Coaching’s Lessons : rewrite in 2012

Coaching’s Lessons

by Dr. George H. Elder

rewrite in early 2012

            It’s a wonder I became a coach at all considering my dubious past. I was a miscreant oaf who was fond of doing all sorts of drugs with my felonious friends, and I made drinking into a regular and terrifying event. In fact, I became infamous during my youth for rowdy escapades, some of which were ended by the local constabulary. There were some reasons for my wonton behavior. I grew up in a “dysfun­ctional” family, although I suspect nearly everyone does. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was seemingly oblivious to the discord that sur­rounded her. We were also poor, and I developed a terrible self-image, which wasn’t helped much by my obesity.

            My confidence improved when I started lifting weights at age fifteen, and I became addicted to it. In fact, I took all 1,020 pounds of my weights with me when I came to UNH, and set up a weight-room in Congreve Hall dormitory. Lots of students used my facility, including some varsity athletes. I got to know those guys very well because we trained together, and trained hard. My prePhysical Therapy major and experience in the iron game helped me to formulate programs for the athletes, and these proved effective. UNH’s head football coach became aware of my abilities from his players, and he hired me to run the Univer­sity’s weight-room in 1977, my senior year.

            I had a lot to learn about coaching and the lessons didn’t come easy. It was an athlete we’ll call “Grady” who taught me to respect my charges when I began my coaching career at UNH. Grady was a six-foot four-inch +, two hundred and sixty seven pound offen­sive lineman who was recovering from a nasty knee injury. He was the quintessential laid back Vermonter, ever rustic in his views and mannerisms. He spoke slowly and had a wry sense of humor, being a casual guy and seeming to lack in passion. Howeve­r, Grady worked out hard in the weight room, and we grew to like one another.

            Yet I didn’t fully respect Grady because I thought he had a fatal flaw in his character. I had heard from one of my fellow coaches and from a few of Grady’s teammates that he was not aggres­sive enough. One athlete even called him a “pussy”—which is the ultimate insult for a football player. I half-believed what those lame sots were saying about Grady because of his mellow man­nerisms, and I’d taunt him on occasion.

            “Hey Grady, are you really as much of a candy-ass as all your teammates say you are?”

            “Come on, Dino, you don’t mean that.”

            Grady used to take my barbs in stride, but one day he objected to my badgering by giving me a gentle cuff across the face. My rowdy past instantly came to the forefront, and I decided to take a hands-on approach, all three hundred and twenty pounds of me. I hauled off and slapped Grady’s face so hard that my blow sent him reeling back­wards. Grady’s eyes lit up, and he came back at me with a whack across the puss that still makes me cringe when I think about it. The kid almost decked me there and then, but I came right back at him. In short order Grady and I were slapping each other all over the damn weight room, much to the amusement of the leering athletes. Grady would take a shot, and then I’d return the favor—slap for slap.

            I mean, these were blows that could knock most normal folks senseless. The only problem was that at five-foot eight-inches I could barely reach Grady’s face and head, yet he had no difficulty in pummeling me from a distance. Yeah, getting into that tiff was a very bad judgment on my part—yet in for a penny, in for a pound. The madder Grady got, the more he mixed forearm shots to my head with his slaps. He certainly wasn’t acting like any “pussy” I had ever tangled with before. He was behaving like a guy with an hard-ass attitude and mal intent, and I knew I couldn’t last long at the rate I was taking damage. Man, I couldn’t even see strait! In desperation I reached out and grabbed one of Grady’s long arms in mid-strike, stopping it cold. I smiled at him.

            “For God’s sake Grady, why don’t you do this on the field?”

            “Man, your face is red. I bet mine is too.”  

            He looked at me, perplexed, and then a smile slowly spread across his mottled face. I told him we better stop fighting before one of us got hurt, and I was pretty damn sure it would have been me. He nodded, and I was greatly relived. Grady taught me to respect my charges for what they are, and not what others might say behind their backs. Grady became an All American football player the following year and later went on to become an outstanding coach in his own right. I’m not sure if our slap fight had much to do with Grady’s success, but we both got to learn a little bit about ourselves and each other that day. I came to see that mutual respect between athletes and coaches is fundamental to successful teaching. Moreover, taunting one’s charges can come with a stiff price!

            Until my tiff with Grady, I had depended on my strength and size to garner respect. I could take well over 400 pounds off a set of squat racks and push it over-head. I could military press three hundred and eighty five pounds, and do full depth squats with five hundred and sixty pounds for easy repetitions. Oh yeah, I was strong for a non-steroid guy. However, impress­ing athletes with the amount of iron you can move around does not make a coach. I still had a great deal to learn about the profession and myself. Most of my education was based on my interactions with athletes, but I also learned a great deal from observing my peers’ coaching methods. 

            My experience with Grady taught me that denigrating ath­letes is wrong, but many coaches believe that a person has to be torn down in order to be built back up. That’s the typical martial mentality we see in the Marines, although it also exists in many sports. Indeed, there are some coaches who justify their cruelty by adhering to this dogma. The more I came to care about my charges, the more I came to utterly despise maligning them. In fact, I found myself becoming quite vocal if I thought a person was being un­fairly treated.

            “Ken” was a promising athlete who some coaches thought was not performing up to snuff, and one of the part-time coaches took par­ticular delight in tormenting the poor kid. The comments Coach “Caddy” made to Ken were cruel and cutting:

            “You’re a waste of a scholar­ship, Ken… Christ, you hit like a sissy… Why the hell do you bother wearing a jock?”

            It went on and on, but I knew Ken was trying because I saw him working his heart out in practice and in the weight room. He was complete­ly dedicated to improving himself, and he was making good, but slow, progress. Ken talked with me in the weight room a few times about how miserable his nemesis was making life for him, but I assumed he could handle the situation. I was wrong. I saw Ken in the locker room one day, face turned toward the wall and eyes staring blankly into nothing­ness. I asked him if anything was bothering him.

            “I can’t take it any more,” he said in a whisper. “Even my teammates are starting to shit on me now. But you know I’m tryin’. I really am.”

            Then he stared off into space again, lost in some terribly painful world of lonely despair. To see a young man reduced to such emptiness is a haunting thing, so I spoke with coach Caddy privately.

            “What do you mean, lay off him? The kid’s just acting like a baby, and you’re falling for it.”

            “Nah, I think he’s had enough.”

            “Don’t you get it, Dino? He’s going to get tougher from this. He’ll perform better as a result.”

            “I wouldn’t take the bullshit you’re dishing out.”

            Coach Caddy got angry, and sneered.

            “You know what your problem is? You’re not a coach to these kids! You’re their friend.”

            Coach Caddy said the word “friend” as a venal insult, but I thanked him for the compliment. Ken dropped out of school at the end of the semester, and I never even got to say goodbye to him. His fate still pains me. He was such a happy kid as a freshman, all enthusiasm and hope. Then he was broken by the aspersions heaped on him, made an outcast by his sophomore year. Coach Caddy found a full time coaching job at another college a year or so later. I imagine he’s still breaking down kids to build them up. Ken is just another casualty of his game plan, and I suspect there will be others. Yeah, coaching does have a dark side.

            I became friends with many of my charges at UNH, and that is when coaching started to become a labor of love for me. My first utterance when entering the weight room became a bellow that shook the entire facility, a sort of  primal roar. In short order I was firing off program info and taking in reports from football players, runners, swimmers, and all manner of other athletes. I worked out with the kids, listened to their problems and fears, and grew to care about them on a personal level. The athletes, in turn, came to respect me as someth­ing more than just a coach, and for the first time in my life I came to feel an emotional attachment for what I did. I looked forward to coming into work, and I continued to learn about both coaching and myself.

            One of my harshest experiences as a coach involved a lack of empathy, and it still haunts me. The incident occurred in early May, at a time when the students were getting ready for either graduation or summer vacation, a normally happy time of year. There were only a few athletes lifting in the weight room and we were wantonly shooting the breeze. The banter in a weight room can get a bit vulgar at times, and we drifted into tearing up homosexuality, typical politically incorrect “fag-bashing” talk, replete with squeaky voices and faked female mannerisms. It came time to close shop and I harried the kids out of the room so that I could go home. “Sam” was being stubborn, and continued to lift after the other athletes had left, so I chided him about being recalcitrant. He glared at me, and I asked him what was wrong.

            “You’re an asshole. You’re just like all the rest of them.”

            I was shocked. I had always thought of Sam as being basically stable, yet the person I saw was seething with rage.

            Sam grabbed my arms in a vice-like grip, and I thought he was going to punch my lights out. Then he suddenly released me, and bolted out of the weight room. I followed Sam down a hallway and through some corridors befo­re finally catching up with him in an abandoned locker room. He was slamming his fists into metal lockers, punching huge dents into their doors. I thought Sam was going to break his hands, so I grabbed one of his arms. He spun around to face me. He was wet-eyed and trembling, his knuckles bleeding. Sam spoke to me in semi-coherent half sentences that were mixed with tearful agony.

            “Dad said I don’t have a home… if I’m that way… Not his kid. And you guys… you’re being assholes about it. So what am I going to do? Because I am that way. I am! Can you tell me? Can you? Can you? Can you?”

            In all the years I had known Sam it had never donned on me that he was gay, and I doubt that more than a few of his former teammates know about his very well hidden homosexuality. I was stunned. Sam was anything but the stereoty­pical image of a gay man, not that such an image actually exists. He was a handsome and well-muscled two-hundred-and-twenty pounder who used to revel in being explosive. Indeed, no one messed with him on or off the field. He was often with girlfri­end­s, and some were stunningly attractive. Yet there he was, spilling out his guts to a coach who could scarcely believe what he was hearing. I wondered to myself, ‘How many other kids have I hurt in that weight room with my inane comments? How many black kids? How many poor kids? How many gay kids?’

            In all likelihood Sam had wanted someone to talk with about his homosexuality for years, but no one was there who would listen without judging, including me. So Sam just lived with his secret and acted “moody.” I tried to cover for my failures by telling Sam to love himself no matter what anyone says or does. He replied, “How can I love myself when ever­yone else hates what I am?” I could not answer his question, and I never got another chance to. He graduated, and God only knows what has happened to him. Perhaps he has learned to love himself or maybe he is still living a lie, a perpetually tormented soul. I sure as hell added to his misery on that day with my inane banter, and there is no way to take that foolishness back. There are some mistakes one cannot atone for. Coaching teaches that you an action taken cannot be undone, either on or off the field.   

            By this time in my coaching career I had stopped drinking and partying. No more all-nighters doing cocaine, no more 3:00 am joy rides at ninety miles per hour, and no more people overdosing in my apartment. Instead, I was studying books and technical papers about weight training methodologies and writing articles that were being published in nationally circulated magazines. I soon got letters asking for advice from all over the United States and the world— South Africa, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, England—even Australi­a. I was becoming respected in the field, both at home and afar. 

            I had long despised the simplistic single-set per exercise training system that was promulgated by the Nautilus Company, so I came out publically against it. I ridicul­ed the methodol­ogy in magazines such as Muscle & Fitness and Muscular Development. At the time, my views were denigrated by some as being antiquated, although mostly by those who didn’t fully understand the physiology and exercise science involved. The battle raged for seven years, before Arthur Jones, the primary proponent of the single set train­ing methodology, publically admitted in the mid-1980s that multiple sets might be beneficial. I had my first real taste of victory in the ongoing battle, a good “I told you so” moment. In the interim, however, I became known as a loose cannon, someone who wantonly violated the expected public decorum of coaches. In coaching, one is expected to be respectful in public forums no matter how one feels about an issue. Alas, I never quite learned that particular lesson, but I’m glad I didn’t! A person who holds his peace will never change anything for the better.

            There came opportunities for me to leave UNH, including one that would have landed me overseas and paid more money than I thought possible. However, I had grown to love UNH, my job, and my athletes, so I stayed put. Some of my fellow coaches believed I had no ambition, but I felt that I had already found nirvana—and my nirvana was a crowded, sweat-smelling weight room located deep within the bowels of UNH’s ambling fieldhouse. Even my parents complained about my remaining at UNH, but I was happy there, despite being paid wages that never exceeded $13,500 per year. Besides, I was still learning from my charges.

            An athlete named “Carl” taught me the value of two-way communication. Carl was a highly recruited lineman who opted to come to UNH because of the school’s vaunted engineering program. He was one of the rare gifted intellectuals who also liked to play football, and the kid was a coach’s dream. He worked hard, he learned instantly, and he got along well with both his coaches and teammates. The coaches and athletes felt Carl had great potential, and he was a joy to work with. Yet everyth­ing wasn’t all light and happiness in Carl’s career. He hurt his ankle in practice during his freshman year, and it didn’t seem to heal. Then he started to lose weight, and the head coach got on me to find out why.

            I sat down with Carl frequently, and we tried to get to the bottom of his dilemma. When I think back on it, our meetings were more a matter of my giving Carl advice rather than listening to him. I advised Carl to eat more, get more rest, work out harder, take more vitamins, etc., etc., etc.. Yet I should have noticed that Carl was telling me things about himself that were important. He told me that he was losing weight despite eating triple servings and that cuts and bruises didn’t seem to be healing well. He also said he was constantly feeling run down and tired.

            Carl told me that the doctors thought he was doing fine, but then he came back from his sophomore year’s semester break weighing only 225 pounds, down twenty pounds from his freshman year. I became very concerned. I saw how hard Carl was working in the weight room, but his strength and size were dwindling away every day. It was scary, and I had no idea what to do. I kept on giving him advice, but nothing I said seemed to help much. Carl was frustrate­d, the head coach was beyond annoyed, and I felt the heat.

            Over spring break Carl started to feel very ill so he went to see his family doctor. The doctor took some blood tests and found out that Carl’s blood sugar count was over eight hundred! He was a severe diabetic and was in rough shape. The endocrinologist Carl saw was amazed that he hadn’t gone in­to diabetic shock, and he was very concerned about the degree of damage that might have been done to Carl’s internal organs. I was told his kidneys and other internal organs may have been severely stressed and the news hit me like a lightening bolt. That kid could have been badly injured or killed by what I regarded as reckless incompetence, and the thought of my personal failure to notice the obvious still eats at me.

            Yes, I felt responsible. I should have been listening more and talking less. After all, diabetes runs in my family, and I was familiar with its symptoms—symptoms that I had utterly failed to see in Carl. I told him how terribly upset I was for my blindness, but Carl was understanding—observing that no one seemed to have noticed. Carl’s ankle injury never healed properly, and he had to have the bones in his foot “frozen” via a surgical procedure. He has to take regular insulin shots now and his future prognosis is uncertain. Carl became the team’s manager and film man, and continued to lift over the coming years.

            He knew how guilty I felt about his medical problems, and once told me, “It wasn’t your fault, Dino. Even my own doctors didn’t know what was up.” Yet I’ll forever wonder if I could have helped him out by noticing more and assuming less. Carl got his degree in engineer­ing. He walks with a limp now, and I look at myself as being one of the reasons for that gait. The key lesson learned was one of accepting personal responsibility. The athletes coaches work with are more than names on a roster. They are our charges, and we owe them the very best we can possibly offer. Anything less is unacceptable and unforgivable.

            The end of my coaching career started with a bang. On July 26, 1985 I went into the weight room and got dropped by a vascular event while picking up some weights that had been left out. It was a traumatic accident, complete with slurred speech and convulsions. Some speciali­sts in Boston said I had bisected a vertebral artery in my neck, and the injury left a number of aftereffects. I couldn’t feel the left side of my body and right side of my face properly and I lost some coordina­tion. I also became plagued by vicious right-sided headache­s. Still, I wanted to continue coaching.

            I coached at UNH for another two years after my injury, but I could no longer lift weights. My headaches became intractable, but I would not give up my career. I had grown to love what I did with a passion that I had never known for anything else. I had also grown to care about my charges above all other things, including my own welfare. Yet I was becoming a liability to athletes due my symptoms, and I was medically discharged in 1988. There was a great chasm where my soul had once grown. Part of me died, and all that was left is a bloated vestige.

            A person who has never coached can little understand the allure and attach­ment the job has to its practitioners. Coaching replaced many of my self-destructive urges with a desire to see my charges improve. I became one with their efforts, hopes, and problems. In return, the athletes gave me a way of living that only coaches can truly under­stand. I soared through the air with a receiver who was leaping to make a spec­tacular one-armed catch. I raced down ice with a winger who scored the break-away goal that put us into the national playoffs. I shed tears after some of the agonizing defeats, lost in a world of utter despair that knew no recourse. I lived experientially as well as vicariously. My life had meaning and depth. I was happy.

            I left my job with profound regrets because I still had a great deal to contribute. Indeed, learning how to give was my most important lesson as a coach. Coaching is all about giving. It’s giving advice, it’s giving concern, and it’s giving love—the latter being by far the most important. Coaches must love their charges every bit as much as they love themselves and their families. Sure, one gets angry or disappointed at a kid from time to time, but in the end, coaches must always want the very best for their charges. I now find myself an unlikely academic, a refugee from the only job I’ve ever had a passion for. I dwell in a pretentious and superficial world wherein one simply doesn’t holler or be demonstrative—which are traits that have no place in the academy. Alas, the required lifestyle simply isn’t me, and I have no real place in higher education. I’ll always miss the clanging of weights and the sights and smells of the weight room. It is a very special place, a place of labor, learning, and love.

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