Exhausted and gasping for air with my hands at my hips and my legs wobbling beneath my thin frame, I hear my father scream from across the field, “finish strong!” Seconds later I begin fighting the battle in my mind. My body is screaming at me to surrender. I can’t possibly go another 50 yards. But his words are actively seeking one last desperate attempt to keep me in motion. They reach down further within me and touch a part of me that is more powerful than my mind, than fear, than “quit”. They find my heart. And my head rises. I straighten my back and my shoulders. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I take a deep breath. And I repeat those words back to myself. I look to my right, and then to my left. I see my teammates, and they too are shaken. In this moment, there is great opportunity. Set an example. Dig deeper, push harder…run this last sprint for pride. Run it to win…not just today, but for every day that follows.
Through my relationship with my father and athletics, I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the years that I will undoubtedly carry with me for the rest of my life. Perhaps none was better than to “finish strong”. I remember those evenings at football practice as a youth, and the cool, early summer nights when we’d flip on the porch light to create enough visibility to throw the last 25 pitches. Those nights are what have made sports so special to me. It wasn’t the game that was going to define me…it was the heart that it took to play with resolve, and a purpose. It was finding the strength not to quit when you were tired. It was discovering resiliency and focus in the face of adversity. Heart separates the men from the boys and it affords you the opportunity to be stronger in the 4th quarter than you were when you first took the field. It carries a weak mind and a failing body. Heart inspires people.
There is no better way to display heart than by leaving it on the field and to, in the words of my father, “finish strong”. Let’s take a minute to dissect these words of encouragement and look into the meaning of them a bit. First let’s examine “finish”. Finish means “to arrive at or attain the end of”. In the case of that last 50 yard sprint, finishing meant closing the door on yet another day of practice. But used in a broader context, the word carries far more weight. It means “don’t quit”. Finish implies that you’ve started something and that you need to see it through to the end. It means allowing for nothing to discourage or impede your efforts. Finish does not apply only in calm waters. To finish we are expected to encounter struggle…we’re expected to hang our head momentarily as we gasp for air. We’re expected to doubt our mind and body’s ability to carry us to the end. And then, we’re meant to call on our heart. The heart won’t let us down…it will see us through. We will finish this race and will find a desire to run again soon.
Now let’s take a look at the word “strong”. Everyone has a different definition of what this means to them personally. Strong can be used to describe physical prowess or sound health. It can characterize a force of will or a great ability/achievement. But there are two definitions of strong that I relate these motivational words to the most. The first is “not easily defeated” and the second is “having force of conviction or feeling; uncompromising”. To me, strong cannot be simply a state of physical health or ability. Strong is far more complex than that. In fact, I believe that it’s truly in our weakest moments that we uncover our greatest strength. It suggests seeking desperately to find a means to fight when every ounce of our being is asking us to resign…to just throw in the towel. Strong is relentless. It means doing things with a purpose, with guts, even in times of despair. Strong doesn’t necessarily imply being the best, or winning…instead, it means finding personal satisfaction with the effort put forth. Strength is in all of us, we just need to dig deep to find it.
So how was it that my father intended to reach me with those words? He didn’t use them to simply inspire the last sprint of that evening’s practice. No, I know that man well and I understand today that there was far more to it than that. He meant it on far deeper level. He was preparing me for the cutthroat world that stood before me during that time of innocence as a child. Because life was going to be more than just a sprint, it was going to entail a long race of endurance with twists, turns, and obstacles eagerly waiting to disrupt my run and impede my finish. My father was speaking to the core of my being. He was reaching for my heart and encouraging me to stand tall, broaden my shoulders, face the adversity, and keep moving forward with conviction. He was telling me to finish the fight. To run the course that God had laid out for me, to find my greatest strength in my darkest moments, and to end the race with more passion and heart than I had started it. He was asking me to do everything with a purpose. He was inviting me to live.
So I dove in head first without hesitation or fear of what I might encounter along my journey. And my race has been one that has required incredible resolve. There were times when the terrain appeared completely downhill and my pace advanced so effortlessly that progress felt inevitable. But then there were also moments of intense adversity, unforeseen difficulty and hardship. Many days the climb seemed never ending. My pace would slow to a crawl, and I’d find myself hanging my head in despair. And then I’d hear that voice in my head saying “finish strong” and I’d be reminded of the way that I overcame adversity that evening with my toes on the goal line, getting ready for that last sprint of the evening’s practice. And I’d reach deep inside of my heart and find the strength to keep moving forward. This is where you separate the men from the boys. Finish the race set out for you. Don’t quit. Find your passion and your purpose. Live.
I can’t even begin to describe to you just how many times I’ve used those words to motivate myself and persevere through the most challenging moments in my life. And today, the words “finish strong” carry more weight than ever. Because I’ve lived 29 years, and I think I finally have a full understanding of how to best apply them to my future. I want to live life with passion and with heart. I want to embrace my greatest strengths which arrived in moments where I found myself at my weakest physically and mentally, yet somehow found the courage to keep moving forward. I want to use those strengths and my resilient heart to inspire others. I want to grow stronger with age and experience, and leave this world a better place than I entered it. And I want to finish this race that is life with conviction and purpose. I want to endure and overcome. It’s time to “finish strong”.