In life, like baseball, you need to learn to play the hops.

Last week, a friend told me about when a simple piece of advice whispered on the sidelines of a high school basketball game seemed to pivot his son’s perspective on life.

“We’re at his high school basketball game, and he’s giving it his all — but frustrated,” he said.

At halftime, my friend made his way down from the bleachers and pulled his son aside.

“Listen,” he said. “You’re trying too hard, trying to force things. Let the game come to you.”

As the game continued, my friend’s son began adjusting to his surroundings — or the game, leading to better results.

Or, as others will say, he learned to play the hops in life.

We like to think we are in control of life, right down to the smallest of details. And while our attitudes and actions are powerful predictors of outcome, so are those lesser-known moments of responding to the unexpected.

Learning to field a ground ball is a good training exercise for life. Unlike those manicured lawns in the major leagues, most of us learned to play on fields populated with dirt clods, a lost piece of gravel and scraggly weeds.

I remember taking to the field and a coach striking downward on the ball, sending it skidding across the dirt.

“Pick it clean,” he’d say.

And as hard as I’d try, the ball generally won. Getting my feet and glove into position, occasionally the ball would elect to take a last-minute detour, either under my glove or hop up and bounce off my bony chest. Afterward, I’d smart, say a few words, and kick the dirt.

“Play the hop, Woolsey,” he said.

At the time, I did not know his words would accompany me decades after leaving the dirt field behind.

The best players on the diamond learn to remain loose, almost rubbery, in their approach to a ground ball. To them, nine out of 10 times, the ball will do as expected. But that one time, remaining flexible in their preparation allows them to adjust and embrace the bounce. They play the hop, not the expected.

As an adult, I could relate to my friend’s son. Going into life, you feel there is a formula — you do this action, the expected occurs. You say the right thing, and the desired outcome happens. But every once in a while, life throws you a wild pitch. And how we respond — or play the hops in life — becomes a valuable predictor of success.

Playing the hops isn’t about life breaking you down, but rather embracing the flow, turning momentum or circumstances to your advantage.

Much like learning to bounce a bad hop off your chest, life plays out on an unpredictable playing field. Staying flexible allows you to use the inertia of circumstances to fuel your progress. Dirt clods are everywhere. How we play them, however, greatly determines the outcome of the game.

Play the hop.

Leonard Woolsey: 409-683-5207; leonard.woolsey@galvnews.com.

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