It’s Amazing What Sport Shows Us and What it Shows Others About Us

don paup doublesI didn’t know Don Paup was a world champion.

Yes, he was tall and athletic but his posture was welcoming and his presence, unassuming. Most days he sat behind a desk piled high with papers and journals or staffed the cardiac rehab lab joking with the guys as he took their blood pressures. Two days a week I had him for class, and every evening he was in the gym playing badminton will all comers. “World Class ranking” was not mentioned. He was just a shorts-and-t-shirt or khakis-and-open-collared-shirt kind of guy.

Don and I met at the George Washington University where he was a professor of Exercise Physiology and I was an aspiring exercise scientist. He was my teacher and thesis advisor, but what he taught me had less to do with the science of exercise and more to do with how to live what we love. He loved his family, his friends, his colleagues, his students, his athletes and his sport. Oh, did he ever love badminton. Turns out, badminton had more to do with it than I realized.

I didn’t learn to play badminton as a kid, at least not the competitive kind. I was only familiar with the backyard version. So, during my student-training, I didn’t get to know much about Don on the court, but mostly in his other venues: teacher, advisor and colleague. In each, Don was typically understated but unquestionably in charge.

He guided gently by suggestion which inspired self-reflection rather than by correction and re-direction. Even when I made mistakes Don never made me feel mistaken. Simply by the up-tilt in his voice or the query in his smile, he caused me to re-consider how I had done something or the motivation behind my decision to do it. Neither of us, it seemed, was the wiser. He always was. Point taken: he didn’t have to make it.

Don taught me to watch and learn, listen and attend, but also to assert myself when the time came to make a point. He modeled the healthy and good-humored way to challenge conclusions, but this never came at the expense of another. Don showed me how, even in disagreement and discussion, to diffuse difficulty with laughter and good humor, and to smooth things over with a friendly game. Of course for him the game was always badminton.

That was the cure for all that ailed him, even as he battled Parkinson’s Disease, a brutal and heartless foe, to which he finally succumbed in 2012. What a tragedy for a man who had cherished and championed the active life. Ironically, it wasn’t until his funeral that I saw the secret behind Don’s championship life: his key to winning well was in how he played the game.

All great competitors prepare well by practicing skills, rehearsing tactics, and developing strategies. Don had perfected these and even invented new and better ways to go about them. He was so good, in fact, that people copied him and even named strokes after him! Still, there was more. The more he brought was in his how.

It’s often said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’ Famously, Martina Navratilova has quipped, “Whoever said that probably just lost.” We all laugh nervously at Martina because we know she’s right. Often good sportsmanship is the soft landing place for the loser. The winner is excused.

Don Paup was a winner and a good sport, but much more than this, he was a winner because he was a good sport. That was what being good at his sport meant to him. He didn’t set it aside in order to win. Winning without it, would not have been winning. So, he developed winning strategy and championship play with world class character. It was literally part of his game plan.

Speaking at Don’s memorial service, Dean Schoppe, a longtime friend and badminton partner, described Don’s strategy this way:

  • Serve and return-serve: do the first things well and all will follow.
  • Don’t lift the shuttle: if you don’t give others a chance to attack, they won’t.
  • Turn the attack around by using a soft block.
  • Don’t return aggressive with aggressive. Use a soft, thoughtful response.
  • Put the point away when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t force it.

This wasn’t just Don’s badminton; this was Don’s life. This was the way he lived out everything. He gentled people, even as he won victory after victory. Never a harsh word spoken or a heavy hand raised. He took no prisoners, just brought back friends.

In the summer of 1996 my family got tickets to the Atlanta Olympics. Just out of curiosity (and at Don’s urging), we purchased 4 seats to the badminton competition which landed us in the front row. This is great when you have small children to entertain and the game moves at lightning speed. Finally, I was getting to watch real badminton, up close and amazing.

At an intermission in the action, over walked a tall man, clad in the green uniform of a head official. Sure enough, it was Don Paup. Of course, he hadn’t told me he would be there, only that I should get tickets to a match. He came over to say hello, but in his hands he held two shuttlecocks that had been used during play. He brought them for my two young daughters to take as souvenirs.

That was Don. Even with official duties and international responsibilities, he was taking care of me and my family and inviting us to love the game he so dearly loved and always served.

Ending his remarks at the memorial service, Dean Schoppe concluded, “For Don, sport was a microcosm of life. He lived what he taught and played what he lived.”

That’s a life in order. A championship is not something you achieve, it’s something you learn to be and then live quietly among others. Don was a world champion athlete and I did not know it. He was my champion and I was sure of it. That alone makes me want to live a life that will make him right.don paup 2

I have dedicated the book I published this year, Fit2Finish: Keeping your Soccer Players in the Game, to Don, with my thanks to this man who showed me how true champions are made.

In memory of Donald C. Paup, PhD:
teacher, mentor, friend, coach
and champion in sport and in life.

If you have had the privilege of being mentored, #ThankYourMentor.

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