marty for the first time, she called my wife the next day just to comment on how easy it was to talk to him.  At our wedding, he tied a purple napkin into a pirate hat, put it on, and danced all night long.  Sure enough, by the end of the night, he had 135 new friends: everyone in attendance.

I’ve always wanted to come across as an approachable guy, both as a coach at our facility, and as a presenter on a seminar tour.  I try to do more listening than talking, and don’t like closing the door to my office – ever.

These four attributes are really just a few examples of why he was such a special man in not only my life, but in the lives of everyone he met.  I’m not sure that a single blog post does justice to the fact that I lost an uncle, coach, mentor, friend, and unconditionally positive influence.

However, I think it does remind us that we can draw inspiration as coaches and trainers from all walks of life, not just seminars, books, DVDs, and coursework.  I hope all of you have an Uncle Marty in your lives, too.

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