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IN THIS ISSUE:
A little over a month ago, in the Conference USA Championship basketball game, the Memphis Tiger’s super freshman, Darius Washington was having an unbelievable night. Leading his team with 22 points, 6 assists and 2 steals, and with time running down, he had almost single-handedly kept his team in the game against a bigger, stronger, 6th ranked Louisville Cardinals opponent. What was at stake for the (19 -15) Tigers was an automatic bid to the big dance, their best and probably only bet to get into the NCAA tournament. With 6.7 seconds left in the game, Louisville’s Brad Gianiny hit one of his two free throws to give the Cardinals a 75 – 73 lead and set up the ensuing made-for-TV drama. With time running out Washington got the ball in his hands and went up for a three pointer and the win. He released the ! shot just before the buzzer sounded and although it missed, Louisville’s Francisco Garcia committed a big “no-no” and fouled the freshman. With no time left on the clock Washington confidently stepped to the line with all eyes on him. There was no need for any of the other players to line up along the lane with Washington because clock time had expired. So instead, they stood behind him waiting and watching like the rest of the spectators in the arena. The win was completely and totally in Washington’s very competent hands. It was his big chance to prove himself a hero on the biggest stage of his young basketball career. He calmly swished the first one to cut Louisville’s lead to one, 75 - 74. Memphis coach John Calipari said that Washington looked over at him after hitting that first one and indicated that the game was won. Two more shots: One to tie and then one for the win and a guaranteed NCAA berth! Washington got set for the second, game ! tying shot, released it and watched in shock as it hit the side of the rim, perhaps just a quarter of an inch off and bounced out. Once again he looked over at his coach only this time his look was one of stunned disbelief. Now he had just one shot left and he had to sink this one to tie the game and send it into overtime. Under the immense pressure of the moment he seemed so very alone and small up there in front of those tens of thousands watching. Somehow in the time that it took for that second shot to bounce off the rim and out, he had lost his look of relaxed confidence. There was a deafening, almost oppressive silence in the arena. The pressure must have been overwhelming for the once, self-assured point guard. At that moment the basketball probably felt like it weighed forty pounds. Washington took a forced breath, set, and then released the ball. Time stood still as the ball slowly followed its’ flight towards the hoop. Unfortunately this shot, like the last one, was off the mark, hit the rim and bounced awry. Game over! With th! at miss Memphis’ NCAA tournament bid fell short. There would be no big dance for the Tigers. Louisville players streamed onto the court to celebrate their win. Washington covered his head with his jersey and sank to the floor in anguish. Nobody, not his coach, his teammates or the guy who fouled him could console him. It didn’t matter to him that he was the main reason why his team was even in that position to potentially score the upset win. It didn’t matter that he had played a brilliant game. At that moment of dejection and embarrassment, slumped on the court in full view of the tens of thousands there and the countless thousands more watching on national television, the only “truth” he knew was of total and utter failure.
I went on the web researching the specifics of this incident and some intelligent yahoo who ran a sports fan’s site had written and posted a rather brainless article entitled, “Darius Washington, Jackass of the week.” It got me thinking about one of my pet peeves in sports today. Coaches, parents, sports fans and the media tend to measure and judge an athlete’s self-worth as a person almost solely based on his sports performance, even if it’s just one, simple play. A guy makes one mistake and he’s a “jackass,” a goat, or a “choke artist.” Where in life is what you do so scrutinized and over-analyzed as it is in sports? Where in life will thousands of “experts” who don’t know you from Adam, pass judgments about your skills, ability, or value in the food chain? Nowhere except in the wonderful world of sports. ! The higher the level that you play at, the more this bizarre occurrence is true.
What gets lost in this short-sighted and critical view of the athlete is the often overlooked fact that this individual is actually a living, breathing organism, a person with real feelings, sensitivities and emotions like most everyone else who walks the planet. This is not simply a case of those who can’t, criticizing those who can. This is far worse than that. Why am I hitting the doom and gloom button here? When coaches, the media, parents or fans focus on an athlete solely as performer, or as a performance or two they are completely ignoring all the important things that make this particular individual human. It’s this depersonalization of the athlete that goes on in almost every level that sports is played here in our country. What does this $.50 word, “depersonalization” really mean? Depersonalization is the process whereby an individual is treated like ! an object with no regard to their needs, feelings or emotions. While it’s always easier for those who can’t, to criticize those who can, the point that I really want to make is that we have a significant crisis in sports at almost every level today. We have somehow figured out a way to completely distill an athlete’s total essence down to one small and minor part of him, perhaps one game, one drive, or maybe even just one mistake.
Look no further than former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner for a glaringly shameful example of this. He was completely and totally crucified by the press and fans after allowing one crumby ground ball to roll through his legs in the sixth game of the World Series against the Mets in 1986. What should have been a routine play at first wasn’t. O.K. so Buckner committed an error and instead of closing out the Series in that sixth game, his error let the Mets back in for a seventh and deciding game. That error, by itself didn’t cost the hapless Sox the championship, the Sox went on to lose the seventh and deciding game for other reasons. However, Buckner was virtually driven out of Boston and eventually out of baseball for his “crime” against humanity. He received death threats, his children were tormented at school and the man was treated as if he had c! ommitted a heinous act of terrorism. Tell me, what happened to his contribution over the course of the regular season that year? How about the contributions that he had made to the Red Sox franchise for several years before that? What happened to his great play during the ALCS Championships? Let’s not forget how well he played in the first five games of the World Series. What about Bill Buckner as a person? How can anyone with a shred of decency, sensitivity or compassion have participated in this ridiculous witch hunt?
Oh? You mean Mr. Buckner was actually a real live person, with feelings and all that stuff? Heck, we don’t give a hoot about that crap! That sucker cost us the World Series with that hair brained error! The guy’s a loser and deserves everything he got! Excuse me, but have we lost just a bit of our perspective here? Are we that obsessed with the outcome of our silly games that we’ve totally forgotten what’s really important? We are dealing with the psychological and emotional health of our child/athletes. Believe it or not, this is just a tad more important than who won or lost, who made a costly error or mistake, or whether “our” team qualified for the playoff. In this issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will explore the problem of depersonalization in sports and the potentially damaging effect that it’s having on our children-athletes, parents and coaches.
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Trust yourself”
PARENT’S CORNER – “Fighting the forces of depersonalization”
COACH’S OFFICE – “You mean to tell me that what I’m dealing with here right in front of me is an actual, living, breathing and feeling organism?”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “The Brilliance of Einstein”
He came in for his regularly scheduled appointment, sat down and then uncharacteristically started unloading. This normally quiet kid was clearly riled up. “You know my coach thinks I’m a head case don’t you? He told me that just yesterday at practice and in front of all the other pitchers and catchers. I wanted to find a hole to crawl into. In fact he’s said that to me a number of times so far this season after I’ve had bad games and I just don’t get it. It’s been really ticking me off lately. He said, ‘You know some people are weak and some are strong and Jones over here, he pointed at me, we have to change his diaper whenever he gets out on the mound. I’m wondering if I even made a mistake moving him right up to varsity. Maybe I should’ve left him on the JV squad a season or two so he could grow up a little bit and work ou! t this head case thing that he seems to have going on!’ (The boy’s face turns red and he begins to tear. It’s at this moment that I feel primordial waves of rage towards the coach washing over me accompanied by images of getting even. I have all I can do to keep my mouth shut).
The kid continued, “You know I’d never tell anyone else this Doc, but when he said all that sh- - to me and some of the guys started to giggle, I just wanted to cry, (tearing more). This guy has made my season absolutely miserable! It makes me want to quit baseball you know. I’m not having any fun this year. He says all this crap about me and it makes me so upset. It makes me feel really bad about myself, like I don’t belong on this team and that I’m a terrible pitcher. And on some level I know I’m not that bad. I’ve had some decent games so far this season. But now I’m questioning my pitching, I doubt myself more and more. My hitting has dropped off the face of the earth. I actually used to be a good hitting pitcher and now I couldn’t get a hit off my grandma, and she ain’t even an athlete! And I don’t get it because t! his is Coach Mack, THE Coach Mack! He’s supposed to be this really great coach. All I heard about growing up was how Coach Mack won States all these times and how talented his squads were and how he sent all these guys to play D-I ball and all this stuff. In my mind Mack was a god! Before I got out of elementary school all I ever wanted to do was to play varsity baseball for The Mack. In fact, I even gave up basketball and soccer to just concentrate on my pitching so that I could get as good as possible to make the varsity. I was so excited when he selected me, and just a freshman even! I couldn’t wait for the season to start but now stuff really sucks. I can’t wait for it to be over!”
I sat there waiting and to keep myself from going off on his coach I asked him what he was feeling right then. “You know I’m really pissed off at the guy. I don’t deserve to be treated this way, freshman or not. I mean, shouldn’t he cut me some slack? After all, this is just my first year on varsity! I am a good pitcher. I’m just a little intimidated, that’s all. Who wouldn’t be in my position? Heck some of these guys I play with and against look like giants compared to me. They’re huge, they shave, they drive fast cars and everything! Facing some of them when I’m on the mound is like, Whoa…scary! I’m just this scrawny little 14 year-old with peach fuzz on my face!” And you know, it’s not just me that Coach Mack picks on either. There are a few juniors and a number of seniors who don’t like him either ! because of what he’s said or done to them over the years. I don’t get it with him either. It’s like all he seems to care about is how well I do in his stupid games. It’s not like he cares about me or anything. If I pitch well he’s all buddy, buddy. If I get rocked he puts me down and tells me I suck. What is that?”
It was pretty clear to me that Jones had completely lost his center. Once a fairly confident, self-assured kid, he was now spiraling downward the way many athletes do when they have to play for and interact with a coach who’s more concerned about winning than he is about the welfare of his players. Coach Mack might be famous in his town for turning out great ball clubs, but as far as I was concerned, despite all his wins, he was nothing more than an abusive, destructive coach. This kind of coach uses his authority and position of power to emotionally beat up on adolescents and younger kids. This kind of person is the worst kind of bully there is. He belittles and demeans his kids, totally undermining their confidence and raising their anxiety level. He doesn’t care about his athletes’ feelings. He doesn’t care about them as individuals. To him, they are nothing! more than a means to an end: winning!
When your coach, the so-called “expert” and leader in your sports life treats you in this way, it becomes virtually impossible for you to find your skills. You make dumb mistakes, always seem a step or two behind the action and play tight and nervous. When you’re uptight in this way, lack self-confidence and feel unsafe, you will always play way below your potential. Do you have a coach who cares more about the outcome than he does you as a person?
I asked the boy, “So he called you a head case. Besides making you really upset and angry, what did you think about his comment? Did it fit for you in any way?”
“You know Doc”, he responded, “That’s the thing that I really find confusing. No one has ever called me a head case before! No one! Not teammates, coaches! I mean, I played AAU baseball and basketball. I played travel soccer. I’ve had all kinds of coaches and not one of them has ever told me that I was weak between the ears. So what gives with this dude? I mean I know I’m a little scared sometimes when I’m on the mound and I’ve had some really bad games. But heck, I’m just a freshman and aren’t I supposed to be a little scared out there? Some of these teams I have to face are like way good. Does that make me a head case?”
I continued, “So you’re telling me you’ve never gotten that feedback from anyone before even though you’ve had a ton of coaches over the years. So what does that tell you about Coach Mack’s feedback? Do you think you’re a head case?”
Looking perplexed, “I don’t think so Doc. I don’t feel like a head case. I don’t get that nervous under normal circumstances. It’s not like all my games are that way. I’ve never cracked under pressure before, but, I mean this is Coach Mack. Isn’t he supposed to know what he’s talking about? Maybe he sees something that I don’t. Maybe I am having head problems. I mean, I am pretty nervous out there and my game really sucks now. But I’m mostly worried about what Coach Mack is going to say to me.”
Jones’ dilemma is not unlike that of so many athletes. They get contradictory feedback from “the expert,” feedback from the coach that doesn’t really fit them, that’s inaccurate or way off-base and then, because it’s coming from someone who is supposed to know what he’s talking about, someone in a position of power and authority, they begin to question their own experience, they begin to question the inner truths that they hold, they begin to doubt themselves. Just because it’s the head coach talking, just because he’s got all this experience and is supposed to be good, doesn’t necessarily mean that it fits for you or that he’s right. And it also doesn’t mean that the coach understands you and is accurately reading your experience. For a number of reasons, coaches frequently miss the boat with their players. Eithe! r they don’t take the time to really get to know them, they lack the perceptual skills to accurately read where their athletes are coming from, or their own personal issues cloud their judgment and perceptions, and get in their way. In fact, coaches who are more concerned about winning than they are about your welfare and feelings will rarely get it right with you.
In any case, and with all due respect to the coach’s position of authority, sometimes the things that come out of a coach’s mouth are better left unsaid. They can be stupid at best or just plain mean and sadistic at worst, having absolutely nothing to do with a coach’s overall role as educator and support person. Believe it or not, a coach’s job is to get the very best out of his players, to inspire athletes to go beyond their limits, to help them feel good about themselves. A good coach does NOT tear his players down. He does not undermine their self-confidence. He does NOT humiliate and demean them.
When you have a coach like Mr. Mack, then you have to learn to do what I told Jones. “Jones, my friend, you have to learn to trust yourself and your experience. Let me explain: Sometimes adults and coaches don’t act their age. Sometimes they say and do things that have no constructive, educational or motivational value. Regardless of why they think they’re saying something to you, it’s your judgment of whether it’s useful or not that really counts. Sometimes a coach’s interactions with you can be very hurtful and embarrassing. Your coach has treated you with disrespect. He publicly humiliated you in front of your teammates and thought he was being cute. This kind of a coach is toxic. Do you understand the word “TOXIC?” Something toxic is poisonous. Mr. Mack will sicken your experience of the game. He will poison the fun right out of you.! You do not want to let that happen. With all due respect to the man and his position, you must be sure that you don’t take in what he’s saying. You must always try to assess the coach’s comments for anything constructive. If he gave you feedback and it was actually useful then you must do everything in your power to work on what he’s said. However, if in addition to this helpful feedback, he dumped on you, or if all he did was belittle you without the constructive piece, then very respectfully you want to tune him out and not let the toxic stuff get to you. I never encourage athletes to be disrespectful to their coaches and I’m not doing it now. What I am saying to you is that you should make eye contact with him, stand up straight and very respectfully let his hurtful words go in one ear and out the other. As you do, you want to remind yourself, ‘this doesn’t belong to me, this doesn’t fit, he’s wrong about me, he does! n’t even know me.’ You see, the bottom line here is that y ou always want to trust your own experience. You have to know yourself. Who you are and who you’re NOT. If a coach, teacher or teammate dumps things on you that you honestly feel do not belong to you, then do not “accept” them. Do not take them on as your own. If you do, you’ll start questioning yourself and that’s when you’ll really get confused!”
“But Doc,” Jones asked, “What am I supposed to do if I can’t block out all of his negative crap and playing for him just makes me feel worse and worse about myself?”
“This is a good question and a tough Jones. If you don’t feel that you can keep the coach’s negative influences away from you, if he continues to really get in your head with his comments and actions, then you have to seriously consider not playing for him anymore. You may really love the game and he may be the only show in town, but it actually might be a lot healthier for you to NOT play rather than to play for him. Perhaps wait until summer ball rolls around or AAU. Coaches who are continuously abusive will make you emotionally “sick” if you keep hanging out with them. If you can’t dismiss his nasty comments and laugh off his mistreatment, and a number of athletes can’t, then the best thing for you to do is take yourself out of that toxic environment. Again, you have to be the judge of whether or not you can block his garbage out. You have ! to trust your own reactions and instincts.”
And the same goes for you. Do not allow yourself to stay in an environment with an abusive coach unless you have figured out a way to neutralize in your head what that coach says or does so that you don’t take him seriously.
“Fighting the forces of depersonalization”
Let’s face it. The world today is a truly scary place. It’s not the same world that I was born into one half a century ago. Gone are the horse and buggy, those toasty evenings when we all curled up in front of our oil lamps. (Oops! Sorry, wrong century!). Our society has dramatically changed. Our extended families have shrunk. Grandparents no longer live with their adult children and grandkids. If there are two parents, both of them usually work. We are less family centered and there are many more single parent families. Our culture and the larger world are far more violent and unpredictable than ever. The younger generation’s attitudes towards sex have transformed because of an over-exposure to graphically sexual themes in the media, print advertisements, television, movies, pop music and video games to the point where sex seems to have lost its’ meaning. The ! cold war with the once powerful Russians has been replaced by a seemingly more insidious threat from global terrorism which can strike from anywhere, at any time, in any number of frightening and gruesome ways. To heighten the fear attached to this unseen threat is the fact that our world has been made much smaller and more accessible than ever by technological advances in a dizzying array of fields. While the world seems to be getting smaller, the impact that our actions have on our fellow humans keeps getting larger. The US made a decision to invade Iraq several years ago and the entire world continues to feel the volatile repercussions today.
One of the unfortunate by-products of all these global and societal changes is a growing sense of alienation. Living in a world like this, it’s easy to feel disconnected and powerless. Part of this sense of disconnection is a direct result of feeling depersonalized in the world, as if who you are as an individual doesn’t really matter that much. It seems that depersonalization has become more and more of our everyday experience. A simple, but unfortunately all too common example: I have been having a wonderful time of late trying to talk directly with my local phone company who, for the past 6 months, has been routinely billing me for yellow pages advertising that I never contracted for. In fact, the phone number on my bill that is in said advertising is not one that I’m familiar with. Nevertheless, each month since November, I’ve been billed an additional $124.95 for “my” advertisement and each month they very helpfully point out how much my account is in arrears. Every time that I attempt to contact this heartwarming utility, I am presented with a dizzying array of push button menus in sequence so that I may be “more conveniently” and “better” served. Forget the fact that it takes me a good 12 minutes before I can actually make contact with a living, breathing, communicating organism at the other end. Forget th! e fact that on too many occasions I have been “accidentally” disconnected after having gone through all those exasperating and mindless steps. Of course, each month since November I have been reassured by the phone people that my account will be credited and they will correct the problem. Here it is at the end of April and I’m still being billed and still having to make those frustrating calls.
Not only does it seem that it is far more difficult to find “real” people to interface with in our society, (if you’ve ever subscribed to America Online, try contacting their help line when you have a problem), it seems that outside of our immediate family we are regularly treated as emotionless objects. You are nothing more than an account number, an ID number, a pin number, user name, password or whatever. This is the heart of the depersonalization process. Your unique and individual needs are completely ignored and your personal feelings are totally disregarded. As a consequence, you begin to feel disconnected from yourself. You begin to feel more alone and less human. People who hang out in environments where they are continually exposed to high levels of depersonalization begin to develop serious mental health problems. They become depressed, emotionally disconn! ected and lose their way.
Now imagine your job as a parent, bringing children into this world and keeping them safe, emotionally well-adjusted and happy. How’s that for a Houdini-like magic act!? The job that you have as a parent today is truly a difficult, if not near impossible one. If for nothing else, you must help your offspring prepare to deal with and survive the depersonalizing elements that they will encounter as they go on their way. What can you do right now to help them develop the strength of character and a solid inner sense of self so that they are not knocked off balance by college and later adult life? Let’s go back to youth sports to find out?
As I mentioned in the beginning of this issue, there is a significant amount of depersonalization that goes on in youth, high school, college and professional sports. The heart of this depersonalization process lies in the linking of the athlete’s sense of worth and value with his or her performance. To put it simply, the athlete becomes his performance or his performance outcome. “If I win, I’m a winner and if I lose….”, well, you know how that one goes. Coaches and parents sometimes forget that the athlete is just a child or adolescent with unique feelings, frailties and needs. The athlete’s needs as a person and individual tend to get ignored or overlooked by those adults around him who are primarily concerned with how well he performs and whether or not he wins. In this way, both coaches and parents completely lose sight of what’s really i! mportant here, the child’s psychological and emotional health as well as his happiness.
In your child’s early sports experiences, you have an opportunity to help her lay down a solid, healthy sense of self and get her to trust and value her own feelings, the antidote to depersonalization. As a caring and loving parent, you can provide your child with a protective buffer between her emotions and the depersonalizing effects of the outer environment. You are in a position of influence that can provide her with a much needed sense of safety as she grows and develops so that by the time you unleash her onto the world, she is mentally and emotionally prepared to handle herself well. However, you can only do these positive things for your child if you keep her sports and competitions in the proper perspective. You can only be of help to your child if you create the right kind of emotional environment at home, one that values your child’s feelings and puts those ahea! d of her competitive performances. Remember, if you get overly involved in your child’s sport, if you get too caught up in his outcomes instead of his process, if you get emotionally hooked into feeling let down whenever he fails, if you find yourself getting angry at, and frustrated with him when he makes mistakes, then you stand to add to the depersonalizing forces in his world. Keep in mind that the world is already depersonalizing enough without having to add such an important support system, parents, to the long list of people/things that treat him like an object. Because of this, parents who are depersonalizing in their interactions with their children do far more damage than almost all the outsiders combined. Your child looks to you and your spouse for support, security and safety. He looks to you to have his feelings listened to and validated. To do this right is a full time job I frequently get referrals from parents whose child is struggling with one form of performance problem or another. The child is depressed, frustrated and discouraged and rightly so. As a consequence, his parents are suffering for him. What caring, loving parent likes to watch their child struggling and unhappy? However, sometimes as I begin my work with this child, it becomes clear to me that what the parents really want is for their child to be “fixed,” and as soon as possible so that he may get back to the important task of winning and being the best. Somehow in the parents’ view, the child’s real feelings aren’t nearly as important as him performing well again. In fact, in many of these situations the child’s feelings are totally overlooked or ignored.
How do I know this? When the child messes up in practice or doesn’t seem to be paying close enough attention to the coach, the parent, who had been watching practice, scolds her for it. When the young athlete continues to struggle with her game the parent’s own frustrations break through in the form of impatience, anger and disapproval. All too often these parental feelings are communicated to the child and she’s given the clear message that she is not only disappointing mom or dad, but making them very unhappy. The parent is overly involved in the child’s training outside of regularly scheduled practices and “encourages” the child to do extra. The child complains that the parent is not really interested in listening to what she has to say about the sport, her problems or her feelings. The child tells me that she thinks that all mom and dad care abo! ut is whether she goes 3 for 4, scores 15 points, throws her tumbling pass or gets a lifetime best time.
As a parent you are in the highest position of power in your child’s life. You, above everyone else, can dramatically influence your child’s development positively or negatively. When your child faces the expected emotional traumas from teachers, coaches and other outside adults as they grow and develop, they desperately need you to be there to validate their feelings and support them. It may be fine for a coach to push your child. It’s certainly not fine for you to do it also! Put your child’s needs first. REALLY listen to her feelings. Keep in mind that how she performs, outcome-wise is never nearly as important as the kind of overall experience that she has within the sport. How she performs is NEVER as important as her happiness and emotional health. Your child is NOT her performance. DON’T EVER make the mistake of reducing her essence to such a shall! ow and limiting concept.
“You mean to tell me that what I’m dealing with here right in front of me now is an actual, living, breathing and feeling organism?”
Do you really want to be successful as a coach? Do you really want your teams to consistently perform to their potential? Do you really want your individual athletes to be motivated and mentally tough? Well if you do, and what committed coach doesn’t, then you stand to learn a ton from Jack O’Brien, the 47 year old the high school basketball coach from Charleston high school in Charlestown, Massachusetts. O’Brien has been working miracles with the inner city kids on his team for the past 12 years now and starting in 2000, his teams won 4 State Championships in a row. What’s the secret to O’Brien’s success? He coaches from the inside out. There’s so much to learn from a coach like this.
When I was working at the University of Connecticut, I used to sit through some of the men and women’s basketball practices. Both Jim Calhoun and Gino Auriemma’s practices, when opened, were closely watched by a number of high school coaches, hoping that some of the Huskie’s magic would somehow rub off on them. These coaches would sit with clip board in hand watching, listening and writing. After practice was over they would attempt to get a few direct questions answered by their more famous colleagues. If you sat and took notes through Coach O’Brien’s practices you may learn something interesting X’s and O’s wise. Coach does run a full court trapping defense the entire game. But if this was all that you were looking for, you’d be missing the real keys to his success.
What is far more impressive than Charlestown’s multiple State Championships is O’Brien’s graduation rate and the lasting positive effect that he has on his players’ lives. He has helped nearly every one of his players who stuck with his program through their senior year get to college. Most of them came to him as the sorriest of city students. Most of them made it to college without the benefit of a big-time athletic scholarship!
Do you know many coaches in any sport who can match this success? It’s doubtful because very few coaches approach the game the way O’Brien does. He works from the inside out. He focuses on his players and building a trusting, caring relationship that far transcends what that individual does on the court. Simply put, he spends much more time dealing with his athletes as thinking, feeling whole organisms rather than as athletic automatons that have no other purpose, function or worth in life outside of the athletic arena. Coach O’Brien clearly cares about his athletes as people first and athletes second. This is coaching from the inside, out. He cares about their lives. He is interested in their feelings. He is respectful of them. He takes an interest in their physical and emotional health. He is not completely distracted by the tunnel vision that most coaches possess ! where they only pay attention to their player’s athletic performance. He knows that there is something far more valuable at stake here than a winning record or the fleeting glory of another State Championship. He knows that his athletes’ emotional well being, happiness and potential future in this society are at stake. Simply put, this coach understands the bigger picture. He deeply cares whether his players attend classes, do their homework and keep their grades up and this is not simply so that they maintain their athletic eligibility. In fact, it seems quite clear that he would much rather that they excelled in these areas in their life rather than just on the basketball court.
Don’t get me wrong here. Basketball and his team’s performance are still very important to him. He drives his players extremely hard when they are on the court. He demands a tremendous amount from them. However, unlike most coaches who simply stop there, Coach O’Brien takes this same attitude and applies it to every other critically important area of their lives. Three years ago he kept getting complaints from a teacher that one of his starting sophomores was causing trouble in class. O’Brien warned the player but the complaints kept on coming. Five games into that season the coach threw the player off the team, a team that eventually went onto to repeat as State Champions. This kid was one of the better players, skill-wise on the entire team. O’Brien didn’t care as much about that as he did about getting through to this kid that basketball was just! a game while his education was something very serious. How many coaches would have jeopardized their own chances of repeating as State Champions just because of a few minor complaints from the teachers about a player? Not enough! O’Brien didn’t give a hoot if this kid’s not being in the line-up hurt his team’s chances of winning. He had his priorities straight. He knew what was really important and he knew what he needed to do to get through to this kid. In today’s highly competitive sports arena, Coach O’Brien’s philosophy, dedication to his players’ entire lives and caring approach is sadly very unusual. Far too many coaches are willing to look the other way when an athlete is cutting corners academically, socially, ethically or even morally. These coaches get too caught up in worrying about themselves and their future to be concerned with the total welfare of their athletes. Since a winning record helps these coaches keep their jobs and self-esteem, this is almost solely what they focus on. The athlete’s future potential as a person gets pushed to the side. This is not to say that there aren’t many coaches interested in the welfare of their players outside of the sport. There are a lot of caring coaches out there. What I am saying is that all too frequently, who the athlete is as a person tends t! o get lost when the focus is placed so heavily on the drive to athletic success. In this way winning and the lure that all of that success brings, become much more important than everything else. Winning, in this way becomes the great corruptor.
To be fair to coaches, they are indeed under a great deal of pressure to win. Winning supposedly defines whether your successful or not, whether you’re a “good” coach or not. Of course, this measurement of success, your won-lost record, has virtually nothing to do with whether you’re really a good coach. It doesn’t measure in the least bit whether you truly care about your players. It doesn’t measure in the least your commitment to helping them or preparing them to lead full, productive and happy lives in our society. Unfortunately it’s this kind of narrow minded focus on the outcome that prevents a lot of truly great coaches from effectively doing their jobs. A quick example: At the end of this last, 2004 football season, Notre Dame fired then head coach Tyrone Willingham. Willingham had only completed three out of his five year contract. Why? He wasn’t winning enough and he wasn’t doing it fast enough. Willingham jumped off to a 10 and 2 record and a trip to the Gator Bowl his very first season, the only coach in school history to ever do that well in his rookie season. His next two years weren’t as good and Willingham was given the axe after compiling a 21 and 15 record. It didn’t matter that his teams finished with a record high GPA several seasons in a row. It didn’t matter that he had the undying respect and loyalty of his players. After all, this is Notre Dame. The school that always prided itself on not being like any other ”football factory,” the school that had never let any other football coach go before ! allowing him to finish his contract. Despite Willingham’s success with his hands tied (he never really got a chance to see a recruiting class go all the way through the program), he still had a very positive, significant impact on the program and his players, and for this, he was fired.
So it’s this kind of pressure that you’re always up against as a coach. Knowing that you’ll be mostly measured by your won-loss record can be a crippling liability that may prevent you from keeping your priorities straight and coaching from the inside out. Do you have the courage of conviction and the character to put your athletes first? Do you have strength to coach from the inside out? Remember Jack O’ Brien!
Coach O’Brien’s success has far less to do with his very punishing practices or the plays that he runs in games. It has much more to do with the amount of time and emotional energy that he invests in his players’ lives off the court. He’s a shoulder to cry on and a boot in the ass when they need it. He’s on their backs about their homework and drives them to check out colleges. He pushes them to set up doctors’ appointments and helps them rearrange their class schedules. How many high school or even college coaches are willing to make this kind of investment? Not too many.
When you genuinely care about your players in this way it’s not lost on them. What you earn by coaching from the inside out is their respect and trust. They know that you truly have their best interests at heart. They know that they are cared for. As a consequence, their play will reflect the relationship that they have with you. Treat athletes with honesty, respect and caring and they will be much more likely to perform to their potential. When you are disrespectful to your athletes, when you embarrass or demean them in front of others, when you make it clear that all you really care about is the outcome, then you alienate them and insure that your teams will underachieve. I talk to far too many high school and college athletes who have coaches who treat them like this. It’s as if their coach is completely oblivious to his/her impact on the athlete as a person. As a consequence that coach will threaten, humiliate, disrespect and put down the athlete. And then this same coach expects that this athlete will somehow be motivated to work for him/her as if nothing that was said or done mattered? Is this supposed to be some kind of on-going forgive and forget? I just don’t get it? Coaching from the inside out recognizes that the relationship that you establish with your athlete is the vehicle from which you teach. Your effectiveness with your athletes and team is always limited by the quality of this relationship. If you continually treat an athlete like crap and are disrespectful, don’t expect them to be willing to work with, or respect you! . As the coach you may certainly hold the power in the coach-athlete relationship, but you will never hold the athlete’s heart. (Credit Boston Globe columnist Neil Swidey for much of the info on Coach O’Brien)
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
“The Brilliance of Einstein”
Did you know that 4/25/05 was the 50th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death? Did you know that when he was a young boy a teacher said to him, you’re not going to amount to anything! (So who are THEY to have even the slightest of clues what YOU will accomplish in your life? The world is full of mean and inadequate people. All too often these individuals will try to be “helpful” by letting you know what is wrong with you and pointing out your “limitations.”)
Did anyone ever say that to you? In school, in sports or anything? How did you feel? (Keep in mind, really listening to people who “rain on your parade” or who dump on your dreams will kill your motivation and knock you off course. NO ONE knows what’s really inside of you! NO ONE except YOU!!!!)
As the story continues, someone once asked Einstein if he was smarter than everyone else? He humbly replied that his strength is not in his intelligence but rather his curiosity.
Curiosity in regards to how much do you want to know, how curious are you? How tenacious are you to learn everything you can know about a subject, sport or anything. Some will say that when you know everything, you begin to really realize how much you don’t know!
Einstein extrapolated further and felt imagination was more important than knowledge! With imagination you have no borders, you certainly can imagine anything. You can imagine solutions to problems, playing games in sports, feeling yourself interacting with a hero, imagination is limitless!!
(And it’s your imagination or ability to dream that will take you far, both in and out of your sport. Don’t ever be afraid to dream. Don’t ever be afraid to imagine. Regularly practice stepping outside of your comfort zone. Explore your own personal universe. You never know what you might discover in there!)
(Source: My colleague and buddy, Dr. Rob Gilbert PhD, Call Dr. Gilbert’s Success hotline daily at (973) 743 - 4690)