The Man in the Arena
This post has, in a way, been a long time in the making. When I was in high school our weight room had a quote painted on the wall. It was painted in such large print that I found myself reading it every day. It became engrained in my brain. The quote was by Teddy Roosevelt and is frequently referred to as “The Man in the Arena.” The passage is as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
What a quote! But I will be honest: when I used to read this quote as a 16 or 17 year old kid it didn’t really resonate with me. I think it was because I didn’t yet have the perspective to understand what President Roosevelt was talking about. Unfortunately, if you are pursuing something great, a goal that is grandiose, something that very few are able to accomplish, then you will quickly comprehend the significance of this quote.
President Roosevelt’s quote seems incredibly prescient. The society we live in today is chalked full of critics. And social media has given every person the ability to publish their criticism of others. But as the above quote dates back over 100 years, this has always been the case. It is simply the human way to criticize, doubt, and then even celebrate the failure of others who are attempting to accomplish something. The majority of people in this world are some combination of too scared and too lazy to attempt to accomplish something truly extraordinary. Therefore, in a way to rationalize why they aren’t striving for great things, they root against those who are attempting to do great things and constantly try to tear those individuals down, simply so that they can somehow rationalize their failure to even attempt it.
You’ll hear people say things such as, “He’s not good enough to ______,” or “He will never succeed at _____.” And, of course, much of the time, these predictions turn out to be correct. People who strive for big things often do fail. That is the nature of setting lofty goals—they are difficult to obtain.
Jill Wolforth recently discussed in her weekly newsletter about Garrett Wolforth’s first real experience with a critic. Jill relays how one of Garrett’s teachers assigned a Career Project in which students were to describe the career they wished to pursue. Garrett chose professional baseball player as his career and the teacher wrote on his project as feedback, “Not what I was hoping you would do for a project. Chances of this are slim. I want you to think of a career that is reachable.” Talk about a naysayer. This teacher is saying this to one of the best high school catchers in the nation—a kid who made the area code games as a junior—that he ultimately wouldn’t be able to play baseball professionally. What ever happened to teachers that were supposed to encourage and inspire their students to achieve big things? Once Jill shared this, I knew I needed to write this blog and share my similar experiences with critics.
Like Garrett, from an early age I really wanted to play baseball at the professional level. Many young baseball players have such a desire. But let me tell you about some of the things I was told during my baseball journey. Similar to Garrett, I was asked by my 5th grade teacher what I aspired to be when I grew up. I responded, and this was speaking in front of the whole class, that I wanted to be a professional baseball player. My teacher then told me I couldn’t choose that and I needed to choose something more realistic. She wouldn’t let me sit down until I had picked a more “reasonable” career choice. And then there was my first varsity high school baseball coach (he was thankfully fired after my Junior year). He used to mock me when I used bands to warm up and would tell me that the bands weren’t very helpful because I wasn’t all that good. He criticized everything I did. I also had a select coach who told me that I would never throw 90 mph and that I needed to just accept the fact that I was a finesse pitcher. I faced all of this criticism by the time I was 18 years old. No wonder kids often don’t pursue their dreams when so many adults are telling them they can’t achieve them. Even after I was throwing 90+ and made it to the Cape Cod Summer Baseball League my pitching coach used to ignore me and talk down to me because I was from a small private school and wasn’t projected as a top round draft pick from a big conference school.
I remember the negative feedback and criticism from each of the above people. I remember how angry they all made me. Who were any of them to tell me what I could and couldn’t achieve. I fortunately let these type of people fuel my fire instead of buying in to what they were telling me and let them get me down. But I was also extremely fortunate to have parents who supported me endlessly and did all they could to help me reach my goals. And thankfully I found a coach, mentor and friend like Ron Wolforth who not only would show me the path to becoming an elite pitcher, but would also encourage and inspire me. Without this support group, I know I wouldn’t have played collegiate or professional baseball.
So to those reading this post here is my advice to you. To athletes: don’t listen to the naysayers. There will be many. They will be in the form of teachers, coaches, friends, strangers, scouts and even the media. Don’t listen to them. They are irrelevant. There is a reason so many major leaguers say that they don’t read the paper or watch sport channels. Because even when you reach the highest level in your sport there are critics—in fact, those critics are generally the loudest. Just remember, they are not “in the arena,” you are. They are the timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. Prove them all wrong. If you work hard and stay dedicated you will accomplish more than you ever imagined.
To parents, friends and coaches: support your children, friends and athletes. They need positive re-enforcement. Don’t tell them they can’t do something. Don’t tell them they will fail. Instead, help remind them of what they need to do if they wish to reach their goal. Keep the athlete accountable. Help keep the athlete focused on the destination, not how difficult the journey is to reach that destination.
In sum, failure is not just likely, but is inevitable. At some point we all fail. The best hitters in the game fail 7 out of 10 times. Keep that in mind. As is famously told about Thomas Edison when he was asked how he could have continued to attempt to invent a commercially viable light bulb despite failing over and over again he stated, “I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.” Now that is the right attitude. A person with that attitude, not just in sports, but in life, is destined to accomplish great things.
Until next time,