Andrew Cambruzzi has a pretty good idea of what it takes to get noticed as a young athlete.
Cambruzzi is the athletic director at Crestdale Middle School in Matthews, North Carolina. He is also the longtime football and track coach at the school, as well as a health and physical education teacher.
He has taught and coached hundreds of young athletes, in both the classroom and on the field.
So, what makes a young athlete stand out to a guy like Cambruzzi?
“You would much rather coach those individuals that have a lot of heart and effort,” Cambruzzi said. “I will take the heart and effort a thousand times over the skill.”
Not every young basketball player can drive to the rim and dunk like LeBron James. Not every middle school defensive end can put the moves on and get to the ball carrier like J.J. Watt. But in the earlier stages of an athlete’s life, immense talent isn’t necessarily needed to succeed. Dedication, work ethic and mental toughness are all ingredients that make up “heart” – a crucial trait that can lead to success for young athletes on and off the field.
Dr. Aimee C. Kimball specializes in sports psychology. She has assisted with the Pittsburgh Steelers and has been the mental training consultant of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the past eight years. Kimball thinks players with a lot of heart are key cogs that go into having a strong team of any kind.
“They can create a culture I would want,” she said.
Kimball added that not working hard as a young athlete could be the difference between making an impact and not getting noticed.
“Lack of heart can keep you from succeeding,” she said. “You have to have the work ethic, too.”
In the end, Kimball believes that no matter how much talent an athlete has at his or her disposal, hard work is rewarding.
“If you know you did everything you could to succeed, you should be proud of yourself,” she said.
Although the battle of heart against skill dominates in youth sports, one particular case came to light a few years ago in the first round of the 2013 National Invitation Tournament.
In that game, the eighth-seeded Robert Morris Colonials men’s basketball team, members of the often-overlooked Northeast Conference, pulled an upset for the ages against the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats, a powerhouse basketball program that has won eight NCAA men’s basketball championships, including one in 2012.
Dr. Craig Coleman, athletic director at Robert Morris since 2005, remembers it well.
“If there was ever a game where a team maximized their heart to overcome another team that had a higher skill level, that would be the best example,” he said of Robert Morris’ 59-57 win.
Whereas skill is found solely in oneself, heart can come from many sources. Cambruzzi argues that heart can be contagious.
“When you have a specific player who has heart, they can make the ones who have talent better,” Cambruzzi contended. “You may have an offensive lineman who’s blocking for an all-state running back. The offensive lineman doesn’t have the size or the speed or the strength, but he has heart. I think that heart pushes the all-state running back. That is where it’s so valuable. It’s often the players who go unnoticed, but that’s where great teams come from: individuals who have heart.”
Coleman has his own take on the matter.
“I think of heart and skill as two factors in a multiplication problem,” Coleman said. “The result that you get is a combination of heart and skill.”
Coleman explained that you can judge a player’s heart and skill ratings on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the greatest amount of each.
“I would contend that, in many sports, your success level will depend on your heart rating multiplied by your skill rating,” Coleman said. “If your skill level is a three, but you’re putting maximum heart into it, you’re a 15. If your skill level is a five, but you’re only putting average heart into it, you’re still a 15.”
Kimball explained that it can be a challenge to find players who have high levels of both heart and skill.
“Everybody is going to have different strengths,” she said. “I think it comes down to a balance between the two. An athlete can play really hard, but not practice hard. A coach can see it.”
However, when a coach does find that special player with both attributes, it can change the culture of a team.
Cambruzzi shared a special story about Eddie Whitley, a former star defensive back at Crestdale who has since played for several NFL teams. Cambruzzi said Whitley’s heart set the tone for his football team on and off the field.
“We were doing a unit on swing dancing,” Cambruzzi recalled of the eighth grade physical education class he taught. “There was a girl in the class who didn’t have a partner, and I was very concerned because I thought it would cause a negative environment. Eddie Whitley went out of his way to pick that girl as his partner. To me, that showed all of the right characteristics a coach would ever want in an individual.”
Cambruzzi said gestures like that displayed Whitley’s heart, which made up for everything else he may have lacked.
“He wasn’t the fastest, he wasn’t the biggest, he wasn’t the strongest,” he said, “but he had more heart than anyone I’ve ever coached. That was his talent.”