Disheartened after another day of failing to connect with his students, the young teacher trudged upstairs to his office and slumped down at his desk chair in defeat. He was angry, and he had every right to be mad. After all, his boss at the YMCA had assigned him a seemingly impossible task. He had been handed a classroom full of misbehaving mischief-makers whom he somehow was expected to make enthusiastic about physical fitness—within two weeks. His three predecessors each had been dismissed after unsuccessful attempts to interest the unruly young men in exercise. Unless something changed, it looked like he would be following their footsteps out the door.

As for activities, his options were limited. Winter weather had forced the physical education class indoors to the gymnasium, and his students showed absolutely no attraction to the usual calisthenics: push-ups, sit-ups, and the like. Also, since many of the students were notorious troublemakers, any sport lending itself to rough play was off limits. He had found that out the hard way after an aborted attempt to introduce lacrosse had ended in a slew of injuries. He had tried derivations of indoor soccer too, but the students had been completely unreceptive to them.

Mulling over the predicament, the young gym instructor concluded that nothing of the usual variety would hold the attention of his students. He needed to come up with a new game. He then began to think abstractly about the team sports he knew, recognizing that, at root, each involved a ball and a goal. He decided a larger, softer ball would be most appropriate for an indoor game. To eliminate violence, he wanted to move away from a type of goal which encouraged forceful or fast-moving shots as in hockey or soccer. Consequently, he hit upon the idea of a goal with an opening at the top rather than on the side to require an arcing or looping trajectory for shots. Since defenders could easily surround and guard such a box-goal, he chose to mount it above their heads. Finally, to prevent the rough collisions of tackling, he stipulated that the person with the ball could not advance it on foot but only by passing.

After several hours spent pondering how the game would be played, the young teacher drew up a list of thirteen rules and had them typed out. He then asked the gymnasium’s facility manger for two wooden boxes so that he could construct the goals. The building superintendent did not have any boxes but provided two peach baskets instead. The next day the young instructor nailed the baskets about 10-feet above the floor of the gym and put the rules of his newly created sport on display. Not only did the game appeal to his students, within a matter of months basket-ball had caught on at YMCAs around the country. The once-discouraged gym teacher, James Naismith, had invented a sport which would go on to become one of the most popular in the world. In 2010 its original rules, which Naismith had scrawled on two pieces of paper, sold for $4.3 million!


James Naismith faced a crisis; his job depended on exciting a group of cynical, asocial youth about exercise. At this juncture, he could have complained about the unfairness of his assignment or griped about the behavioral problems of his students. However, rather than being consumed by the difficulties in front of him, Naismith stayed focused on finding a way to connect with his students. What sticky situation are you presently facing at work? How can you encourage your team to stay focused on searching for a solution rather than worrying about the size of the problem?

James Naismith’s first few attempts to engage his students failed miserably, yet he kept moving forward. How have you moved on from failures in your life, and what lessons have you learned from those failures? Based on your experience, how might you influence your teammates to respond to failure?

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