Cold, wet feet

Years ago a coach imposed discomfort and embarrassment on me. I learned to always prioritize sensitivity to others’ circumstances.

Cold, wet feet by Nancy Knowlton

 

When I was in university I played on the basketball team. Training at that time was less developed and less scientific than it is now, but in the preseason we underwent strength and endurance training. Some of the training was done individually with many of us developing our own programs and doing our own thing. I enjoyed lifting weights and I did this as often as I could – even light weights in my room as I took regular study breaks. Some of the training was done as a team, particularly team runs to build up our conditioning before tryouts and practice began.

One year our coach decided that it would be a good thing to do early morning runs in the fields on and surrounding campus. All of the girls who wanted to play on the team had to assemble and run as a team each school day – weekends were off. I am an early riser so that part of the regimen was no issue for me. However, after the first day of the running I went to the coach and asked her to do one of two things – either move the run to later in the day or allow me to run later in the day on my own, adding more distance to make up for the fact that I wasn’t running with the team.

Suck it up

The coach’s initial reaction was negative – this was a team activity that needed to be done together. I was to suck it up and go with the flow. Never one to complain or be a troublemaker, I asked her to reconsider and I told her why. I had only one pair of sneakers and after the first run through the wet grass my shoes were soaked through. They were not only uncomfortable for my gym workout later in the day, but I thought that repeated running in the wet grass would destroy them.

Rules were rules

You can imagine how hard it was for me to actually say this out loud to my coach. I was embarrassed to have to admit that this was the reason for my request, but I thought that I had little choice. I was paying my full way through university on my own, and I had a very tight budget with no room for an additional pair of sneakers. Beyond that, I was the captain of the team and the top scorer on our team and in the league and within the top five scorers in the country. I thought that these factors plus my unquestionable dedication and team effort would gain some special consideration. I also thought that there could be a change to the afternoon for the team run as many of the girls were complaining about the early morning starts. The reality was that none of the arguments mattered. The plan had been set, and there was no changing her mind. Rules were rules, and they were set for the whole team so I had to comply. Run through the wet grass I did.

Uncomfortable memories

To this day I hate to have cold, wet feet. Not only is the feeling uncomfortable, but it is a reminder that at that point in my life I had no choices, no options. It reminds me of a time when I didn’t have the money to buy an extra pair of sneakers, and it makes me feel poor and inadequate – just the way that my coach’s reaction to my reasoned request made me feel many years ago. My teammates all had multiple pairs of sneakers, and I knew that they knew that I didn’t.

Planning ahead

I still hate to needlessly destroy footwear by getting them wet. Where I possibly can, I choose the appropriate footwear for the circumstances. If I am going to get wet, I do my best to wear boots or, at the very least, footwear that won’t be damaged from getting wet. If I have to get my feet wet, I like to have a dry pair of shoes to change into as soon as possible afterward.

The sum of our experiences

It is amazing that something this small is a harsh memory after so many years, but it reinforces for me how fragile we all are. Things that happened many years ago play in our minds and affect our outlooks for not just years but decades. We may grow up but we never grow beyond the experiences that we had as children and young adults. In fact, we are the sum of our experiences. For sure, we are socialized and on the surface we can all appear comfortable with where and who we are. Underneath it may well be a different story.

Empathy

For me, this experience sensitized me to the feelings of others. I never really know what they are going through. At work I want to be as easy on them as I can, choosing to focus on the work because the people need to be cared for. I want to listen and accommodate reasonable requests and I want people to understand that will be the case.

I still think back to the runs with my team through the wet grass. I learned nothing about myself and developed no additional character because of the inflicted hardship. I did indeed suck it up and not complain, even as I saw the needless injustice in the situation. I learned to hide my resentment and upset. I understand that many people still hold to the old ways of doing something the hardest way possible. I reject that thought process and won’t inflict it on others as it was inflicted on me.

Cold and wet feet have no relevance to conditions on the basketball court, but many times a clutch shot or a strong defensive move needs to be made during a game. In my opinion it is best to think about ways to build up the mental toughness and determination of an individual to make those plays than it is to enforce meaningless experiences as a team.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.