Sometimes coaches are so intent that the only way to help an athlete improve is to provide constructive criticism of the competitor’s technique. Effective coaches, however, will also understand how emotion influences an athlete’s performance. Often just the right words or look or wink, can have a greater impact than any explanation of what an athlete should do to improve his skill.
Dad was a coach who often found the means to tap into emotions to take an athlete from utter despair to exciting triumph, from choking to finding calm and focus. He was a coach who could help an athlete get into the zone. He probably had no idea the lives he changed and the lessons he taught to athletes throughout his lifetime because he understood that sports was as much about emotions as it was about mastering a skill.
One young teenager he touched was a freshman at Windsor High School in the early 1950′s the first year Dad began teaching. Because Dad had played semi-pro baseball, he was asked to coach the baseball team. Among the boys trying out was a fourteen year old freshman. I don’t know his name, but after more than fifty years had passed, he stopped at the house where I grew up and told my sister this story: (by this time, both my Mom and Dad had passed away and my sister, Marilyn, was living in the house where we had grown up).
As a youngster, this young man loved baseball. He looked up to the juniors and seniors who obviously would make up the varsity team. As a freshman, he couldn’t wait to try out for the team. Not only did he make the baseball team, but, much to his surprise, he also made varsity. He told my sister that our Dad must have been impressed with his skills, although this young man had doubts that his ability was comparable to the upperclassmen.
To top that off, in the first game, this youngster had a key batting position. He said he didn’t remember if he was batting third or fourth, but those are where a coach wants his best hitters. The first time up, he struck out. All his doubts surfaced about whether he deserved to be on varsity. He did not want to let the team down. His second at bat, he got out again. This time he was discouraged and overwhelmed. The last thing he wanted to do was to let the team down when they were counting on him.
He walked back to the bench and sat down at the far end where none of his teammates were sitting. With shoulders slumped and head in his hands, he felt like he didn’t deserve to be on varsity and certainly shouldn’t be batting where he was. As he sat there feeling discouraged, defeated, overwhelmed, and hopeless, Dad came over and sat down next to him.
As a coach, what do you say? Do you talk about technique?
What this man told my sister was that he doesn’t remember a whole lot about what was said. But he does remember that the first thing Dad said to him was, “Do you like baseball?” He doesn’t recall if he said anything in return, but what Dad said next was, “because it doesn’t look like you do.” He doesn’t recall the rest of the conversation, but he said, the next time he got up to bat, he hit a home run!
Dad was able to transform his inner climate, to change how he felt inside by simply reminding him how much he loved to play baseball. An athlete who feels overwhelmed, discouraged, defeated, and hopeless will not be able to perform, no matter what skills he has mastered. Not until a competitor experiences joy, love of the game, excitement, and a joie de vivre, will he be able to find that place of calm focus where home runs come easily.