September 22, 2022 •

Kiss All Frogs

In my four decades of coaching, no one more than Thomas illustrated the old adage “Kiss all the frogs; you never know which one will turn into a prince.”

An incoming freshman, Thomas showed up to our first summer conditioning run for cross country as a pudgy, bespectacled 14-year-old wearing a neoprene sleeve on both knees. His mother was there to tell me of his various health concerns, including “weak knees,” mild epilepsy, and allergies. He ran two miles in twenty minutes that day, practically staggering to the finish. I wish I could say that I astutely saw through the poor performance and divined Thomas’s true potential, but I did not. It’s a wild understatement to say I was not impressed. But he seemed like a nice enough kid, and I figured I wouldn’t mind having him around, even though it appeared he’d probably finish last in most of our races.

frogsFast forward to late October of his senior year. Thomas runs 16:17 for 5K and finishes fourth in a field of 89 in the regional meet, the second level of our state cross country tournament series. His time made him the sixth-best performer in school history.

Thomas’s staggering transformation didn’t happen overnight. In his freshman year, he ran over 28 minutes in his first 5K race, but as he dropped pounds and adapted to high school training, he cut his time to 20:40 by the end of the season. As a sophomore, he lowered his PR to 17:01; as a junior, to 16:45. Then came his senior year and a bevy of races in the mid-16s, capped off by the big 16:17 in the regional.

How did that happen? In a word, dedication. Thomas dedicated himself to doing all the things necessary to make the most of his potential. He improved his diet, shedding excess pounds. He consistently logged high mileage every off-season, enhancing his endurance. He faithfully performed post-workout stretching and foam rolling, maximizing his recovery. He did everything I suggested and more.  

After high school, Thomas ran for a Division III college, became his team’s top runner, and earned multiple all-conference honors, even winning a conference indoor 5K title in his senior year. Quite a metamorphosis for a young man who struggled to run two miles in twenty minutes in his first high school practice!

That frog definitely turned into a prince, exceeding everyone’s expectations and making my team a lot better than it would have been had he not made such enormous improvement. I learned a lot from my experience with Thomas. Never again would I underestimate the potential for even the least impressive athlete to make astounding progress.

Kiss all the frogs. Pay attention to everyone who comes out for your team, and don’t give up on anyone, no matter how puny their potential appears at first glance. Any athlete, with enough dedication and determination, could turn out to be one of your best and help your team win more competitions.

But “kiss all the frogs” means more than paying attention to each athlete in hopes of finding the occasional prince. After all, most frogs don’t turn into princes, at least not to the extent Thomas did.

frogsIf we lavish attention on every athlete only in hopes of finding a prince who can enhance our record and reputation, we are merely being transactional. We are doing it more for what we gain from it than for what our athletes gain from it. We are missing the true potential of kissing all the frogs.

For every story like Thomas’, there are dozens of less spectacular but just as important stories of athletes who never reach the starting varsity lineup, let alone stardom, but who, in their own way, make steady and impressive progress. They dedicate themselves to training and to their teams, and they make smaller but still significant contributions to their programs. More importantly, they find their niche and derive satisfaction and fulfillment from their participation in interscholastic sports. I’m sure nearly every coach in the country can cite such stories from their own experience.

Those stories are unlikely if a coach focuses only on the athletes who appear to have the most potential and ignores the rest. Those less promising frogs need to be kissed, or they will receive the message that they are not important. They will lose interest and perhaps quit, missing out on the life-enhancing benefits of education-based athletics.

Is there a more important function a coach can serve than helping a student-athlete feel wanted, appreciated, and respected, regardless of ability level? I think not—especially in these days of skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide among teenagers. Kids need a place to belong, a place where they can make friends, a place where they can reap the rewards of hard work and feel the satisfaction of being a part of something bigger than themselves.

Coaches have a priceless opportunity to enrich the lives of their student-athletes — all of them — by giving them the attention and care they deserve. 

Yes, it’s good to kiss all the frogs. Not just because one may become a prince but because all frogs, even the ones who don’t turn into princes—maybe especially the ones who don’t turn into princes—deserve to be kissed.