Throwing in the Dark

Have you ever been in a dark place? I mean in a really, really dark place? The kind of dark place where you cannot see your hand in front of your face? Now imagine that someone has hung a dartboard in this pitch dark room, handed you a dart and told you to hit the bull’s eye. Impossible, right?

I think the same can be said about coaching. As we try to lead those under our direction, it sometimes feels like we are simply aiming at hidden targets placed on hidden walls in poorly lit rooms. At times, if we are lucky, we will hit the mark, but more times than not, we miss the target and miss it badly.

As a coach, I often feel like I am aiming at invisible targets. Although I try to connect, inspire, and influence my players to not only be the best they can be on the field, but also to be the very best people off of it, I find that many times that I am very inconsistent in my results.

However, in my 25 years of coaching high school and collegiate athletes, I have found that if you take the time to get to know the person and more specifically, get to know their stories, the darkness that seems to surround everything is lifted as light is brought into the room.

Every person has a story and these stories are powerful and specifically unique to us. And knowing the stories of those we lead helps peel back some of the mystery of their lives and will help guide us as we seek to direct them. Stories allows us to connect at a deeper level and will give coaches great insight into who they lead, what motivate them, and the best way to influence them in a positive way.

Just the other day in my coaching, I lost an opportunity to impact a young boy because I did not take the time to get to know his story. Marcos is a ten year old boy who plays on my under 10 soccer team. Now, Marcos is a wonderful player, well ahead of many boys his age. Outside of his technique, vision, athleticism, and intellectual understanding of the game, one of Marcos’ greatest strengths is his competitive fire. Marcos wants to win and he wants to win all the time. Whether it is in a serious competition or in a simple training exercise, Marcos always wants to be on top. As a coach, we always love players like this and hope that all our players can learn the inner fire of competition.

But there is a dark side to having a strong competitive streak and that dark side can rear its head in dirty tackles, poor self-control, and the berating of teams, opposing players, referees, and spectators alike.

One day at practice, young, innocent George came running over to me with tears in his eyes after just suffering a verbal barrage from Marcos. Seeing the lost innocence in George’s eyes for having to hear several profanities infuriated me and I immediately gathered the boys together and confronted the whole team (and specifically Marcos) for the use of foul language. Upon hearing my personal rebuke, Marcos, simply sat straight down in the huddle and cried.

Seeing Marcos’ reaction, I immediately knew that I blew it. The teachable moment for the whole team and for Marcos was lost because I had come down too hard on Marcos. This was not my first run in with Marcos. During the season I had opposing parents tell me that I needed to restrain Marcos as they overheard something he said on the field. Referees cautioned him for everything from bad language to trying to intimidate opponents. Each and every time I reacted to him sternly and told him that his behavior was not acceptable—and each time I did, the distance between me and Marcos seemed to widen.

As the season wrapped up, rumors began to swirl about what players were going to what teams and most of the rumors surrounded Marcos’ future. To be honest, with all I had to deal with Marcos I was more than ready to pass him and all the headaches that came with him to the another team in the club.

Marcos and his family were noticeably absent from the season ending team party. Later that night, I received a call from Marcos’ mom. As we talked, she quickly got straight to the point and said that Marcos would not be returning to the team. And then she told me her story.

Marcos was born to her when she was only 13 years old. Due to their age, she and Marcos’ biological father really didn’t have many options. They were simply too young to get married and getting an apartment and living together as early teens wasn’t an option. So she moved in with her mom and raised Marcos. Years later she got married and now as a 23 year old mom of a ten year old boy, she and her husband are struggling through life and struggling with the raising of Marcos. She fully admitted that Marcos is hard to handle and that he had a lot of “anger issues” but that they were trying their best to work with him. She shared with me that she felt that Marcos needed to move on to another team, not because of the level of the team, or because he wanted to play with a different coach. She said that they were leaving because of some hurtful things that our own parents of our players had said to Marcos and his mom and step-dad. “Why doesn’t Marcos pass the ball more?” “Why can’t he control himself and stop yelling at the boys?” “I think we would be better without Marcos.”

After our conversation, I was genuinely thankful for an opportunity to talk with Marcos’ mom. I was thankful that she felt comfortable enough to give me a glimpse into where Marcos comes from and why he is the way he is. But I could not help but feel a strong sense of regret in not taking the time to get to know Marcos’ story earlier. My regret increased when I thought back to how I had handled him in all of the confrontations that I had had with him. Had I known his story, I would have done and said things very differently.

If we, as coaches, do not take the time to know the story of those we lead, chances are that the way we lead that particular person will be poor, at best. Because if we do not know the story of those under our direction, we can only guess at how we can handle a certain situation.

Generally, when we deal with a person, we will automatically deal with that person within the context of OUR story. My oldest son is also on the same team with Marcos and if I am honest with myself, I dealt with Marcos as if I were dealing with my own son. In some ways this is good, because like my son, I wanted Marcos to mature, to know what is acceptable and unacceptable, and how to begin to control one’s emotions. However, Marcos’ story is not my son’s story and to treat Marcos within the same context as I view my own son is simply wrong and poor coaching at best.

Taking the time to get to know the story of each of our players will greatly enhance our ability to coach them. If we do not have the knowledge to place the individuals under our guidance within the context of their own story, our coaching will only be like throwing in the dark.

Philip H. Wolf is a guest blogger for LSI. He's currently the Head Men's Soccer Coach at Point Loma University and previously was the Assistant Men's Soccer Coach at Southern Methodist University.

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