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Coach’s Playbook: Is the Olympic spirit still alive?

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PHOTO BY KYLE DIAS

By Al Malinowski EBS SPORTS COLUMNIST

I struggled to watch the Olympics this year. Between athletes who represent Team USA protesting during our national anthem and debates on whether an athlete’s decision to quit during the team gymnastics competition made her a hero or a coward, I found myself quickly losing interest. I watch the Olympics to be inspired, and I was finding the opposite to be true.

I remember the pride our country showed when our national teams found success in previous worldwide competitions. When the 1980 men’s hockey team orchestrated the “Miracle on Ice”, it seemed everyone wanted to mirror the heart and determination of players like Jimmy Craig or Mike Eruzione. 

Similarly, years later, as the women’s national soccer team experienced World Cup and Olympic success, we all admired the drive and motivation of Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry. Besides serving as outstanding role models, these athletes appeared genuinely grateful for the opportunity to represent our nation at the highest level of competition in their sports.

I didn’t initially find that same spirit as I watched the Olympics this time. It seemed the attention focused on controversy, rather than stories of teamwork and overcoming adversity to achieve success. I nearly tuned the Olympics out. 

As it turned out, the competitive spirit I was looking for was still there. I just had to find a way to cut through all the noise to see it.  And the solution was simple, though I found it by accident. I turned on the television…without the volume.  

Once I did that, I found the spirit of the Olympics was still very much alive. I witnessed the mutual admiration and respect that many athletes share as competitors congratulated each other at the end of a competition. 

I saw some athletes overwhelmed with joy as they surprised their country with an unexpected medal. In those same competitions, I watched as the favorite, certainly drowning in disappointment, mustered the courage to compliment the winner before undoubtedly finding a place to begin to accept the outcome. 

Numerous times I saw athletes who, while their performance did not merit a medal, left the sporting venue with pride as they knew that had given their all.

As our local high school teams are beginning practice for their fall sports seasons, I think there is much that parallels my experience with the Olympics. It’s easy to become frustrated when student-athletes make poor decisions on or off the field that indicate a lack of respect for their community or their teammates. Similarly, some parents can make it uncomfortable to attend games, when they routinely (and loudly) notify the referees of their superior ability to recognize rule infractions or second-guess the coach’s game plan from the stands. Often these isolated incidents attract too much attention, which can distract from the subtle but more intriguing achievements taking place in the games.

When you cut through that noise and turn off the volume, so to speak, there are numerous examples of young athletes in our community overcoming adversity and submitting themselves to the challenge of competition. Regardless of the game’s outcome, there will be unexpected moments of inspiration and disappointment. Both can be teachable moments for the athletes and the fans alike. 

I know how disheartened some of our teams would feel when the opposing team’s fans outnumbered ours at some of our home games. This season, I encourage the Big Sky community to attend Lone Peak and Ophir home games and support the competitive spirit that is developing in our local athletes. Though it may not be the Olympics, I’m certain the coaches are preparing the athletes to provide an effort we can all be proud to watch.

Al Malinowski has lived in Big Sky for over 25 years. He has coached middle school and high school basketball at the Big Sky School District for 22 of those years. He believes participation in competitive athletics has been critical in establishing his core values.

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