In Praise of Mediocrity

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity trust upon them.” ― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“And sometimes you have to work really hard just to be mediocre.” -Don Miller

I was reading an article about specialization in sports and the arts…wait, not “and the arts.” I believe a well-turned 4-6-3 or a 3-6-1 double play is just as artistic as Anna Pavlova performing “The Dying Swan”. I don’t think Ottis Anderson’s MVP performance in Super Bowl XXV was any less artful than Whitney Houston’s rendition of the National Anthem before it. Is Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello more of an artist than Ozzie Smith vacuuming ground balls around second base? There is art in most athletic endeavors and many long, hard hours of preparation in the ‘finer’ arts.

Okay, back on point. I was reading an article about a school district in Oklahoma that forbade coaches from limiting their athletes in artistic activities and vice versa.  I’m sorry that a school district must put a rule like that into place, but the fact is, many parents, coaches, band, and chorus directors want specialization. They see specialization as a path to excellence…and lucrative scholarships or professional careers.

The article also took me down one of my rabbit holes as I thought of my own challenges as a child and teenager. I was a “want-to-be” great. A combination of Mickey Mantle, Bart Starr, Otis Redding, and Cannonball Adderley with a bit of Ginger Baker thrown in for good measure. A power hitting quarterback who could sing and play the saxophone and drums “just like ringin’ a bell.” That’s what I wanted to be.

The fact? I was the GOAT of mediocrity. I might have been the world’s worst athlete, singer, drummer, and saxophonist. But I got to do them all, along with being a part of the soil and cattle judging teams and a myriad of other endeavors I fell short of. There was little excellence in my endeavors, and some might say that I tried to do too much. Maybe. But with all the specialization in the world, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many singing lessons or drumming I might have taken, I was never going to be Pavarotti or Buddy Rich.

I was terrible and I’m not being hard on myself. I may have gone to the only school in the state that would allow me on a football or a baseball field as a player. The same goes for the other endeavors. I CAN carry a tune…albeit it is over a limited range, and most of my tones come through my nose.

I went to a small school. For most of my “skoolin’”, twelve grades were housed in one, small building. There were twenty-one in my graduating class. Ten males and eleven females. I got to try anything I wanted just by walking through a door. “Hey, there is a body. Can he catch? Put him at first base. Can’t hit his way out of a paper bag? Doesn’t matter, he can catch a thrown ball.”

I was one of those kids who strove for greatness but only achieved lower levels of mediocrity. A kid of many suspect talents who couldn’t come close to mastering any. But I so wanted to. How many hours did I waste bouncing the ball off the barn wall attempting to become a better fielder? How many hours did I waste running through arpeggios sounding like I was strangling a duck? Not one. It took those hours just to become mediocre. I worked hard just to be bad and enjoyed every minute.

My own childhood experiences gave me a soft place in my heart for little Johnny or Jill who couldn’t play dead in a graveyard but wanted too so badly. I felt much joy in my heart when the little kid who was as short as he was wide came back out a year after being cut to make the team and went on to a college career. He had also gained about a foot and a half in height. I always had a hole in my heart for the kid I had to cut who I never saw again.

When I first began my coaching career I remember a little boy, thin shouldered with a long pencil neck. Black hornrims perched on his nose, a prominent Adam’s apple bobbing as he nervously tried to explain he wanted to come out for the JV baseball team, but that he had violin lessons on Mondays.

My response was, “You need to make a choice.” I never saw him again. Fifty years later I wonder why I didn’t make the allowances I made in later years. He might have been an all-star second baseman. I can still see the dejection on his face and I’m ashamed of myself.

I know, there is an age you must make a choice and certain sports one might want to stay away from if you are a child prodigy or artistic pursuits if an outstanding athlete. A trumpet player might not want to continue with a boxing hobby. A fat lip might limit his ability to hit high notes. A violin virtuoso might want to stay away from full contact karate. An elite dancer might want to avoid soccer…or not. Do you enjoy boxing, karate, or soccer? Do what you enjoy! Even if you are bad at it.

I did make allowances later in my coaching career. Sometimes those allowances came at a cost but not for the player…and eventually not for me.  I authored a book entitled “Winning Was Never the Only Thing….” for a reason. At some point, skillful players or artists will have to make a choice but why not put it off as long as possible?

Let them play their sports, sing, dance, or play the flute. The worst thing that can happen is they might be mediocre at something or at everything. The worst thing is they might enjoy it. It isn’t a fate worse than death if the best you can be is bad. It is about effort. Many of us will chase excellence all our lives and never catch it. Enjoy the chase, enjoy the effort.

Don Miller is a retired teacher and coach of more than forty years. “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” was his first attempt at writing and reflects on those forty plus years. The book, along with other offerings, may be purchased or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0x-AF-AmUA2Q5PdIf_ZihApxSfVRNWFadCJw__8hTmz03dxr9nPL6W2WE

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Mediocrity

  1. Right on, Don! Yes, it IS all about effort…trying…new experiences…the joy of it…learning to be a team player…boosting self-esteem…learning too many good things for me to list here. 🙂
    Very few will have the success of Tom Brady or Adele or The Rock or Michelangelo. But, that’s okay…they will be a better person just from the trying. 🙂
    I have an SIL who plays the piano…her opinion is that she’s not a good pianist, she rarely plays in front of people, but she said this to me, “I’m so glad I learned to play the piano and have kept practicing over the years because when I am stressed or sad or anxious I can sit down at the piano and play a few songs and it brings me such joy and comfort.” I think that is so wonderful! 🙂
    Thank you, Don, for caring about kids and being a positive person in their lives.
    (((HUGS)))

    Liked by 1 person

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