Below is an excerpt from Raising Boys The Zeller Way by Steve and Lorri Zeller. In their new book, Steve and Lorri (parents of Luke, Tyler, and Cody Zeller) provide an inside look at the principles they implemented in their household, and share transparent and entertaining anecdotes about their parenting journey. Luke, Tyler, and Cody finished at the top of their high school class, won Indiana’s famed Mr. Basketball award, went on to play basketball at Division I universities, and play in the NBA.
The book alternates between Steve and Lorri’s voice and includes comments from each of their boys throughout the manuscript. In the chapter excerpt below, Luke’s comments are in GREEN, Tyler’s comments are in BLUE and Cody’s comments are in RED.
The projected release date for the book is Spring 2015. An autographed copy of the book—signed by Steve, Lorri, Luke, Tyler, and Cody—can be pre-ordered at zellerbook.com. Those who pre-order will receive their book before it is released to the bookstores. The excerpt below includes portions from Chapter 5 titled “Was There Anything I Did Right?” and is written by Steve Zeller.
Luke was in sixth grade, and we were on our way back from an AAU tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Because Luke was already so tall (he was six feet four inches at the time and six feet nine inches by the time he was an eighth grader), he had already begun to receive an uncanny amount of attention from the basketball world, even in middle school. As he kept growing…and growing…and growing throughout his adolescent years, I’m not sure if any of us knew how to handle it.
This particular Sunday, Luke’s team happened to lose in the second game of the tournament. As we drove home, I was dissecting each game and possession, asking Luke why he did this or that, challenging some of his responses, and correcting the things he had done wrong.
“Remember, Luke, when a shot goes up, you have to find someone to box out,” I’d tell him.
Then I’d inform him on some of the stats I gathered.
“On Sunday’s game, the opposing team had five offensive rebounds while you were on the floor. This led to eight points. You guys lost by six.”
Then I’d remember something else I noticed during a particular game.
“You started to fall back into your old habits on your free throw shooting, too, as the game winded down. Did you notice that? Were you nervous?”
Then I’d be reminded of something else. And I would go on and on and on, focusing on the road ahead of me, occasionally looking over at Luke, and sifting through all the thoughts I had gathered from the weekend.
This was our routine: Prepare for the weekend on the way up to Fort Wayne, analyze the weekend on the way back down.
About an hour outside of Washington, we stopped to grab a bite to eat at a McDonald’s in Spencer, Indiana. I parked the car, turned it off, and looked over at Luke. He did not look at me. He simply stared out the front windshield blankly, his eyes fogged up and watery.
LUKE: I felt overwhelmed, defeated, and crushed.
“Dad,” he said quietly, “Was there anything I did right this weekend?”
That’s when I realized: I had chewed him out for three consecutive hours.
Luke’s words were the only thing I could think about. They haunted me. The hurt in Luke’s eyes and despair in his voice was impossible for me to simply ignore. For the rest of the trip, I stepped back and asked myself some difficult questions.
Why did I feel like I had to correct everything he did? Why was I being so hard on him? What good did it do? How were these weekly car rides from Fort Wayne to Washington possibly demonstrating that I loved him? Why was I treating everything from that weekend as if it were a life-or-death situation?
LUKE: I think I just tuned Dad out sometimes because he gave me so much advice. I wanted to do the things Dad was saying, but it became overwhelming. I would try to create a to-do list in my mind while he talked to me, but it felt like I always ran out of ink because the to-do list was several pages long.
Everyone seemed to be raving about how tall Luke was, and I suppose my imagination went a little crazy. I wanted results. I wanted him to excel. Ultimately, I guess I was trying to push him into something—basketball—because I saw his potential. I feel so foolish looking back at the situation because I was criticizing a sixth grader for all kinds of things, failing to recognize that becoming a better basketball player is a process. I wanted him to get from Point A to Point D and skip Points B and C.
As parents, there is an internal struggle of desperately wanting your children to be better than yourself and better than the way they are currently acting or performing. This is not a bad desire. However, it becomes dangerous whenever this desire leads to controlling your children. You have to let your kids go through the process, whatever it may be, even if there are mistakes along the way.
Ultimately, performance-based love from parents produces performance-based identities in their children. Studies have actually proven that even telling your children something positive along the lines of, “You’re a good basketball player,” can actually have a detrimental effect on them because their entire identity is based on their performance. Therefore, whenever they have a day when they are a bad basketball player, they will consequently feel worthless and empty. It’s far too easy to hook a kid’s identity to what they are doing or what they have done. That is why I love the idea of implementing character into everything because you hook their identity to something much more long lasting and important than their performance.
I often tell people that Luke blazed the trail for his two younger brothers…but he also carried me along with him. I really believe that I learned a lot from each of the boys, but especially from Luke because he was the oldest. The old Montgomery Gentry song “Back When I Knew It All” has always really resonated with me—though I thought I knew it all, I always seemed to be learning so much more. From my sons.
This is one of the most important lessons I learned as a parent: My children can teach me how to be a better parent. If I expected my children to learn from their mistakes, then I, as a parent, should also learn from my own mistakes. I learned the value in admitting I was wrong. This demonstrated strength, not weakness.
Of course, there was a time to discipline my kids, but when it came to Luke’s performance in the realm of athletics, it was more important for me to lend a hand of support rather than put on my coaching cap. I learned that there were two simple, more encouraging phrases I could say to him in regard to athletics: “I’m proud of you,” and “Have fun.” Sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer, author of The Sky Is Not the Limit, says that athletes commonly rank the ride home with their parents as their worst sports memory. Spencer (his last name, ironically) suggests that it’s one reason why 75 percent of kids stop playing sports by age thirteen. Proactive Coaching researchers suggest that it’s vital for parents to adopt the phrase “I love to watch you play” if they want their children to find joy in sports.
Something about our stop in Spencer made me realize that basketball should be fun, and therefore our car rides should be fun, and thus our talks on those car rides should be fun. My obsession with Luke’s performance was robbing the entire experience for Luke of fun. I was becoming a “helicopter parent,” constantly hovering. I was continually trying to control the situation, unsatisfied until I said everything I felt like I needed to say. But considering all the other hardships of life, sports, of all things, should be fun.
The following weekend, I was determined to change my ways. I told myself, “I will say one positive thing after the game and will not say anything else about his performance unless he asks for my opinion.” (Interestingly enough, my children always seemed to ask for my opinion once I learned to stop forcing it upon them.) I admit: It was hard.
On the way back to Washington on Sunday, I deeply wanted to talk about the tournament, as that was my habit, and I had gathered so many thoughts from the weekend in my head. I knew what he did wrong; but I also tried to make a mental note of all the things he did right. Still, I allowed Luke to direct the flow of our conversation.
“You know what would be cool, Dad?” he said to me.
“What’s that?” I said.
“If we created a basketball camp.”
“Oh, really?” I queried.
“Yeah,” he said. “We could buy some land, put up a farmhouse, build a basketball court, and also have animals on the property,” he said excitedly.
“I like it,” I told him.
His imagination started to run free, and he began talking more and more rapidly about this hypothetical basketball camp.
“We could wake up the campers early in the morning to go milk the cows, and then they could come into the farmhouse and have breakfast!” he said, talking faster and faster. “Then, once their work on the farm is done, they can go to the gym! We could do drills, and then in the afternoon, they could clean out the cattle stalls and different things. After that, they could scrimmage in the evening.”
LUKE: It’s crazy to go back and think about this.
“I love that idea,” I told him. “We teach them basketball but also teach them character on the farm.”
“Yes, exactly,” Luke said. And he went on and on and on.
That particular Sunday, Luke was the one talking to me the entire car ride.
Every lengthy car ride, our conversations always seemed to end up back at his idea for a basketball camp on a farm. He would add more details to the camp experience each time and explain the purpose of specific tasks on the farm and basketball drills on the court. He had practically built this entire concept in his mind, and it continued to grow and evolve with each car ride.
When Tyler played AAU, I had the same mindset with him on our long car rides: Tell him one positive thing, and never say anything else about his performance unless he asks for my opinion.
Though Luke would talk about a basketball camp, Tyler and I didn’t talk about basketball at all. Instead, we would invent things together. His coolest invention (which should have made the Zeller family millions, by the way) was a helicopter that attached to a car. What made the “Helicar” unique was that, if it was in “attachment mode,” you could crawl through the hood of the car to the cockpit of the helicopter, thus allowing a single person to operate it. I can still remember some of the meticulous details of each invention because Tyler would spend hours upon hours mapping it out down to every last nut and bolt.
CODY: I remember that Tyler was obsessed with the idea of pushing a button and something happening. He would always say, “What if you pushed a button and this happened? What if you pushed a button, and that happened?”
Once, I remember pulling into our driveway in Washington and walking into our house. Lorri was working in the kitchen.
“How was your weekend?” she asked Tyler.
“It was great!” Tyler exclaimed. “We invented a helicopter-car.”
Then he proceeded to give Lorri a brief, forty-five-minute synopsis of our invention and why everyone in America should have one.
TYLER: That thing was awesome.
Our inventions, in fact, may have been the only thing that made Tyler talk in depth about anything. He would spend hours building things alone in his room, and we would often have to force him to come out and socialize. Lorri and I always joked that Tyler could probably stare at a spoon for an hour—just studying it. By the end of the hour, he could tell you what he was going to do with the spoon, how it was designed, and why it was designed the way it was. He would just stare at stuff, and Lorri and I both knew to leave him alone.
TYLER: I would take offense to all of this, but it’s all true.
Lorri would politely nod as Tyler explained our engineering epiphanies, but once Tyler would go upstairs, she would ask me, “Did you guys really talk about that the entire trip back?”
“Yep,” I would say.
“You guys are so weird,” she’d respond. “Was there even a basketball tournament this weekend, or did you guys go to an engineering convention?”
Sometimes, Cody and I would talk about sports or listen to ESPN radio. But mostly, he would either crack jokes or sleep. Looking back, it’s weird to think that my conversations with Cody, of all people, were the most normal.
CODY: I’m the weird one? Thanks, Dad.
What amazes me most is that God redeemed the car rides that used to be torturous for Luke. God took one of my most embarrassing, humbling moments as a parent—when I could tangibly see the pain my attitude and actions had caused on my son—and He made something beautiful out of it. A decade later, Luke’s hypothetical basketball camp became a reality, and DistinXion was born.
DistinXion hosts camps across the state of Indiana and uses basketball and cheerleading as an avenue to teach character to children—not quite the farm he envisioned on our car rides, but it ultimately serves the exact same purpose. I have a feeling the kids are happy they don’t have to milk cows, anyway.
On the first day of camp, when parents are invited to stay for the first few hours, I usually tell the story about stopping in Spencer and being humbled by Luke’s question, “Was there anything I did right?” One time, a father approached me after my talk.
“I didn’t like that story you told,” the father told me.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because you were describing me,” he said. He paused. “Thank you.”
Most ironically, I find it comical that the story I always tell to parents is at the very camp my son dreamt up, once I finally swallowed my pride and shut my own mouth. I’m continually amazed by what God can make of my mistakes if I am willing to admit they are mistakes. God made something beautiful of it all.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any fruition from Tyler’s ideas yet.
I’m still waiting for someone to manufacture the Helicar.
By Steve Zeller
This chapter was taken from Raising Boys The Zeller Way by Steve and Lorri Zeller, which will be released in the spring of 2015. Pre-order an autographed copy of the book at zellerbook.com.