“Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.”
John Wooden

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Journey Into Coaching

This is the first in a series of articles discussing various chapters in Terry Pettit's book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams.  Mr. Pettit served as the head volleyball coach at Nebraska for 23 years and his teams won 21 conference titles and the 1995 NCAA national championship. The book is a collection of  "...essays, columns, poems, and letters (that) reflect my own journey into coaching. Each entry is part of a story of how I came to see the challenges in my coaching development."

By Jim Freeman
April 7, 2014

Award cites Pettit's work for women in athletics
Terry Pettit (LJS File/Ted Kirk)

"There is something heroic in wanting to be a coach."

Mr. Pettit begins the chapter entitled "Finding a Path Into Coaching" with a statement that I'd never before heard a coach make.  I'm certain that I had not looked at the vocation from such a perspective prior to reading that sentence.  He goes on to list reasons why being a coach is demanding in any number of ways from recruiting to practice planning to fundraising to dealing with parents. My real interest, the part of the job that always held me, was working with the players, getting to know them and hopefully forging and continuing relationships with them. The varied responsibilities comprising a coach's job description are really just different ways of serving our players. In John Wooden's A Game Plan For Life, the legendary UCLA basketball coach writes: “I remain convinced to this day that compassion like that—sincerely caring for your players and maintaining an active interest in their lives, concerns, and motivations—is one of the most important qualities a coach can have.”  

Emphasizing and promoting the aspects of sports that can aid athletes in other parts of their lives is the reason youth sports exist in the first place.  Quoting again from Wooden's A Game Plan For Life“A coach’s primary function should be not to make better players, but to make better people.”  Tim Stevens is a the preps sports editor at the Raleigh News & Observer and a member of several halls of fame.  More than once he has stated that "the purpose of high school sports is to produce good citizens".  Those notions of what we are trying to accomplish as coaches have greatly influenced me as I studied to develop my own sense of why I wanted to be a coach and how I was to go about it.  Producing better people and good citizens begins with insuring that the players know genuine care and even love are the foundation of everything that is done in the program.  John Wooden described love as the "the most powerful four-letter word" in his 12 Lessons in Leadership.  When the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi was asked why his teams were so successful he responded "because we love each other."

While I was student-teaching at Wake Christian Academy in Garner, North Carolina I had befriended Dean Monroe, the athletics director at Friendship Christian School in Raleigh. I eventually went to work with Mr. Monroe at FCS teaching junior-high science and physical education.  I was also the head varsity baseball coach despite the fact that I had never coached anything before. One day early in the school year, a returning baseball player walked up to me and asked, "so...are we going to learn anything this year?" The young man had an edgy tone to his question and I felt right away the expectations he and his teammates had regarding our upcoming season.  I was confident that our coaching staff would be able to meet those expectations but only by applying real preparation and care. We were fortunate enough that year to have two talented and very enthusiastic assistant coaches in Boyce Collins and Sean Kurdys to go along with a young and equally enthusiastic group of players.  We learned together and had a great deal of fun while also advancing to the state championship game. The team took the rallying cry from the movie Slapshot ("Old-time hockey! Eddie Shore! Eddie Shore!") and made it their own ("Old-time baseball! Ty Cobb! Ty Cobb!") to great effect.  I can still see the players standing in the dugout and screaming that line over and over during games that required some rallying. I can also recall the shocked looks on the faces of our opponents while all that yelling was taking place.

That season was one of the most meaningful and rewarding of my coaching career.  Our players knew that we took their season seriously, they knew we wanted them to enjoy it, and they knew we cared about them as individuals.  Pettit writes, "My goal is not to persuade you to my point of view or coaching philosophy, but rather to stimulate you to reflect on your own story and begin to take responsibility for your own coaching development, if you have not already done so."  That initial season at Friendship Christian School was the springboard for me in considering the importance of developing a consistent coaching philosophy, the necessity of continued professional development and the realization that the players were the reason we were doing any of it. Those three things would continue to shape my approach to coaching for the next 25 years.

The "heroic" component found in coaching is centered around teaching and caring for the players put in our charge. All the other responsibilities of the job exist to serve that ideal. The fact that I am able to still have relationships with some of the players on the first team that I ever coached is particularly powerful to me. Not long ago one of those players told me that he still uses lessons learned from his high school baseball career in his business today.  I can't think of many greater compliments that a player can pay a coach or many better reasons to be a coach in the first place.

Mr. Pettit ends the "Finding a Path Into Coaching" chapter with the line "It is all out there waiting for you to be heroic with."  I loudly echo that beautiful sentiment.

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