A few weeks ago, my good friend Link Wilfley emailed me a story about a famous college baseball coach named John Scolinos. In 1996, after he’d been retired for a few years, Scolinos gave a keynote address at the annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee. When it was time for him to speak, Scolinos walked onto the stage with a full-sized home plate dangling from his neck.
“Does anyone know how wide a Little League home plate is?” he asked the crowd.
“I think seventeen inches?” someone shouted.
“Correct!” said Scolinos. “Anyone know how wide a high school plate is?”
Another said: “… Seventeen inches?”
“Correct! How about the Major League home plate?”
“Seventeen inches,” the crowd murmured.
“Correct again!” Scolinos bellowed. “The home plate is the same wherever you go. Seventeen inches. Now, what happens when a major league pitcher can’t throw a strike across those seventeen inches? Do they widen the plate to eighteen or nineteen inches, so he has a better chance of hitting the strike zone? No! They send him down to the minors!”
Then Scolinos paused. “Coaches, what do you do when your best player shows up late to practice? Or when he’s caught drinking? Do you hold him accountable? Or do you change the rules to accommodate his behavior? Do you widen the plate?” Then the old coach pulled out a Sharpie and drew a house on the home plate hanging from his neck. “This is the problem in our homes today. With our marriages, with the way we parent our kids. With our discipline. We don’t teach accountability to our kids, and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards. We just widen the plate!”
You probably get where the story is going. Too often we fail to hold ourselves accountable, and too often we fail to hold others accountable. It’s a great lesson, and it made me think about how Jill and I have been parenting our own kids. Have we made life a little too easy? Have we bent the rules one too many times and stolen some of that grit kids need to learn at an early age? Have they experienced enough failure so that they can learn perseverance?
Fast forward a few weeks, and I had mostly forgotten the story of Coach John Scolinos. I was busy planning this summer’s 20th annual Global Youth Leadership Academy (GYLA) trip, which every year teaches high school students’ character development, leadership skills, and interpersonal growth. This July we’re taking forty students to Greece, and to ensure economic diversity, half of our kids will be paying full tuition and the other half will be traveling on full scholarship. This time around, my friend Link and his wife, Brooke, decided to send two of their children, Tahna, and Reid, to Greece with us.
Thing is, it’s been an expensive year for the Wilfley’s. Link has been busy expanding his fifth-generation family-owned manufacturing business, while Brooke is the founder and principal of ACES Hockey Academy, which my son Tate attends. Link and Brooke have been investing heavily to grow ACES, and considering they have five kids, I figured their resources were stretched a bit thin. We had a little scholarship money left over, so I sent Link a note offering them a discount. “I know your family has a lot going on,” I said, “but I’d love to help make it a little easier for Tahna and Reid to join us this summer.”
Now, let me just say that Link is one tough dude. His biceps are the size of my thighs. He’s over six feet tall, built like a tank, and a former professional rugby player. But he’s also one of the politest people on the planet, and here’s what he wrote back to me: “Tommy, thank you so much for your incredibly generous offer. Brooke and I will not be requiring any scholarship money because Reid and Tahna will be paying their own way from their summer job savings.”
At first, I was stunned. In the twenty years I’ve been running GYLA, I’ve never had a parent reject scholarship money. The program isn’t cheap—there’s airfare, hotel rooms, private bus, meals, VIP tours, and so on. As I read Link’s words, I remembered the email he sent me a few weeks earlier. The story of Coach Scolinos. Like any parent, Link wanted the best for his kids. He wanted them to have lifechanging experiences and to see the world. But he wasn’t going to widen the plate to make it happen. If Reid and Tahna were going to walk through the Acropolis, they were going to pay their own way. If they were going to gaze upon the impossibly blue calderas in Santorini and see the whitewashed churches of Mykonos, they were going to pay their own way. Because Link knew that traveling to Greece is only half the experience; the other half is earning their own way there. And that life lesson is every bit as important as the ones the GYLA teaches every summer.
Link has made me think a lot harder about how we widen the plate for the people in our lives without even realizing it. We do it out of love. We want to make their life easier. But love doesn’t mean making life easy. Love doesn’t mean lowering standards. Love means allowing our children or employees to fail so that they will come back stronger. Love doesn’t mean widening the strike zone when someone has a difficult day; it means giving them a hug and encouraging them to keep trying, especially when it’s hard. Link learned that lesson a long time ago, and he has set his children up for success by making them understand the meaning of hard work. Because success is so much sweeter when it’s earned. I can’t wait to learn from Reid and Tahna this summer.
For now, let’s all keep in mind the closing words of John Scolinos: “Coaches, keep your players—no matter how good they are—and most of all, keep yourself at seventeen inches – always!”