Final Lessons: Reflecting on Momentary Impact

Now I may be a mean cuss. But I’m the same mean cuss with everybody out there on that football field. The world don’t give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain’t doin’ these kids a favor by patronizing them. You crippling them. You crippling them for life. ~ Coach Boone, Remember the Titans

Begin with the End in Mind

Some people may object to holding up an old school model of very tough coaching, but the premise behind this quote is to point to the central theme of what educational athletics is all about: character development. There are lessons learned in a sporting environment on a team, and the personal physical, mental and emotional challenges that can not be as easily learned in a book. You and I as coaches can become pivotal influential figures in our players lives, or we can pass the responsibility on to someone else. It can’t be emphasized enough that the character issues that get passed along for the sake of short term success have led to crippling, and even fatal results. Recently a young man with whom I had some conflict over his exceedingly bad sportsmanship, passed away. While I have no direct knowledge of how that happened, it creates for me a problem in my imagination. So if I were going to write a fictional story, but one that is true for many it would go like this:

Pure Conjecture, or Inspired Fiction: Come with Me.

The player misbehaved in a way that dishonored the game. His fellow junior tennis players were actually amused and entertained by it. I penalized him, he faced suspension, and had time to reflect on how he wanted to go forward. He, with the help of parents and coaches, shifted his mindset, more towards one of discipline and respect, to match his high level of talent. He would go on to be transformed into a man, who can show the way to younger players. The course of one life changed for the better, and the course of many lives influenced in a ripple effect.

Or this:
I penalized him. His friends and family turned to criticize me. “How could you default your #1 seed?”, “How can he also be defaulted from doubles, that’s not fair.” The local governing body questioned me, placed me under suspicion. I faced political backlash because his influential family didn’t like the decision. His coach held a grudge against me which surfaced later. The governing body saw me more as a maverick who delivered heavy handed judgements.

Or this:
I met him earlier, his father became very angry with me when, I gave him a code violation and a little talk when he was 8 years old. The governing body does not condone the little talk. The father was so livid he was on the edge of violence and used language that called for me to give him a hasty ejection in addition to defaulting his son. As a result, he went home talked to his wife, who then corrected him. The father calmed down, and the player 10 years later won sportsmanship awards. The father saw me later and apologized. A great friendship ensued.

Helping Plot the Course, The Power of an Outside Influence

The way it ends is that this player is dead. Far be it from me to assume anything about how this may have lead to that, but in the wisdom of King Solomon regarded as among the wisest men to have ever lived, “Train up a child in the way they should go, and they will not depart from it.” Which, of course is a general statement, that is not 100% true from the standpoint that, people won’t make mistakes and go off course, but more in helping these youngsters in our charge find a real true north that they can be directed toward. The above fictions are actually bits and pieces of the reality of a couple different real life situations that occurred with this player and with others. So, while rightly, people mourn the loss of a talented young man, let’s take the somber lesson very seriously.

A Wide Range of Outcomes, but Neglect is Neglect

Now short of death, there are also issues that relate to integrity. Consider a worst case. Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL Pro-Bowl Tight End; how did he become so violent, or was he always? Now we know the full tragedy. How did he pass through the hands of so many coaches and no one confronted him on his issues, and why is this type of violence condoned in that sport? I’m sure that if I had been in contact with him in my lifetime in a meaningful way, I would have to take stock of whether I had helped or hurt him. I heard a high school football coach at one of the schools where I coached tennis state matter of factly and as a sort of mantra, “Football is a violent sport.” This all to rationalize and justify violent people. There are way too many violent football players at all levels of the game. Just as there are too many cheaters, and those who use gamesmanship in tennis. The coaches who condone, or look the other way, or encourage cheating in a ‘dog eat dog’ mentality are crippling their players, and crippling the sport from which they hope to profit. I would have said ‘the sport they love’, but they don’t love the sport. Those that condone, allow, teach and/or encourage gamesmanship are focused only on results on the scoreboard and not the longer term health of the person, or the sport.

Setting Up The Why, for Next Week’s What and How

This week we are setting up the problem of character in sports, bringing the focus squarely into the tennis arena. In next weeks blog we are going to dive deeply into developing a program, a team, and/or a family system for sports that is based on developing a love of the game, the lessons that come with it, and a desire to seize on the full measure of character development that comes with it. I want to thank the coach es that called me this week, so we could talk about better outcomes for players. Also, developing a deft and expert touch in the arena of providing consistent limits, while also working with players as individuals on a case by case basis, can transform our programs. As we progress, our sports programs can be sources of character development and a foundation for a lifetime of success in many endeavors.

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