The Coach's Clinic
by Bruce Biesenthal
He stands on the sideline, holding a clipboard. She gathers her players around her, offering instructions and encouragement. He sits in the dugout, scanning the line-up card, looking up and down his bench.
They're coaches and managers. They make game-time decisions, line-up changes, and game-plans. And while they're judged primarily on the wins and losses of their team, their job is so much more than simply X's and O's, strategy and play design. In some ways, their success is measured not in wins and losses, but in character development and the growth of their athletes as individuals.
Almost 90% of coaches and managers are volunteers sometimes dads and moms, sometimes former athletes, sometimes some who simply love the sport, people who might also happen to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, bus drivers, technicians, or stay at home types without whom youth sports could not exist at the level they currently do. Even on the volunteer level, a coach can feel significant pressure. There are expectations, perhaps not of fans or ownership, but of parents whether those expectations are in terms of wins and losses, or the playing time of their child.
Move the scene to the university or professional level, and the consequence of not meeting expectations can increase exponentially. While coaching at West Virginia University, Bobby Bowden, now coach at Florida State University, experienced the dissatisfaction of the West Virginia fans.
"It was my only losing year," says Bowden. "We were 4 and 7 and the people were trying to fire me. They were getting up committees and having meetings. It was the lowest point of my career. I learned something that year. I learned that when you're winning, everybody loves you, but start losing and when you look around for your friends, most of them are gone. The next year we won 9, went to a bowl game and won that. And the following year, the Florida State job opened up, and I took it."
With the focus of success placed on winning and losing, and being subject to the sometimes fickle feelings of fans, what would cause someone to want to be a coach?
For some, it's no less than a divine calling.
Cliff McCrath, soccer coach at Seattle Pacific University for the last 32 years, whose teams have been in the NCAA Division II finals 15 times, winning 5 of the 10 title games they played, says, "This has been my calling. I couldn't have painted it better than if I had all the artists of the world."
"I was dared into going out for soccer by my roommate, an All-American basketball player from Texas who was going out to play soccer just to get in shape. A week after trying out, we were both starting and didn't come out for three years."
"In the spring of my senior year, our coach addressed 7 of us who were graduating, 3 of whom were All-Americans, and told us he was going on sabbatical. I didn't even know what a sabbatical was. I said, Coach, who's going to coach next year?' already feeling sorry for whoever was stuck with the leftover athletes, and he said, You are.'"
"I was a new Christian, and I had spent hours of great anguish and turmoil searching out God's will. I was feeling certain pressure points that I should be in the mission field, or preaching. But I was led to coach. This is something to which I have been called. This is my mission field. And it's been a fairy tale ever since."
Those coaches who feel called to their profession seem to measure success in more than wins and losses. They look at character. In fact, when asked what the function of a coach is, John Wooden, legendary coach at UCLA, replied, "The function of a coach is to teach those under his or her supervision to be better people, as well as better athletes. If the focus is only on wins and losses, it will hurt the athlete later on."
Wooden attributes his unparalleled coaching success as much to the character development of his players as to the focus on X's and O's. "X's and O's, the diagramming of plays and the development of athletic ability and skill certainly has a place," he says, "but my players never heard me mention winning. I never talked about beating someone else. I always felt that the score was a product of preparation, and part of the preparation is developing the peace of mind needed to be able to function at your level of competency.
"I told my players they should never try to be better than someone else. They should simply never cease trying to be the best they can be, in every sense. If you get too concerned and engrossed in things over which you have no control it has an adverse effect on the things over which you do have control.
"It's extremely important that you show the athletes under your supervision that you are interested in them as individuals, not just as athletes. Show that interest, let them know you care, and you discover it makes them better athletes. It gives them a better sense of peace within themselves, and with that sense of peace, they perform better."
Defensive Backfield Coach at Texas Tech University, Dave Brown, former pro football player and Assistant Defensive Backfield Coach with the Seattle Seahawks from 1992-1998, talks about the importance of the character development of athletes under the tutelage of a coach.
"You can have serious influence on the character development of players," says Brown. "It's how you carry yourself. It's something they need to see in you, because what you do will speak so loudly they won't need to hear what you say. When you walk the walk, then you can talk the talk."
That's a sentiment echoed by John Wooden, who says, "You can't get it across in words. They have to see it in action. They have to see that the leader has faith and isn't blaming someone else. They have to see that the leader believes everything will come out the way it should, maybe not the way you'd like it, but the way it should, and then does whatever is necessary to make it a reality. They have to see faith in action. They need models more than critics."
And what is it that brings joy to the heart of a coach? Wins? Championships? Of course. But there's more to it. Bobby Bowden talks about seeing miracles.
"I see miracles happen every day that a person without faith would never see. When I see lives changed from terrible to servitude, that's a miracle. God is still performing miracles. And the thing that has greatest impact on me is watching a young man change from being out of the reach of God to being in His arms."
Cliff McCrath prepares for each soccer season by asking God to give him the 24 men He wants him to work with. McCrath begins his opening welcome to each team by saying, "If you think this is just about soccer, go home now."
"My door is always open", he says. "People come in to talk about life and things beyond this life. I've seen life-changing things take place. And that's the real joy. Sometimes you just sow the seed, and the Holy Spirit brings the harvest 10 years down the road. It's about love. You teach them tough love. You put your arms around them, let them know you're there for them, but let them know they have to give of themselves, multiply themselves. And you watch the changes happen."
John Wooden, regarded by some as the most successful coach of all time, in any sport, follows a different definition of success than wins and championships. He recites a poem he learned long ago.
"At God's footstool to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
I failed,' he cried. But the Master said, Thou didst thy best
That is success.'"