Our understanding of trust is built from the time we are born. In fact, the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson observed that the basic conflict of trust and mistrust is established and addressed from the time we are born to around 18-months of age. The experiences and support structure provided in our early childhood forms the basis of our emotional and psychological intelligence and well-being. When trust is nurtured by others, it breeds more trust. For children, reinforcing trust helps them learn to cope and develop the life skills that can build confidence, character, integrity, honesty and humility. These are essential traits for survival, success, and leadership.
When I was 12 years old I was part of a Little League baseball team in my hometown Auburn, NY. Note that I did not say "played for a Little League team." Truth is, I was a member of the team, but not a very good ball player. My position was a Right Fielder. I fretted getting the ball hit or thrown to me, not to mention the anxiety of standing in the batter's box awaiting the next pitch and hearing the umpire's resounding voice say, Striikkke! Needless to say I was not a confident player and needed additional support.
While I have many memories of my Little League experience, there are two that stand out above all else. My first memory is of a night game. The air was cool and crisp. It was the top of the ninth inning and my team was up by one run. I was playing right field and actively moving my feet and hands to stay warm. I remember trying to stay mentally focused, and "in the game." I was cold and tired. The game felt long. My younger sister had been running up and down the chain linked fence most of the game, particularly when I was in the field. She had a knack for drawing the attention of others as she would heckle me by saying, "hi Markieee!" In retrospect, this was a cute act of an adoring sister. In the moment however, her squeal was the epitome of embarrassment. I could tell parents thought my sister was sweet. "Just look how she calls her brother...how nice," they would say.
I remember feeling, "Yeah, how nice! What if the ball was hit to me? If I didn't field the ball well I'm sure those parents would not be as kind to me as my sinister sister." As a parent now I know my early-childhood logic was ridiculous and flawed. Parents love their children no matter what. And most parents are supportive of other children. But the mindset of a parent and child are often light-years away. What we perceive as a "big deal" when we are children is usually nothing compared with the "big deal" adults face. But you cannot discount what children are feeling. It is very much real emotion which is intimately tied to their personal development.
Thankfully my sister was back sitting quietly on the bleachers. The inning was taking a great deal of time. There were two people on base in scoring position. The tension of the game was intensifying. There were two outs, and after one more out, the game would be over. My attention span was waning. I fixated more on the cold than on the game. I re-centered my mind, trying to stay conscious to the moment. The pitcher wound up and threw the ball. The ball soared toward the plate and the batter swung. A loud crack sounded. I looked up and saw a pop fly ball heading my way. I must have looked utterly dumbfounded. I was overcome with fear, excitement, and anxiety simultaneously.
My mind was spun. The ball soared with amazing speed yet the moment seemed to be in slow motion. I momentarily lost sight of the ball in the evening lights illuminating the ball field. I felt myself moving backwards, at first slow, and then at increasing speed. I must have taken five, ten, fifteen steps at this point. The ball was descending a logarithmic curve. I held my glove over my head and at the last second jumped up a foot off the ground and then falling backwards. The momentum took me to the ground where I hit with a thud upon the grass. The stillness of the moment subsided as reality set in. The crowd was laughing and cheering. For a split second I felt confused, misunderstanding what had happened. I felt people may be laughing at my unpoetic attempt to field a ball. From my sitting position I saw teammates jumping up and down. I looked down and to my shock the ball was nestled in the leather mitt. I saw the coach of the other team clapping and could hear him say "no way...amazing!" It was a glorious childhood moment to remember. Performing well and achieving results requires us to trust ourselves, even amid the distractions and fears we and others project onto ourselves.
My second memory of Little League is far less magnificent. My Little League team was holding practice at a local mini-golf course because it had batting cages. To participate in practice each player had to bring a dollar's worth of quarters to pump into the batting cage machine. Lacking confidence in my ability to hit a ball, I meandered my way among teammates to the back of the line. Quarter after quarter, pitch after pitch, and the line slowly dwindled until there were two of us left to practice batting, me and my friend Pat. Pat and I struck up friendship earlier in the season, in part, because we were equally poor players. He also was not a very good batter. At the end of the line we made small talk, both equally apprehensive of our looming fate: to be confined, alone, inside a fenced are with a robot thrusting 60mph fast balls toward our body. Man versus machine at the batting cages. It was like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, only rewritten where the machine wins.
As we made our way to the batting cage our coach stopped us. He looked down at his watch and then back up at us. We could hear our teammates playing in the background. Some teammates were onlookers, others were just horsing around. The coach firmly said to Pat and I, "boys, why don't you save your quarters...there is no need to use the batting cage...practice is running too long anyway." He then walked away. The coach knew we weren't likely to hit any of the balls in the batting cage. He knew we were fearful of batting.
It's true, for a moment I felt incredible relief in this twist of fate. The Terminator storyline did not have to be rewritten. Man (boy) would not have to face machine on this day. I really didn't want to go into the batting cage, not only out of fear, but because I knew that baseball was not "my thing" beyond the Little League season. But I also felt immediate humiliation and rejection. The coach, a person we had come to respect and trust, basically communicated to Pat and I, "why waste your money? You're not good enough to hit the ball anyway...you're not going to be playing in the Big Leagues kids...save the coins." That's really what this selfish man said to two 12-year olds who were just trying to be a part of a team.
The entire point of practice is to get better, no matter what your skill level. True leaders are those that instill trust, accountability, and performance. Real leaders inspire and direct others to continuously challenge and improve themselves no matter what their level of skill or aspiration. Leaders want us to be better, not just for ourselves, but for the entire team.
My coach proved himself that day to be anything but a leader, let alone a Little League coach. It was obvious that Pat and I were not going to be Division 1 college baseball players; however that is far from the point. To limit a child's growth, to further diminish their confidence, and to humiliate them in front of their peers - even if all of which was unintended - is appalling.
This may sound contrary to what happened but I'm grateful for the coach telling Pat and I to hold onto our quarters. The coach's poor conduct and the entire experience taught me that trust and accountability are very much intertwined and essential to our failures and successes. The lack of accountability from the coach to perform the most basic of tasks for his players led me to distrust him and other coaches.
Mistrust breeds mistrust, and it can ultimately tear people and teams apart, even those with the most celebrated and talented of players. The basic tenet of any relationship -- no matter how strained or strong - is trust. When trust is present, people have the freedom and purpose to shine. When trust is challenged or altogether vacant, relationships deteriorate and the potential of individuals and teams evaporates.
Trust is a foundation of all individual and social relationships. Whether you ultimately trust yourself to be able to catch the ball, or put trust into others to guide your ongoing development, trust is an essential element of personal growth and success. We need more trust in society. To get there we need to understand the power of, and nurture, trust throughout all phases of our life. It's important to remember how critical trust building is with our youth. They are the future leaders (innovators, caregivers, politicians, proprietors, and citizens) of America, and the world. Let's coach our youth as we would have liked to have been coached, with integrity, care, and compassion. By reinstilling trust, humanity has the potential to not only endure, but to achieve its highest purpose and potential.