Let’s face it. Being a coach in today’s winning-crazed society sometimes can be a thankless and demoralizing job. There is pressure from the administration to win. There is pressure from the media to win. There is pressure from the parents to win. There’s pressure from your fans to win.
Even your own parents have told you that you can forget about that inheritance unless you’re victorious. (Just kidding). And then there are all those inner voices telling you that unless you come out on top you’re really no good. It’s no wonder that coaches prematurely burn out, leave the profession and become lighthouse attendants! It’s also understandable why some meltdown and succumb to the pressures by compromising their ethics and values just to get that W. There’s no question that you have your work cut out for you trying to teach today’s athlete what’s really important and why. It seems that with all the focus on winning, more critical factors like teamwork, sportsmanship, fairness, and good character get discarded by the roadside. Too many athletes today don’t have a clue as to how to conduct themselves. They’re too selfish, entitled or self-important, view the opponent as an evil twin or in some other way conduct themselves like poor sports.
However, there are still a few athletes out there who restore your faith in all that’s good in sports. Athletes who teach you that competitive sport is nothing more than a vehicle to raise your level of personal and performance excellence. Working with the University of Connecticut’s men’s soccer program this season I’ve had the good fortune to meet quite a few of these class acts and witness this first hand: In a hard-fought quarter-final game at the 1999 NCAA Division I Soccer Tournament the UConn Huskies came from behind to beat Furman University 3 to 2 in Storrs, Connecticut.
While the Huskies were wildly celebrating their first appearance in the final four in 16 years, several of the Furman players lay sprawled out on the ground crying. Furman had confidently planned on making the Final Four, not on losing this match. Darren Lewis, a Connecticut forward, approached his sobbing Furman counterpart, helped him to his feet, walked him back to his bench, and sat down next to him, all the while offering words of comfort and reassurance.
Here’s an athlete who truly understood the nature of competition and displayed amazing respect for his opponent.
Darren explained to me afterward that he knew exactly what this guy was going through and had been there himself many times. “Besides”, he added, “all game long we were telling each other, ‘good play’, whenever the other did something great” Darren wonderfully, demonstrates the proper way to look at and deal with an opponent, with tremendous respect and deep appreciation.
Why should your athletes respect and appreciate the competition? Simple! Your opponent provides you with the valuable opportunity to reach a heightened state of excellence. Without a worthy and challenging opponent, competition would be a joke. What’s the point of scheduling “cream puffs” throughout your season? How can you even hope that your athletes will improve consistently going up against the much weaker competition? Without a skilled opponent pushing them to the limits, it would be nearly impossible for your players to have a peak performance. In this way your opponent is really your partner and should be treated as such. Perhaps this is why the word “compete” comes from two Latin words that mean “to seek together.”
At Magic Johnson’s retirement ceremony, this great NBA champion went down a long list of people that he wanted to thank for their contribution to his storied success over the years. When he got to his perennial arch-rival, Larry Bird, who he had been competing against since college, he said, “And I especially want to thank my good friend Larry Bird, because, without Larry Bird, there would be no Magic Johnson! Larry Bird made me the player that I am today.”
And he was absolutely right. Their intense rivalry over the years, like the one between Martina Navratilova and Chris Everett, made them both much better players than they would have been without the intense competition from the other. In a more traditional and narrow-minded view of competition, the opponent is considered to be “the enemy.”
Naturally, this view leads to a loss of respect for and less-than-sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors towards the opponent. As a coach, it is imperative that you do not collude with or condone this kind of behavior. Instead, you want to actively teach your athletes to act with respect towards the competition. You do this by first modeling these kinds of behaviors yourself.
You must walk the talk. You must not engage in bush league behaviors like running up the score, cheating or encouraging your athletes to deliberately try to injure an opponent. Similarly, you must not allow your players to act out their frustrations or negative feelings on the opposing team. In simple terms, you must demand that your players conduct themselves like winners at all times.
Photo of Magic Johnson, licensed with Creative Commons license 2.0, by Kip-koech