During chapter twenty-something of writingmy upcomingbook, I took a break to read through the working manuscript…It leveled me. Isaw problems ineverything. My ideas and writing seemed pathetic; I couldn’t seem to locate a poetic moment amongst the densely worded stack of kindling. I was very close to heading straight for the fire pit in our backyard. I had a long way to go in the writing process, but felt crushed with hopelessness. I had the overwhelming desire to watch little blue bits of flame devour the clumsy ink from the paper – like some ancient purification ritual. I wanted to escape, to quit the whole project and just walk away.
I was down big time. I needed a comeback.
As I walked through the living room to sit on the couch and wallow in despair, I noticed a picture of a team on our fridge. It reminded me of an experience I had coaching basketball…
My guys were playing a team we had defeated handily earlier in the season. From tip-off in this second meeting, things didn’t go well. While our opponents hit shot after shot, my team compounded their good fortune by making mistake after mistake. We didn’t score a basket in the first quarter and were down eighteen points with two minutes to play before halftime.
Like writers, coaches can stumble onto the right words at the perfect moments. Even facing our biggest deficit of the year, I had a sense that the game was still within our reach. I had used several time-outs in the half as the floor seemed to be dropping from underneath us. In each time-out huddle, as we fell behind from ten to twelve to sixteen then to eighteen points, I would preach, “don’t look at the scoreboard, just play the game, take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves!”
In the second half, we miraculously cut the lead to four, but our opponents stretched their lead back to double figures with four minutes to play. My team had fought back within reach, only to be smacked down again. All our energy wasn’t enough. So I called my last time-out. We had hit rock-bottom. We had given them our best shot at a comeback. I no longer believed my team could win. I grabbed the board and began to draw up a meaningless play. I looked into the eyes of my players.
And that was the moment.
I could see it clearly… they still believed. I repeated the mantra again, “don’t pay attention to the score…take care of the little things…” We broke the huddle. In the waning minutes of the basketball game, our team went on a fourteen to nothing run. We left the court that day as winners.
A friend who had coached for thirty years and won 450 games told me he has only come back from eighteen points down a handful of times. I am not sure my team realized how special it was to recover (and win) from that great a deficit. No matter what pursuit we are considering, we will find ourselves “18 points down” – facing an unwinnable situation. It may be our marriage, our sales job, a particular student in our classroom, maybe a project that just seems to be impossible. Everyone has the will and the tenacity to make that first run, to close the gap to four. I think everybody has it in them to make the initial comeback.
The thing I learned that day coaching basketball is that success is never defined by our willingness to fight back against the first wave of discouragement and resistance. I think those who succeed are able to hold on to hope when they have fought back only to have the opposition, the competing company, the difficult student, the untamed manuscript go back up by ten.
I’ll never forget my team in that last time-out. They had given everything they could. They believed, they had battled back, and they had been smacked down again. In one moment, they discovered how much longer they could fight, how much harder they could play (even when they felt they had nothing left), how much they could believe in the face of absolute hopelessness. I looked at the picture of my team for another moment and turned to go back to upstairs… I was down ten…
I sat down at my desk again that night and began writing the next chapter.