A tribute to the strength of coaches
It has been said that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. Two undeniable and highly visible characteristics of great coaches are their indelible courage and inner strength.
All aspects and categories of the coaching profession embody an emotional collage of excitement, challenges, surging highs, deep lows, physically and mentally demanding work, and the constant anticipation for what lies ahead. And, as we all know, there is the suffocating time commitment and strain on our families.
In this edition of Powerline, I would like to deviate from the Xs and 0s of strength and conditioning and pay tribute to you, the coaches who have such a profound impact on student-athletes, schools and communities in so many ways. I guess you could say this isn’t about strength coaches — it’s about the strength of coaches.
Coaches can reach deep into their memories and pick at least one coach who had a tremendous influence in their lives. And it goes far beyond Xs and Os or coaching style. Influential coaches always seem to have a mission that truly matters.
As a player, there may have been more than one occasion when you questioned what you were doing and nearly threw in the towel. Even through those difficult times, it may have been that one coach who you believed in and who really cared about you and your life outside of sports that kept you going. You learned that if everyone could just stay the course, keep working through the adversity, and rolled-up their sleeves with grit for the same cause, great things could be accomplished.
This is the true essence of leadership: Influencing human behavior, bringing everyone together for a common cause, delegating responsibility, taking ownership of the program, and working with a purpose. As coaches, this is what we aspire to be.
Honor, integrity and dedication
Not everyone in our profession has high honor, integrity or professional ethics. But this isn’t about them. They know who they are, and so does everyone else. I’m speaking here about the truly good people, the overwhelming majority who makes a positive difference every day. It’s about the men and women who give honor, dignity, integrity and class to the term coach.
It’s about coaches who are great ambassadors for athletics, those who bring an unbelievable work ethic and positive attitude to their craft. To those who are wonderful role models for our kids, which is the most important trait of all.
We are celebrating the mentally tough and ethical coaches who don’t get caught-up in the hype, fluff and hordes of peripheral nonsense that have no substance and serve only to strangle the true meaning of athletics. This is about special people who shine with great character in their personal and professional lives, those who are totally committed to their game and are unconditionally loyal to those they serve and represent.
These are people who balance their own family lives with the challenges, strife and long hours to the very best of their abilities. And, of course, it’s a tribute to those family members who know it isn’t easy. Yet they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their love and support, through the good times and the bad. They are the husbands, wives, children, grandchildren and extended family that truly matter and contribute in so many unheralded, unnoticed ways to the person who is their beloved head coach.
A life of courage
Most coaches I know are courageous with strong ideals, a never-say-die approach to motivating young people, and continually fighting the good fight to inspire their athletes to do the right things. When negativism surfaces from critics, it only stokes their competitive fires to burn brighter.
And during times when wins are hard to come by, they find a way to rise above it all and have their finest hour. Why do they do these things? It’s simple: They never lose sight of their true purpose. Courageous coaches always have a vision of those kids who are looking for guidance, support, inspiration and a game plan for success. Those are the really important things they can take with them and use as long as they live. And the great coaches place those above all else.
In short, courageous coaches have hearts that are built for others. I encourage all of you to keep living each day with the expressed goal, motivation and enthusiasm to do what is right, rather than what is the easiest or most convenient, and to instill that courage in your athletes.
Respect and trust
Great coaches know that the basic construct of leadership is underpinned with respect and trust. Without this vital foundation, your team doesn’t stand a chance. Eventually, it will crumble under the stress of adversity — and adversity is inevitable.
It’s in these times that you dig deep for what really holds you together, and when everything else slips out of your grasp, know that you can latch-on to respect and trust. As you know, earning respect and trust from your athletes, and having them earn your respect and trust in return, will come only after all parties have walked the walks of both hardship and success.
The substance of success goes largely unnoticed, because it is almost always built in small, inconspicuous steps. Respect and trust also come about the same way, and they don’t come easy. That’s why we value them. Everyone involved must use both hands to build them, and when the job is completed, they become the common thread that binds the heart and soul of the team.
Young people will follow a leader whose vision inspires them and adds meaning to their lives. Your athletes look to you as being a difference maker. You are there to help them clear a path to success. They want something better; they’re just not quite sure how to get there.
You can make a difference in their lives. If I could leave you with a final word of encouragement, it would be to let you know how important you are in so many aspects of these young people’s lives. You may be the closest, strongest, most prominent representation of parental figures some of them will ever know. You may be the first one they call when they need advice, counseling or a shoulder to cry on. In times of real adversity in their lives, they may call on you to give them the strength they need to see it through. And you may be the one they will forever thank for coming into their lives and providing the direction they so desperately needed.
To some, you may even be the one they will say saved their life. These young athletes want, need and crave structure and discipline with compassion. They yearn for positive role models. Sure, they may not admit it now, but eventually they will. Just look closely into their eyes, and you will see it.
Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.