On Growth and Goals

Blog #5 – On Growth and Goals by Jake Mendys

My oh my. The past two months have absolutely FLOWN by. I’m being up front with you, I’ll attempt to be concise, however this blog is going to be a bit lengthy. I’ve split it into two different sections, one on personal growth, and one on the power of reaching goals.

REACHING A GOAL

One of my goals for my Rwandan journey was to place a Rwandese player on the invite list for NBA Africa’s Basketball Without Borders event. I really can’t believe it as I type it, but it is with great pleasure that I announce Shooting Touch has taken the proper steps to placing its first player into the 2017 BWB signature event in South Africa.

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If all goes according to plan, this upcoming August, Nkundwa Thierry, a 16-year-old SG who I have the pleasure of coaching in Kayonza, will journey with Chloe and I to Johannesburg for the Basketball Without Borders youth event. He will have an opportunity to compete against 49 of the other most talented players on the African continent in front of NBA players, coaches, and school scouts from the United States. Kita Thierry, a rep from NBA Africa at our tournament this past week, extended the invitation to our Thierry after watching him play in a scrimmage against our visitors from Nobles and in the Secondary All-Star Game over the weekend.

Thierry and I spent hours and hours together this past summer (seasons are flipped down here compared to the US) working out to improve his basketball skills and conditioning before the primary boys had morning practices. What impressed me most about Thierry was how humble and hungry he was to learn more about hoops. I have a hard enough time getting kids to show up for one practice late in the afternoon, let alone Thierry coming for two-a-days that started at the crack of dawn. Additional thanks are in order to all of the previous fellows who laid the groundwork to get Thierry to the point he was at when I first met him this past November.

In the theme of striving for more that I will dive into in part 2 of this entry, now that I’ve realized my initial goal of placing a player into the BWB event, it’s time to raise the bar. Call me crazy, but I believe that Thierry has the potential to make in impact at the collegiate level in a league like the ACC (I might be biased, but it’s hands down the best league in college). But before he can get there, he NEEDS to get to a high school in the United States where he can improve himself as both a student and an athlete.

After our time together, I have no shame in saying that I love the kid like I love my own younger brother who’s also in high school. Having the level of maturity and poise on the floor that he possesses at 16, especially after only having played basketball for the past 3 years, leaves my jaw hanging. I often tell those who will listen that I believe he’s the best U18 player in Rwanda, and maybe in East Africa.  I could ramble on and on about what a special kid he is, but the point is that this young man has incredible potential. How am I, and how is Shooting Touch as an organization, going to do exactly what we espouse as our mission? Namely, educate and empower him to realize his potential.

I expressed at dinner the other night, to an audience that included ST Executive Director Lindsey Kittredge as well as visiting ST Board Members Jackie MacMullan and Amy Latimer, that in the next 365 days, my personal goal was to bring Thierry to the United States to finish high school and gain maximum collegiate exposure. The clock is ticking.

Turning Weakness Into Strength

February and March 2017 have been among the two most challenging of my life. I will admit it – I have made a lot of mistakes over the past 6-7 weeks. Before diving to deeply into those, I must first make a small revelation about myself (a self-defense of sorts). I am a big picture guy. I think best when I am designing broad, strategic plans, rather than minute details. As both of my coworkers would tell you, our job requires incredible attention to detail. Needless to say, I’ve struggled greatly with that aspect of my work over here.

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(Above: A massive health lesson taking place at Nyamirama court in our new curriculum unit on Gender Equality)

For the first few weeks of February we were beginning delivery of our newest curriculum. I felt like I was forgetting everything we needed for our lessons. On Monday it would be flip charts for my coworkers. On Tuesday I would forget to make sure that the print shop had not messed up when printing out surveys and pre-tests. On Thursday, I forgot to bring new basketballs after old ones had worn out. Our jobs were moving a mile a minute and I was not doing a good job of keeping up.

Lisanne and I had a number of chats, playful at first, but with each mistake the tone of those conversations became increasingly serious. I will not lie – I was wayyyyy down in the dumps at points after some of those conversations, sometimes to the point of question not only my decision to come to Rwanda, but also questioning myself and my ability to do my job. THAT is a dark place, let me tell you. Everyone always tells me that thinking in that way can be self-destructive, but I never realized just how corrosive those thoughts are until I myself was in that place. To say I was psychologically suffering is an understatement. There was a big part of me that wanted to call it quits and find a way to just go home.

I haven’t told this to Lisanne or Chloe or anyone else here really. I always try to exude poise and confidence, sometimes to the point of coming off as conceited. Hanging out with a bunch of kids who reinforce this herculean image makes recognizing and accepting failure that much more difficult.

In my mind, there were only two places to go from there.

Option 1: Continue to wallow and make excuses for myself and my behavior. Spiral out of control and descend deeper into selfish self-pity.

Option 2: Be an adult and own my mistakes for what they are. Allow myself to be vulnerable and admit my own shortcomings. Then strive for something better. To quote my man Tupac “For every dark night, there is a brighter day.” In each failure I experience, there is an opportunity to turn the situation around.

I preach to my coaches all the time that I am going to be hard on them because I want them to realize their full potential(s). We give them a lot of responsibility so that they can grow into the mantle we’ve given them. This is not because any of us muzungus enjoys being a hardliner, but rather because we care about these people and want them to grow.

This time, I need to practice what I preach. If I want to grow and attain the lofty aspirations I have for myself, then I need to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was in college, I was deathly afraid of presentations and public speaking. I had one professor (Shout-out to Dr. Sharon Cannon) who always graded the heck out of my papers and oral assignments. I would turn an assignment in or give a presentation in class and every time I would get it back with a B+. I would meet with her and try to understand why I was earning the same grade despite a noticeable improvement in my works quality.

In her endearing southern drawl, Dr. Cannon’s reply was something that stuck with me. “There is no doubt you’re improving. But Jake, as time goes on in your life, the bar doesn’t remain the same. As your abilities improve, so do the responsibilities bestowed on you.” I thought back to that meeting in her office overlooking the business school’s quad as I mentally grappled with the mistakes I had made in my small house near the Kayonza market. When Dr. Cannon met with me that day, I decided to become the best presenter I could be, and ultimately earned the highest marks in a later course where grades were entirely contingent on cohesive, powerful presentations to real business clients.

For the past 3 weeks or so, I’ve made a full-on commitment to improving my attention to detail. As I go through each day, I am writing down (and crossing items off of) my to-do list. I made sure to complete the majority of my International Women’s Day Tournament and board visit responsibilities well in advance of their deadlines. Busses were booked two weeks in advance, key stakeholders around the Eastern Province were aware of the tournament with plenty of notice, and teams were created 10 days before the event. AND I was managing those responsibilities in addition to my daily practice and lesson planning responsibilities. Things for the tournament weren’t flawless, however, I think anyone who was present for the event would agree that Chloe, Lisanne, myself, and our coaches, put on a damn good day.

A special shout-out is in order for Chloe for being unafraid to give me exactly the feedback I needed in the days leading up to our tournament, both positive and constructive. We are certainly going to be a better, more cohesive team because of your courage and strength to always be honest with me.

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(Pictured: my 14 and 17 year old brothers have their first coaching experience in Rukara)

And because I was able to get so much done in advance, I was able to fully relax and enjoy the time I spent with my family for about 4 days the week before Lindsey and our Board arrived. It was an incredible time with them exploring Rwanda, we even got a chance to see the famous mountain gorillas!

I also want to take a chance to shout out my family for all of their hard work fundraising shoes and basketballs for our kids here in the Eastern province. Because of Charlie’s hard work at Durham Academy, we distributed over 200 pairs of shoes in the week leading up to our March 18th tournament in Nyamirama. Talk about a special experience. I couldn’t be more proud of Charlie, who is only 17 and a junior in high school, for taking such ownership of the fundraising process and also for jumping in headfirst to his visit to Rwanda. Proud, proud older brother moment. Mom, Dad, Charlie, LJ, thank all of you for coming halfway around the world to spend time with me during your spring breaks, I hope you had a great experience as both guest coaches and as tourists in this wonderful country.

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I’ve written enough for now. I hope you’ve made it this far. Thank you to everyone who educates and inspires me every day as I trek through the (cant believe I’m writing this) final stretch of my Rwandan hoops journey, especially everyone back in the United States. I miss you all so much and love you all more than you know. I can’t wait to get off that plane and see all of you again in North Carolina, Oregon, California, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and beyond.

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