Article by James Leath (jamesleath.com) and reposted with permission.
“Because your experience is valuable, and tradition shouldn’t graduate.” – James Leath
A few years ago, as the Head of Leadership at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, I held an end of season meeting with the seniors of that team. I was introducing the concept of Legacy Letters to them for the first time.
One particular lineman had some questions. His talent and grades had gotten him into one of the best football colleges in the nation, and he was eager to move on and start that next season of life. A writing assignment from his leadership coach did not register high on his list of priorities.
“I get that tradition is important,” he said, “but can’t we just play some games or something?”
“Think back to when you first got here, and we handed you the jersey you are wearing right now. How did that make you feel?” I asked.
“Real good, coach.”
I knew the number 72 on his jersey was a special number to him. His father wore number 72 during his playing days, and unfortunately his father passed away just before this lineman entered high school.
“Do you remember those first couple weeks when you were trying to fit in and learn as much as you could so you would feel a part of the team?”
“Yeah, it was pretty hard for a minute.”
The other seniors laughed, remembering their own struggles to fit in at a new school, and on a new team.
“What if I would have handed you your new jersey, but also handed you a notebook of handwritten letters by the young men who had worn number 72 before you?” I asked.
He thought for a minute, and I scanned the other 13 seniors in the room. The room was silent as each one looked down at their chest to savor one last look at those big block numbers that represented something bigger than themselves.
“Okay,” he said. “What do you want me to write?”
Finding Identity within a Culture
If you played a sport that required you to wear a number, then you most likely imagined yourself in that situation I was in with those 14 seniors a few years back but replaced number 72 with your number. There is something magical about those years and the things we used to identify ourselves. To this day, whenever I attend a football, basketball, or baseball game, I look to see if anyone is wearing number 3, and there is an immediate kinship between that person and me, despite them having no idea who I am!
But what if they did know who I was? What if, when they were handed their varsity jersey, along with it came a notebook of letters written by people who had worn that number before them—people who are now members of the community and have been down the path they are about to embark?
Culture building is a common topic at many of the conferences I attend and schools with which I work. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and sports allows us to do that. But not all experiences are equal. A great culture is created by coaches, athletes, administrators, and parents who are intentional about the sport experience. Winning is not a necessity of a great culture, but a great culture can often lead to winning. Show me an athlete that is in a great culture, and I’ll show you an athlete that is benefiting from the tradition handed down from previous graduating classes.
The Legacy Notebook
To pass on the experiences and traditions in a positive way, allowing for future members can learn from former members, create what I call a Legacy Notebook. After the season is over, have all the seniors write a letter to the next person who will wear their number or be on that team the following year.
Creating a book with one number on it written by athletes who wore that number previously is easy for sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, and football. However, creating a notebook for sports without identifying numbers is just as easy. Graduating seniors address their letter to the incoming seniors, and it is up to you on how you divide the letters up, if you divide them up at all. There is a wrestling team in Southern California that has copies of two notebooks, one for seven weight classes at 152lbs and over, the other for the seven weight classes under 152lbs. There is a track team in Chicago that splits up the letters between the track events and field events. I have even seen a softball team in Florida divide the letters not by the numbers on the jersey, but in three separate notebooks: infielders, outfielders, and pitchers and catchers.
The one thing all these programs have in common is this: there is a passing on of traditions and experiences that keeps a culture thriving in a positive direction.
When I first introduced this activity, the athletes always struggle with what to write. Although I do not want to influence their writing too much, it is important to help them with what to write. After a few years, they will have read what the athletes before them thought was essential to pass on, and it becomes a bit easier. I start by writing on the marker board their suggestions of things they wish they had known earlier, or before they began playing on varsity. Do a brainstorm with them and remind them that this a letter for next year, even five and fifteen years from now. Once they get a sense that this is how their legacy will live on, it’s a lot of pressure for them. Have some music playing and let them know to take their time. Hand them two sheets of paper—one to do a brainstorm and list topics they want to write about, the other to write the letter. Put some music on, and let them go at it.
You may want to read the letters as they finish. Be available to help stoke their thoughts about what to write. It may take some time for them to get going, but only because they understand the importance of writing something meaningful, and it may be a bit overwhelming because they want to get it right. Enjoy this moment, because it is the last time they will need your help while wearing a jersey they worked so hard while wearing. They won’t be handing the letter in just yet. After you read it, have them type up the letter and email it to you or print it out and turn both in, along with their jersey.
Putting the Legacy Notebook Together
To create a notebook that will last years, you will need a few sturdy binders and some protective sheets for the letters. When you open up the binder, the first page will be an index showing the name of the student, the position she played, the year she played, or whatever makes sense to how you want to organize it. When you turn the page, the handwritten note will be on the left side, and the typed letter will be on the right.
Some Additions to Consider
I have been sharing this activity with teams for a few years now, and like all my activities, I encourage coaches to make it their own. Here are some ways other coaches have personalized this activity:
- Include a photo of the athlete of their choosing. Some athletes chose their player photo, while others select a picture from a memory they wrote about in their letter.
- Include contact information like an email address or social media username, inviting the incoming athlete to reach out to previous members of the team.
- Reach out to alums and ask them to contribute as well to get the book rolling. It is an incredibly powerful experience.
Completing a season in a sport is something most people will remember for the rest of their lives. Like I mentioned before, a great culture is created by coaches, athletes, administrators, and parents who are intentional about the sport experience. Writing a Legacy Letter is an excellent way for an athlete to pass on the lessons and traditions learned while competing in something they love.
We all want our seniors to graduate, but the culture and traditions they helped create should not graduate with them.