The old English poem begins, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Transportation has come a long way since then, but in some corners of the world, it’s still man, muscle, and beast. It’s not 1925 and there is no serum available, but Nome is running hot with Iditarod fever.

In 2007, Lance Mackey sent the mushing community back to the training school to rethink race logic. He not only ran both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, but he won both. Everything that the mushing community believed was the best strategy for distance racing had to be recalculated and rediscovered.

Records are made to be broken and strategy that is not changing to keep up with new discoveries can never win. This year, the game has changed again. There has been a longtime belief that the strongest engine in Alaska is a dog’s heart. Dallas Seavey may have changed that premise. When the true team leader is pushing, poling, pedaling, and running beside the sled, his athletic ability can enhance the natural abilities of the team in front of him and make everyone better. When the leaders left Kaltag they still didn’t know that the team they were racing was still resting in the checkpoint. By the time that most of them reached White Mountain, Seavey had already finished. Last years champion, who set a new speed record in his win, finished ninth. Maybe we should re-write the poem to say, “If wishes were champions, beggars would run.”

This week begins the “other” March Madness, college basketball style. Champions wait to be crowned, Cinderella’s wait anxiously in the wings, and a game plan that is not fluid and developing from timeout to timeout cannot win. There’s a reason that some of the coaches return year after year. Their game plans are not carved in stone and they know that the heart of a champion beats inside every player on the court, but more than that, they know that the true heart of the team beats from the bench and provides the rhythm that leads the dance. If you want to win the dance, lead the drums.

Years ago, my oldest son was playing soccer and I was helping coach. They were playing a team that was exceptional to watch. Their precision passes, footwork, and field positioning was a joy to behold — unless you were the team that they were pounding at the moment. One of the other assistants, a young college player who was giving back to his community in his off-season by helping coach, began to berate one of our players who had just gotten burned by a great play. You could physically see the players demeanor change and his shoulders droop with every word. As someone who was never blessed with great athleticism, my heart went out to him. I placed my hand on the assistants shoulder and asked him to please stop. I reminded him that the player already knew he had made a mistake. Instead of tearing him down, look for something that he is doing right for the next quarter and shout encouragement instead. We still had a long season in front of us and we needed him on the field. He did that, and by the end of the game, the player was his usual jovial self and made some great plays. I would like to say that we were victorious against that other team, but that would take a literary license that I don’t hold. They whipped us on the scoreboard, but we finished the season in second place.

In the game of life, we get beaten around far too often. We need someone on the sideline shouting encouragement and helping us do right, not tearing us down for our mistakes. Luckily, that someone is there. God, not wanting anyone to perish, has sent His Holy Spirit to guide and direct, but first He sent His Son to die in our place. To become champions, we just need to accept the right coach.

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