October 2012 - Vol.  63.

From Father to Son: Things My Dad Taught Me About Life
 by Ted Kennedy III

1. Trust Your Strengths and Know Your Limits.

Dad had an expression which he loved to use when talking about ability: learn what you could do “on a continuing basis.” That is, what you could reliably do over and over again. These were your strengths, and you could trust them. They were the foundation on which you could build. 

This especially came home to me my senior year in high school. I was on the basketball team, and I was a pretty good player. I was what you would call a “hustle” player. I always hustled – during warm-ups, during scrimmages, during sprints at the end of practice… I hustled at everything. It was the way I could excel. I wasn’t a big guy, but I could out-work anyone in the known universe. 

My senior season started out well. In fact, in my second game I scored a career-high 22 points. It was funny because Dad was at the game, but he walked out to get a drink during a two minute stretch in which I scored 8 points. In fact, I scored 6 points in less than 10 seconds on the game clock. I drove to the basket and scored. I started back down the court, feigning like I wasn’t looking, then suddenly came back, intercepted the in-bounds pass and laid the ball in. Then I headed back down the court and said to myself, “Heck, let’s try that again.” I did it again, and to my shock it worked! I intercepted the pass, got fouled as I shot, and made the free throws. 

Anyway, Dad happened to miss the whole thing. The next day the sports section of the paper said “Pioneer Defeats Trenton – Ted Kennedy leads the way.” Dad saw it and said, “You played okay, but it wasn’t that good.” I told him it was probably because of the flurry of points I got right at the beginning of the fourth quarter, to which he said, “What flurry?” We pieced together the fact that he had missed my big moment and had a laugh together about the whole thing.

But Dad jumped right in to help me keep my sense of perspective. “You know, you played a good game last night, but you’re not really that good. Don’t expect to do that every game.” Well I was a bit offended at this. It seemed to me like my Dad should be the one saying stuff like “Keep up the good work – you can play like that all the time,” and here he was saying that I shouldn’t expect to do it regularly. 

We talked this through, and he clarified what he wanted me to understand: I was a good basketball player, and there were a lot of things I could do, but I wasn’t a great player. I needed to have a realistic assessment of my abilities. If I thought that the way I performed in my best game was the way I could play all the time, I was setting myself up for failure. If my best game was “normal,” then every other game was a failure. 

This wasn’t an easy thing for me to hear, especially after my best game. I wish I had been more open to what Dad was trying to teach me right then. I did learn the lesson, and it helped me play better, but I didn’t learn it right away. I still had the lingering thought that I really was as good as my best game – which made subsequent games not very satisfying. 

Later that season, Dad pulled me aside. “You know,” he said, “you’re too concerned about playing perfect basketball. Every time you make a mistake, you say to yourself, ‘well, I won’t ever do that again.’ By the end of the season, you’re only going to have one move left! Don’t expect yourself to play perfectly, and don’t expect every game to be your best. When you play great games, have fun, but don’t burden yourself by expecting that you should do that all the time. If you do, everything short of your very best will be a failure – and that means most of your life will be a failure.” 

I finally took the advice to heart. For the rest of the season I worried less about my mistakes and stopped trying to play the perfect game. I learned to trust the things I could do “on a continuing basis.” I accepted the occasional great plays as something that happened from time to time, but didn’t get down on myself when they didn’t happen consistently.

The real payoff was in that spring during tennis season. I decided I would incorporate Dad’s philosophy right from the start of the season. I knew the things I could do well, and I trusted those. I modified my game to not be as flashy, but to be steadier: a slower spin serve instead of a smashing flat serve; rushing the net more often to take advantage of my volleying ability, and so on. And I played the best tennis of my life. Our team ended up second in the state, and I made it to the quarter-finals in doubles. And through the whole thing I was much more relaxed and self-aware. I knew what I could do consistently, and where I was weak. I played to my strengths and built on them. I knew I wasn’t the greatest player out there, but I was confident in what I could do, and I had a lot of fun with the occasional great shot.

Dad had taught me how to trust my strengths, know my limits, play my best, and be content with the outcome. 

(c) 2011 Ted Kennedy III
Ted Kennedy is a member of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He is steward and trainer for the Servants of the Word international formation house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Ted is a vice president at Service Brands International, a franchising company headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

.Click on links below to read separate stories

Intro Things My Dad Taught Me About Life
Story 1 Trust Your Strengths and Know Your Limits
Story 2 One Dad and One Father

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