Learning Moment

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor E. Frankl

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor E. Frankl

“I can’t do that, Coach.”

Now, in general and for a variety of reasons, coaches don’t like being told by a player that they can’t do something. I am pretty even-keeled, but this time, two things happened:

I started getting cranky.

Then I got more cranky. I’m 60 years old, retired and coaching for fun, and I have this high school kid giving me pushback? Two minutes before a game? On this?

Luis was a junior transfer student and a hell of a volleyball player. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he grew up playing volleyball, and you could tell.

“Can’t do what, Luis?”

“Put my hand over my heart. I will stand with the team on the end line but I will put my hands behind my back. I don’t mean you any disrespect.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled at me. “Really, Coach.”

Before any sports event, but, in this case, a boys Division I high school volleyball match, there are a lots of things going on: Rosters and line-ups to be submitted, stat sheets handed out, team warm-up, a final strategy talk, team prayer, and several times a season the national anthem. With tonight being one of those nights, I went over the protocol with the team: Line up on the end line, face the flag, right hand over your heart. This was not the time to deal with Luis’ pushback. “We’ll talk later,“ I said.

‘Later’ was actually the following Tuesday. Over the weekend this really bothered me, and probably for good reason. For 38 years I had served in the Air National Guard, 20 of those years serving full-time. I had worn our flag on the shoulder of my flight suit all over the world: Central America, Panama and Granada in the 70s and 80s, Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq in the 90’s, and Afghanistan and Southwest Asia in the 2000s. Serving at Ground Zero I saw every day the firefighters’ flag in the rubble, and I hung a large flag from the airplane while doing medical relief missions on gravel strips in Western Africa. In my six years as a Brigadier General I have knelt more times than I wish to remember before family members and spouses of airmen who have died to present them a folded flag, heavy with the weight of service and sacrifice, always with eyes wet in the emotion of the moment.

I had skin in the game.

A good leader, a good teacher, a good coach always looks for teaching moments, those times when unplanned circumstances give us a chance to offer insight to the people with whom we work. Personally I like to think of them as ‘learning moments,’ because in spite of our best efforts, learning doesn’t always happen. I was determined that this would be a learning moment for Luis.

On Tuesday we went to the corner of the gym, Luis and I. Walking over with him, I felt I knew something about Puerto Rico. I knew that Puerto Rican citizens can serve in the military. I had friends in the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, and had deployed there many times. We stopped by the bleachers. “Luis,” I said, “you know my background. You know why we stand together during the national anthem: To show respect and honor for our flag, our national anthem, and the ideals of our country. You are a US Citizen. Why won’t you put your hand over your heart?”

“Coach,” he said, “here it is.” With that, he began to explain that he didn’t see the United States as his country quite as much as he saw Puerto Rico as his country. He told me that Puerto Ricans couldn’t vote in national elections, and that their representatives in Congress can speak but not vote on the House or Senate floor. He told me there were three groups in Puerto Rico: those who want statehood; those who want to be an independent country, and those who want to keep the status quo, and that in spite of a recent movement toward statehood he thought they would remain a territory. He finally explained how his family for generations had worked for and vocally supported independence, and how they feared that statehood would mean the loss of heritage, culture and tradition.

It was obvious to me that this was a far more complex issue than I knew. It was clear that Luis had thought deeply about his action. This wasn’t his first match or his first national anthem. He had decided long ago to make a stand for what he and his family believed. He wasn’t disrespecting our flag; he was respecting his culture and his heritage.

Before making judgments or decisions I feel it’s important to get ‘the rest of the story,’ and I am always glad I did, This was a learning moment, but much more so for me than for one of my players.

Before our next match where the national anthem would be played, I explained to the team why Luis would be standing with his hands behind his back and that I was good with it out of respect for his thought process, his family and his culture. Boys being boys, their response was: “OK, Coach . . . let’s play.!” That was it.

Luis went on to play for me during his senior year, a year by the way when we made it all the way to the Division I state finals with Luis as our setter and team captain. I was very proud to stand with him as he received his All-Tournament and 1st Team All-State award, proud also to see him play in college at one of the best volleyball programs on the East Coast. I bring him back each year to work at our volleyball camp where we still have great conversations about politics, coaching and volleyball, and occasionally even share another learning moment.

Looking back in light of recent events surrounding the playing of our national anthem, I realize what Luis WASN’T doing: he wasn’t standing with his hands behind his back because his friends were, or because of something he saw on the news. He wasn’t politicizing an issue that had nothing to do with patriotism, or our love of country. In light of Frankl’s quote, I have grown to see that this wasn’t a protest, and it reminded me again of the benefit of digging hard for the rest of the story, and especially how my response prevented me from marinating too much in my own viewpoint.

Marcus Jannitto, LRI ’97
Head Volleyball Coach
La Salle Academy

Leadership Rhode Island Note:
The serendipitous moments that come from surrounding oneself by thoughtful, passionate servant leaders is remarkable; ten years later at LRI it’s still nearly unbelievable to me. Marcus (2016 RI Volleyball Coaches Association Coach of the Year) shared the following story at a Jeffersonian Dinner last year on July 12, weeks before Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers opted to sit down during the national anthem, explaining, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” By the final preseason game on September 1, 2016, after having a conversation with former NFL player and U.S. military veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick switched to kneeling on one knee during the National Anthem to show more respect for former and current U.S. military members while still protesting. – Mike Ritz, Executive Director