When I was in fourth grade, a classmate tripped and broke his arm while we were playing tag football on the playground. The teacher monitoring recess thought his trip was the result of us being too rough, so she ended recess early and sent us all back to our classroom.

We were supposed to sit quietly at our desks and reflect on what we had done until our homeroom teacher, Mr. Morris (named changed to protect his identity), arrived. But fourth graders being fourth graders made her instructions unlikely to be observed.

Some of my classmates started getting out of their seats. Others began chatting with their neighbors. It wasn’t long before soft chatter and quiet visits turned into full-blown rambunctiousness.

Mr. Morris stormed into the room and immediately tore into our class. He scolded us for not following instructions. He scolded us for being too loud. And he scolded us for having foolish priorities.

He emphasized the last point by stating that he didn’t know why we were wasting our time playing football because none of us were ever going to play professionally or even earn a scholarship to play in college.

For reasons I cannot explain, one of my classmates mustered the nerve to respond to Mr. Morris’ dreadful declaration: “What about Donny? He’s always the best player at recess no matter whose team he is on.”

“Donny?” Mr. Morris exclaimed in disbelief. “Donny can’t even pass fourth grade. He’s not going to make a living playing football.”

Donny was a quiet kid. He usually just sat it the back of the room and kept to himself. I don’t suspect Donny had a great home life, as he seemed to wear the same soiled clothes to school every day. His hair was often shaggy and unkempt, and he never had money for book fairs, extra cafeteria snacks, or anything else of that nature.

Despite all of Donny’s deficiencies, he was a marvel on the playground football field. He could throw and kick the ball farther than any other boy in our class and he rarely dropped a pass that was thrown to him.

Mr. Morris was right in that Donny struggled in school. Donny had flunked fourth grade the previous year and was forced to repeat the grade. His being a year older than the rest of us surely contributed to his athletic prowess, but it didn’t excuse Mr. Morris’ cruelty.

I remember Donny perking up in his seat and smiling when our classmate refuted Mr. Morris’ assertion. (What about Donny?) In hindsight, I doubt any peer had ever professed such high praise for Donny prior to that moment.

But as quickly as that praise had invigorated Donny, Mr. Morris’ response deflated him. (Donny can’t even pass fourth grade.) Donny dropped his head and sank into the confines of his crushed spirit.

I don’t know whatever became of Donny, other than he didn’t become a professional football player. To the best of my recollection, he never even tried out for our high school’s varsity football team. I haven’t thought about Donny or that moment in Mr. Morris’ class in a long time.

A few weeks ago, the sports world celebrated the anniversary of the 1982 NCAA Basketball Championship game between the University of North Carolina and Georgetown University. Many know this game because of the late-game heroics of a then relatively unknown Tar Heel freshman named Michael Jordan.

With his team trailing 62-61, Jordan hit a jump shot with 17 seconds left on the clock that turned out to be the game winning basket. For all intents and purposes, that shot launched the megastar’s career and became a defining moment in his life.

However, basketball purists know that Jordan’s shot wasn’t actually the deciding play of the 1982 championship game. After Jordan scored, Georgetown got the ball back with enough time to regain their lead.

Georgetown guard Fred Brown dribbled up the court and began to set the Hoya’s offense. But in the confusion of the transition, Brown errantly passed the ball to North Carolina’s James Worthy, mistaking Worthy for Georgetown teammate Eric Smith.

Brown’s pass is viewed as one of sports’ all-time biggest gaffes. It became a defining moment of Brown’s life. Yet Georgetown coach John Thompson’s response kept the play from becoming a confining moment of Brown’s life.

When the game ended, Thompson embraced an emotional, dejected Brown. “Don’t worry about it,” Thompson whispered in Brown’s ear. “You’ve won a lot more games for me than you’ve lost.”

I ultimately decided against writing about Michael Jordan, Fred Brown, and the 1982 NCAA title game. Plenty has already been written about that game by better writers than me.

But learning about Coach Thompson’s response to Fred Brown caused me to think about the interaction between Mr. Morris and Donny, and I’ve continued to think about it ever since.

Good teammates don’t allow defining moments to become confining moments.

Mr. Morris’ choice in words turned what could have been Donny’s defining moment into a confining moment. What if instead of “Donny can’t even pass fourth grade,” Mr. Morris had said “Well, if Donny buckles down and improves his grades, he’s got a chance to earn a football scholarship and play in the pros.”

Had Mr. Morris responded differently, he could have injected the sort of inspiration into Donny’s spirit that changes a life’s trajectory. He could have freed Donny from the confines of past failures.

You may have noticed that I paraphrased most of the above story, except for what Mr. Morris said about Donny. I used quotation marks for that part because, decades later, I can still remember his exact words with vivid clarity.

What transpired with Mr. Morris wasn’t only a confining moment for Donny, it was confining moment for everyone in that class. I didn’t agree with what Mr. Morris said. I regret not immediately getting out of my seat, walking straight over to Donny, and insisting that he not be discouraged by Mr. Morris’ opinion. Because that’s all it was—one man’s opinion.

Mr. Morris retired from teaching some years ago. Judging the totality of his career based on that single interaction would be unfair. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he let his anger get the best of him. Maybe he regrets what he said. Maybe he doesn’t even remember.

The story of Mr. Morris is worth sharing because it can prevent another Mr. Morris from confining the next Donny.

When good teammates come to clutch moments, they take a beat. They pause to consider the impact of what they are about to say. In the confines of that moment, good teammates turn confining moments back into defining moments by choosing words that will empower the recipient.

As always…Good teammates care. Good teammates share. Good teammates listen. Go be a good teammate.

Lance Loya is the founder and CEO of the Good Teammate Factory. He is a former sports coach turned bestselling author, blogger, and professional speaker, who inspires TEAMBUSTERS to become TEAMMATES. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or through his weekly Teammate Tuesday blog.

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