Nate Kaeding writes: How to create an athlete in Iowa

Embrace adversity, seek out challenges, cultivate character

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This is another in a series of essays former Iowa/current San Diego Chargers Nate Kaeding is writing for the Hlog and The Gazette:

Zach Johnson is the greatest Iowa-made professional athlete of our time. His remarkable Ryder Cup performance this past weekend in Chicago adds yet another layer to his ever-expanding legacy.

He does it the right way. The “Iowa Way." Parents of young athletes should be taking notes. Living in Iowa is a blessing but with it comes a unique set of circumstances and obstacles for those aspiring for Johnson-like success.

We are undeniably disadvantaged. There are no large metropolitan cities with all of the perks of state-of-the art facilities or lavish country clubs. Our sparseness of population limits the diversity of our competition. Iowans are, for the most part, less exposed to world-class instruction and ground-breaking new training techniques.

And the weather. Have you ever tried chasing down a soccer ball into a 35 mph, make-your-eyes-gush, April wind? Hit a freezing fastball that sent a sting throughout all of your upper extremities? Shot a 100-degree Fahrenheit/100% humidity jumper in one of our non-air conditioned gyms? Made a 10-foot putt through three feet of snow?

They don’t have that problem in Florida. Or Texas. Or California.

In order to make it in the ultra-competitive world of sport, we Iowans need to do a little extra and do it a little differently. Rather than dwell on our handicaps, we need to embrace and capitalize on our many great resources and traits.

Here’s a cheat sheet for “How to Create an Elite Athlete in Iowa," compliments of Zach Johnson’s shining example.

It's a Group Effort. Iowans maintain, in the face of national decline, a strong commitment to family and community. Johnson is a product of a loving and supporting home, a father who was present and involved, and a local Cedar Rapids golf community who (literally) sponsored his slog through mini-tours en route to PGA stardom.

No athlete does it alone. My mom often drove the carpool to practice. My grandparents were on the sideline cheering. And my coaches woke up early to open the weight room for me and my teammates at 5:30 am before school. Every member of the supporting cast has a vital role in facilitating improvement. Never underestimate the power of a helping hand. And for a perfect case study in effective community infrastructure: see Aplington-Parkersburg circa Aaron Kampman, Brad Meester, Jared DeVries and Casey Wiegmann.

Cultivate Grit and Moxie. What Johnson lacks in pure talent on the course he makes up for with fiery determination. At 160 pounds, he’s an undersized overachiever. He continually out-prepares, outthinks, and out-wills his competition.

Nurture and promote the “it” factor. Sport is meant to be exciting, energetic, creative and unique. Do not stymie individuality. Greatness can sometimes emerge from the most uncommon of places. Let's face it, we Iowans have never been renowned for our physical prowess. Embrace athletes of all sizes, shapes, and dispositions.

Play Multiple Sports. As a youth Johnson played baseball, football, basketball and soccer. He didn’t even pick up a golf club until he was 10. Iowa towns are flush with youth leagues in a wide variety of sports; compliments of school districts and municipalities. Use these resources.

Countless intangible skills are acquired through team competition; skills that are lost on those who choose to focus on one sport year-round. Attention should be paid to developing a love for athletics, not towards developing athletes. College recruiters salivate over the multi-sport high school standouts. Spend a little less time (and money) on recruiting websites and tools. Want to get noticed and earn a scholarship? Join a team, be a good teammate, and win a lot of games.

Embrace Adversity. Iowa farmers fight against ann ungodly drought and still yield crops. Our small-business owners adapt and survive through recessions and staggering population shifts. Entire communities band together in the face of massive corporate layoffs and factory relocations.

Our athletes are resilient as well. Dan Gable, the godfather of Iowa sports, famously used his hardships (the death of his sister in high school and losing the last match of his previously unblemished college career) to fuel his unparalleled work ethic.

Johnson, too, is living proof of the restorative power of adversity. He was never the top-ranked golfer on either his high school or college teams. It took him six years of pro golf before he reached the PGA Tour. He is, undoubtedly, all the better for it.

Seek Out Challenging and Distressing Circumstances. This will provide the greatest opportunity for growth. Take off the training wheels, schedule games against tough competition, crank the heat up on the pitching machine. The deepest development occurs just outside of one's comfort zone. Losses and tough times have the power to harden resolve and fortify character.

Teach Character. In both victory and defeat, Johnson exudes an exemplary moral strength. He’s humble, respectful, honest, responsible, and brave. All those qualities are tightly woven into the fabric of Iowa life.

Be Purposeful in Developing These Qualities. Reward and acknowledge integrity. Keep in mind that sport is just a piece of life’s puzzle; it doesn’t just reveal character but also develops it. Lessons learned on the playing field will make better sons and daughters, friends, siblings, and students. Need help coaching these intangibles? Consult this great organization: Character Counts in Iowa.


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