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Lessons on Being a Great Teammate

By John O'Sullivan, Changing the Game Project, 09/24/18, 12:00PM CDT

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Play for something bigger than the game itself, and play for each other, and not only will you give yourself the best chance of succeeding on the scoreboard you will guarantee that your season will be a success no matter what.

Dick Hoyt was not a runner in any sense of the word. By his own accounts, he could not remember the last time he had run more than a mile. So when his son Rick told him in the spring of 1977 that he wanted to participate in a 5-mile run to benefit a classmate who had been paralyzed in an accident, Dick was torn. Should he do this? Could he do this? Because if Rick was going to do the race, in his wheelchair, his dad would have to push him.

You see, Rick Hoyt was born in 1962, and during childbirth, was strangled by the umbilical cord resulting in oxygen deprivation. He was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and his parents were told he should be institutionalized and would be a vegetable his whole life. Thus began a decade’s long quest by his parents Dick and Judy to ensure Rick was included in schools, sports and community activities. Through countless hours of dedication and advocacy, Rick was admitted to public school at age 13, graduated high school, and graduated Boston University in 1993 with a degree in special education. His story, if it ended there, is an incredible success story. But it is so much more. The greater story started on that life-changing day in Spring 1977.

Ultimately, Rick convinced his father to do the race. They did not come in last. They finished second to last, prompting Dick to say year later “Then it was me who was disabled! I was sore for two weeks!” But upon finishing that race, something happened that would change their lives forever:

“Dad,” Rick typed with the side of his head on the specially designed computer he used to communicate, “when we were running, it felt like I was not disabled anymore.”

Since that day in 1977, those words have fueled a running team like no other. Team Hoyt has participated in over 1,000 races, including 32 Boston Marathons and six Hawaii Ironman Triathlons. In 1992 they biked 3,795 miles across the United States in 45 days. Team Hoyt has inspired millions of people and raised millions of dollars to support the inclusion of people with disabilities across the globe. Their best time in a marathon: 2 hours and 40 minutes. Yes, they beat you, too.

As you can see in the inspiring video below, Team Hoyt has their own special way of doing things, especially in triathlons. Dick tows Rick in a rubber dinghy for the 2.4 mile swim, then puts him on a specially designed front seat for the 112-mile bike ride, and finally pushes him in his wheelchair during the grueling 26.2 mile run at the end. The word inspiring does not quite do them justice.

Today’s article is on being a great teammate, and at first glance, Team Hoyt might not seem a great example. On the surface it looks like a one-sided affair. After all, it is Dick who is pulling, pushing and pedaling all those miles. A closer examination yields something much deeper, and one of the qualities prevalent in the best teams in the world:

Everyone has an important role! The more we appreciate people for the role that they play, the greater influence they have, and the greater our team becomes.

Let me explain.

Even though Dick is doing all the physical work during races, Rick, literally, saved his life. During a race in 2003, Dick had a heart attack. Doctors found one of his arteries was 95 percent clogged, and he was told that if he had not been in such great shape, he probably would have died years before. By inspiring his father to run, Rick had saved his life.

And for Dick, his son continues to inspire him every day. As they travel and speak and raise money for the Team Hoyt Foundation, he is in awe of the strength, courage, and determination of his son. But perhaps, most of all, he is in awe of his son’s love. After every race, father and son go to dinner together, as Rick thanks his dad for another great day. Yet dinner is a substitute for the one gift he would love to give his dad, yet is one he never will be able to give him, and one that money cannot buy:

“The thing I’d like most is that my dad sit in the chair and I push him once.”

With that powerful statement, Rick Hoyt speaks for many teammates who don’t get to start, don’t get any accolades and minimal recognition. We all want to contribute in a way that we feel is meaningful. And thus, the Team Hoyt story teaches us three incredibly valuable lessons about great teams and being a great teammate.

  1. Everyone plays a role: Even though some people do not seemingly contribute as much as others, their role is just as important. Even if you are not a starter, or do not play at all, you can bring great energy to practice, and bring positivity and support to the sideline during games. You can push the starting players to be better, and demonstrate grit and resilience for others. One can still be an incredible teammate and a massive contributor to a championship season without ever scoring a point, or saving a shot.
  2.  Great teams have empathy: If you are a starter, have the empathy and humility to understand that those who may not be playing much truly appreciate all you do, and would do anything simply to have the chance for one day to have you sit and let them push the chair. They want it just as badly as you, and would kill for the chance to play, so support them, teach them, mentor them, and show your gratitude every single day.  
  3. Great teams have a higher purpose than winning: Team Hoyt ran more than 1,000 races, and I cannot find a mention of them winning a single one. Yet they are, without a doubt, champions. When you play for each other, and celebrate everyone’s success and contribution, you will never quit, you will never lose confidence, and you will never be defeated, only run out of time. Play for something bigger than the game itself, and play for each other, and not only will you give yourself the best chance of succeeding on the scoreboard, you will guarantee that your season will be a success no matter what.

Coaches and parents, I hope you will share this story and video with your teams, and inspire them to be greater than the sum of their parts.

And finally, thank you Dick and Rick Hoyt for inspiring us, and millions like us, to be something greater than we ever thought we could be. Thank you for being the greatest team of all.

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ABOUT CHANGING THE GAME PROJECT

Changing the Game Project is an organization that is dedicated to returning youth sports to our children and putting a little more "play" back in play ball. Changing the Game Project wants to provide the most influential adults in our children’s lives – their parents and coaches – with the information and resources they need to make sports a healthy, positive and rewarding experience for their children and their whole family.

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