More than a Game - December 14, 2021
Value Added Coaching
Good coaches train for results; great coaches train to impact people! The difference between them is not so much in their head knowledge but in their heart’s desire. Great coaches desire to impact people because they understand the infinite worth of a human soul. This directs all that they say and do when dealing with players. It is a passion within them that rivals that of a parent for their child.
Once this is understood it changes everything about them as a coach. It guides how they teach the game of tennis. It energizes why they coach the game. Most importantly it gives meaning to everything that they do both on and off the court.
Until a coach understands the infinite value of a human being, his heart will be unchanged. He will coach only with his head. This means that all other aspects of coaching will rise above his heart; like hot air climbing to the top of a balloon. Money, notoriety, job security or student accomplishments will take center stage for all that these good coaches desire from their career.
Many coaches are successful, in the common terms of our day. They are driven by a deep desire to achieve. However the key is that success defines them and winning defines success. Everyone and anything that helps them achieve this is simply a commodity to be sold, purchased or used for this one purpose. They may tell you otherwise but deep down inside, winning is the key.
I recently came across a letter that had a profound impact on me. The letter is written to a school teacher but it could just as well be written to a tennis teacher. The author’s message would be the same today to any educator or coach that instructs or trains our youth. The author of the letter writes:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.
The first time that I read this letter I was stunned; upon the second reading his message stuck with me throughout the day. If nothing else these words must force us to ask some hard questions as educators. One of those questions is, “What makes a great coach (teacher)?”
The Road Less Traveled
It took me almost 25 years as a coach to discover this answer. Originally I defined my proficiency as a coach by my success as a player—great players are great coaches. Later I decided that top coaches are known by the list of top players they have coached—great coaches produce great players. Next I moved on to developing my own system of teaching the game—successful teaching pros each have their own unique teaching systems.
It seemed every couple years something new seemed to redefine me and energize my coaching. Yet ultimately each new theory would eventually let me down. Until one day after practice I asked one of my high school students casually, “How are you doing?” This was my way of being polite, not really expecting an answer. However he gave me a passionate reply. “BAD!” As he told me this he started to cry, declaring how bad things were at home. I had no idea.
We talked for about 10 minutes before my next lesson. The rest of the day his home life continued to consume my thoughts. He was going through so much at home and this put a perspective on his play that day. I called him later the next week to meet for dinner, to let him know that he mattered to me. That dinner would set up a lasting friendship for the next 5 years.
Value Added Coaching
People matter! Once this was understood it changed me as a coach. Kids were human beings first and tennis students second. They were human beings who crossed my path through the game of tennis; they were people just like me. They had family lives, social lives and circumstances that all impacted who they were. Some were from wealthy families, some were insecure, some were talented and some had tennis forced on them by their parents. Each life mattered; they had a story to tell and I had an opportunity to make a difference in their life that day.
The better that this was understood the more important my coaching became. Knowing the significance of your job impacts the importance of your job. Young minds and hearts are easily swayed, for the better or for the worse, as they grow up. What is taught to them matters a great deal because it is forming their personality, their character and their passions as they develop. Therefore coaches and teachers play a critical role in the character formation of their students. It is this character formation that makes their jobs so vital to our society.
Kids are more likely to listen to coaches and obey them if they know the coach cares about them. Therefore I sought out ways to show my players that they were valuable to me. My actions towards them would be the key ingredient in revealing this to them. Anything that I could do to increase this understanding would be essential to my job. Therefore conversations would be directed towards them and not me. Listening to them was important, correcting wrong thinking mattered or simply just encouraging them on a tough day was now worthwhile.
Birthdays gave me a reason to send them a card reflecting their value to me. I made it a point to attend all high school graduations, as best as I could, when my students invited me. I tried to stay in touch with them when they left my program. All of these were ways that I could show them that they mattered to me. They were human beings and this alone made them infinitely valuable.
A Lasting Legacy
Six years ago our club celebrated its 100th anniversary. Each department head was interviewed for a book to be written on our club history. When it was my turn to be interrogated I was asked a standard set of questions about my role at the club; they were typical scripted questions. All of a sudden out of nowhere the question was asked, “What do you want your legacy to be when you are done teaching tennis?” I was dumbfounded … good question … this question had never occurred to me before.
That question forced me to think long and hard about how my job was done. My legacy would be formed by the people that knew me. The opinions that they had of me would come from the information that I provided for them; the information that they had would result from the life that I lived before them. My character mattered more than my income; how the students were taught and what they were taught mattered more than their ranking. The life that I lived before them became much more critical once long term thinking took over.
Studies show that next to parents and peers, coaches and classroom teachers are the third most influential group of people in teenagers’ lives. What you do becomes just as important as what you say. Coaches and teachers impact kids and can make a great difference in their lives, it is just that simple. There is no job that is more rewarding than teaching kids and no job more vital to our future than coaching them.
Two years ago my then 12 year old daughter was diagnosed with bone cancer. The news devastated our family and tested me to the outer limits as a parent. Yet walking through this valley, where death stares you in the face would time and time again substantiate my coaching worldview. Hearing players complain about their tennis games was contrasted to the life and death world of cancer. What was really important in life became crystal clear to me, PEOPLE.
Everything took a backseat to her cancer. The time that was spent with her and the rest of my family became central to all that was done. There was less worry about little things in my job and more focus on the people in my job. This new focus enabled me to still smile and laugh because my time with them mattered too. This was not detachment from my daughter’s cancer but rather a continuing attachment to it by refocusing on and impacting the people that were in my tennis program.
In the coming months our family came in contact with many other families suffering from cancer. They treated us with great kindness, respect and compassion—we treated them the same way. We cared about these people because we shared a common bond, cancer. We did not need to know anything about them outside of that their child had cancer. This bond connected us to complete and total strangers, in a way that nothing else ever could. The game of tennis can create similar types of bonds.
There was also a difference in the way doctors and nurses treated my daughter. Some treated her as “a patient,” distant and detached in all that they did. Conversely others treated her as “a human being” a living soul of greatest value. They all gave her the best of care, doing what needed to be done; but there was a big difference in how they did it.
The first group did their job and moved on. They made their rounds and moved on to the next patient. The other group was personal, involved and warmhearted. You could tell the difference the minute they walked into the room. They befriended her; they engaged her in conversation, told her about themselves and went the extra mile to do all that they could for her. They spent extra time doing the little things and these little things made all the difference in the world.
In those dark days, how the hospital personnel did their job mattered a great deal to us. Today my daughter goes back to talk to some of those nurses when she goes back to the hospital; they made that much of an impact on her. She has good memories of them even though she was fighting for her life. They are considered friends to her, even though the circumstances they met under were very trying.
Knowledge or Compassion
We too can make the same difference in our player’s lives. We just have to know the opportunity we are given and the great value of the players that we are coaching. When we understand that the value of a person is far greater than the value of a trophy your heart will be touched. When your heart is touched your whole coaching career will be changed.
Great coaches impact people! The impact that they have is a byproduct of who they are and what is most valuable to them. The players that they teach are the main reason that they coach tennis. When you reflect back on a teacher or coach that impacted your life for the better, what was it that marked them out? What was it about them and how they treated you that made them special?
John Maxwell once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He is right! The reason we care is because of the immeasurable worth of a person … once you know this, it changes everything that you do!