There are very few athletes in the world who would get an A on a report card that measures how well they acknowledge fans. When you pause to consider the importance of fans in sports, you begin to realize how badly most athletes are failing in this area and how much athletes take this aspect of their sporting lives for granted.
Imagine the end of the season, the big game, the clash everyone’s been waiting for, and this guy has a meeting, and that person has a toothache, and this family has a birthday party, and that group thinks the weather may be too bad—so everyone stays home.
Big game? Can you imagine the feeling of the players, accustomed to getting so much attention, when suddenly no one showed up for the big one?
It has become customary for athletes to mouth words about the fact that they don’t even notice the fans, that they don’t play for fans, that fans, in fact, are something you need to learn to put out of your mind, to ignore. Of course in certain situations— when opposing fans are taunting or trying to distract you—it is necessary to concentrate on the task at hand and to perform well in spite of them. But ignore them? No way. Opposing fans should propel you.
Think back on all the championship celebrations you have seen on TV where athletes talk about having the “best fans in the world” and about how important the fan support was to the success of the team. Think of all the times you have watched star football players raise their hands during big games, trying to get the fans to make more noise. Think of all the times you have heard coaches and commentators talk about the importance of keeping the fans out of a game or getting the fans into a game.
Fan support can make a tremendous difference, and it should be cultivated. If you don’t have any fans supporting your team, you should get some. And if you already have fans, you should be grateful. You should acknowledge them in a variety of ways and make constant efforts to let them know you appreciate their support.
- When was the last time you thanked a fan for coming to one of your games?
- When was the last time you thanked fifty fans for coming to your games?
- When was the last time you wrote a thank you letter to a fan?
- When was the last time your team put on a demonstration for your special fans?
Yeah, you’re right. These are ideas most athletes haven’t even thought about. Almost no one does. Let me give another example of athletes ignoring fans and losing a valuable opportunity that could make a difference to your team and perhaps to your future.
During my life in sports I have witnessed the following scene literally hundreds of times, as a player, as a coach, as a fan, and as an uninvolved observer. Early in my career I was oblivious. I didn’t even know I was on stage or that a play was going on.
Unfortunately, that’s the way most athletes are today, oblivious.
Here’s the scene:
A group of athletes is assembled in a hotel lobby far from home. They are usually college athletes but could be high school athletes as well. They have achieved some success somewhere or would not have made it to the point of being on a team that travels and spends money to stay overnight in hotels. The circumstances are not crucial; the team is away from home, in a hotel. Perhaps they are on their way to work out before the game, or perhaps they are assembled in order to eat a pre-game meal. Maybe they are headed to the game or on their way to bed for the night.
Whatever the situation, the players walk through the hotel lobby. Some fans are talking in a corner or just standing around near the registration desk. Sometimes those fans are particularly evident because they are wearing school colors, or carrying a banner or other article that makes it clear they are there to root for the team.
So what happens? The athletes walk by. What? That’s right. The athletes walk by. Think about this. The athletes walk by. They go on their way. They don’t walk over to the fans. They don’t take two steps out of their way to acknowledge these fans. Most of them don’t even look up or nod.
Typically, they focus on their teammates, trading insults, hitting each other with inside jokes. They are being watched and no one has taught them to take the focus off their own shyness and nervousness and to shine it back on the fans. No one has taught them to be mirrors, reflecting the glory or acknowledgment back on the fans who are giving it out.
Every player ought to be looking up, walking over, shaking hands and engaging these special people in conversations. These fans, wearing your school colors, could have done a thousand things instead of going to watch you play. But there they are, standing in the lobby of your hotel, paying homage to your achievements and efforts with their presence. And you don’t even look up and acknowledge them?
Who do you think you are?
It’s a very appropriate question.
I have given this speech to athletes all over the nation and many of them have the same response. Once it sinks in that they really are in an exalted position and ought to respond to it, they get fearful. “But what would I say?”
Say? Say anything. Just thank them for coming. Express the sincere appreciation you ought to feel for the fact that they came a long way just to watch you and your team perform. Ask them if they had a nice trip, if they are staying in this same hotel, if they have ever been there before… or don’t ask them a thing. Just thank them and stand there and be quiet.
And guess what? Once they get over the shock of realizing that an athlete has acted like a reasonable person, they will be more than happy to do the talking. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they will start asking you questions or start telling you all about their children, their families, their lives.
As long as you act grateful and are interested in them, they will be happy to do the talking. (If you haven’t learned this basic lesson of life yet, it is time.) If you want to take this a step farther, just act curious about them. Ask any question that pops into your mind. Where are they from? When did they leave? How long did it take them? Do they go to every game? With whom did they come? Did they see the past game? Are they going to the next one? Did they read about such and such in the paper?
You don’t need things to say. You just need a few questions to ask, any questions, so they get the sense that you are curious. They will do the rest. Trust me. A bit of acknowledgment will pay dividends over and over, plus it ought to be a joy for you (as it is for most people) to be in a position to be able to brighten others’ lives through simple attention and curiosity.
Don’t wait until you are the nation’s leading movie star or sports hero. It isn’t necessary. If you are on a team, if you are an active athlete competing in scheduled events, that is enough all by itself. Many people on the fringes envy your privileged position and will be buoyed by your attention. Why not give it to them?
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