Sunday, August 9, 2009
I can still vividly recall one of the most instrumental moments of motivation in my life. This epiphany occurred in May, 1984, just after the end of spring football practice at East Carolina University, in Greenville, NC, where I was attending school and trying to be a student athlete.
I began practice listed as a 3rd team offensive tackle, both left and right side, on the big depth chart that hung in the locker room. However, as pads began to crack that first week, guys started dropping like flies from various injuries. Suddenly, four practices in to spring ball, I was running first team tackle. I wasn’t ready for that, and I spent the rest of spring practice getting my ass kicked up and down the field. The situation seemed dismal. Shortly after the spring game the semester ended, and we were required to have an “exit” meeting with Coach Emory before we left Greenville for the summer.
I parked my 77 Dodge Aspen, packed to the gills with stuff, in front of the field house. Grades were in, the semester was in the books; I was heading home to Pa. for a week, and then down to Sea Isle City, N.J. to work as a bouncer at the La Costa Lounge. The only thing standing between me and the start of one of the greatest summers of my life was that final meeting with Coach Emory. I walked into his office for my 10:00 a.m. appointment. He sat behind his large desk, beefy paws folded in front of him, and I knew he was waiting to tear into me. I remember like it was yesterday.
“Ahhh, Alexander”, said Coach E., “Son, we brought ya’ down here from Penn-za-vein-ya to play some football, and, ahhh… all you’ve done for three years is play with yourself.”
Conversation with Coach E was always an adventure. He had a deep South Carolina low country drawl, and he also had a speech impediment; you had to listen really hard to make out what you knew were English words. I could see he was just getting warmed up, and the flush of anger rising from his neck to his face and head was turning his tan skin beet red. Veins began to bulge and throb. He continued.
“Three hots and a cot! That’s all you want from East Carolina University, son, three hots and a cot! Ahhh…you know what, son? There’s only one thing worse thana damn Yankee. You know what that is, son?
“No sir,” I squeaked.
Coach popped up from his chair, like one of those fake snakes springing from a can—a quick and deft move for a man of his size and stature, and pounded his fist repeatedly on the desk.
“Ahhh goddamn Yankee! A goddamn Yankee! That’s the only thing worse than a damn Yankee! Son, you’re playin’ football like a goddamn Yankee!”
He sat back down and glared at me for a moment, breathing heavily. Then, slowly and deliberately, still eying me, Coach reached into his right desk drawer, obviously a ritual repeated thousands of times in his life, and without looking, pulled out a yellow legal pad and a red maker, and slammed them both on the desk. Casting a final scowl in my general direction, his eyes turned downward to the blank page.
Coach began writing and speaking at the same time, in his deep South Carolina drawl, as he scribbled words across the page.
“Iaah… will…take Ahh-lex-zan-der’s skaa-laa-ship ahhh-way…” His eyes shot up at me for a split second, beady blue bulges boring burning holes through my skull—letting me know, with no room for doubt, he wasn’t joking around…and then he continued.
“…ahhh, if he doz-ent com-peat! Sigh-nd, ahhh, Ed H. Em-o-ry.”
He finished with a flourish, and threw the pen down on the desk. Then, Coach ripped off the yellow sheet, jagged at the top edge, shoved it across the desk at me, and spoke his final words.
“Ahhh, son, you have a nice summer. See you in August.”
That was vintage Coach E. He was unpretentious, honest, and passionate about football, life, and “his boys”. You could always count on Coach to let you know exactly where he stood, and…. where you stood as well. He was a player’s coach.
In my work, both at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), and as a member of the Paideia National Faculty, I find myself spending large chunks of time thinking about, writing about, identifying, and discussing the nature and concept of “Coaching” in the classroom. This includes coaching not only in English Language Arts classrooms, but also in all curricular areas, K-12.
Honestly, the concept of “coaching” students rather than simply talking at them, or to them, did not click with me until the second year of my classroom-teaching career. Early in the second semester, spring 1989, I began learning more about the Paideia style of teaching and learning. In this model of instruction, coaching students accounts for 60-70% of what happens in the classroom. While there is room for lecture and didactic instruction, it cannot dominate because it deprives of the opportunity to build relationships with students. Therefore, with that pedagogical revelation, I have since tried to transfer and apply what I have learned on the athletic fields as a filter to shape my work as a teacher, learner, and consultant. After all, coaching is what got me here.
Obviously, the word “coach” conjures up different images and ideas for each individual, but I would guess that largely, the first thing folks envision or imagine would be the archetypal athletic coach. Perhaps the picture is of one who coached them long ago, maybe the P.E. teacher, whistle round the neck, clipboard in hand, the list goes on, but you get the point. Somewhere, along the line, coaches, both good and bad, have influenced us while we hustle our way through life. The good ones become icons for us, and sometimes, we just prefer to forget the bad coaches.
So, what makes a good coach? We all have our own ideas based on our life experiences, but we can probably agree that good coaches do not do just one thing well. Rather, they perform multiple operations simultaneously and successfully. Think about this short list: Coaches motivate, demonstrate, critique, cajole, implore, rouse, and they communicate frequently and consistently with feedback for improvement. The really good coaches know exactly when to pat you on the back, and they seem to know exactly when you need a high-quality, swift kick in the ass. A truly great coach inherently knows how and when to balance tough love, all the time maintaining benevolent drill sergeant status, part-psychological mastermind, and for me, an inspiring and motivating father figure.
My Dad died in 1970 from wounds he received in Vietnam. I was only six; my parents had been divorced for three years, but I knew I had a dad, though I couldn’t tell you what that meant, nor can I ever really remember physically being in his presence. Later, when I was seven, my mom remarried. From that point on, I could tell you what a stepfather was, yet I inherently knew it wasn’t the same as a dad, and truth be told, my stepdad was not very comfortable with me, nor did he like the idea of being called “Dad.” We even tried it once for a day when I was around eight years old, and I vividly remember him pronouncing, by about two or three in the afternoon of day one, that “This Dad stuff is for the birds.” So much for that…
Now, as I look back at those days in life, it is easy to see that the relationships I pursued and forged with many of my athletic coaches from the age of eight or so on, really were quests to connect in some way, form, or fashion with men and father figures, and ultimately, my own father. My coaches were really the first teachers instructing me in “manly arts”, things of importance to a little kid without a father, and thus, that makes them really, my first teachers. However, I had to deal with my mother first. She was the real hurdle to me playing sports, and we had legendary arguments over the topic.
I was born to hit people on the gridiron, not baseballs on the diamond, but my over protective mom would never let me play football in my younger days. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. Football, in the Coal Regions of Pa., is still king. Even in a small town like Frackville, you could start playing full contact football around the 3rd grade in the Pee Wee League. We would argue about this topic incessantly. Her reasons, to me, were meaningless.
“Robert, you’ll break your braces…”
“But Ma, they have special mouth pieces for braces! Bill D has braces and he plays!”
“Robert, you’ll break your glasses…”
“But Ma, they have special glasses, plus there’s a facemask on the helmets! They’re not leather like they were in your day.”
“Robert, you’ll break your leg…”
“But Ma, …”
However, and God only knows why, she did let me play baseball, but I was awful at that sport. And so it would go, year after year, from 3rd through 8th grade…me a big, gangly, poindexter-looking geek, with Buddy Holly specs and braces, sitting on my green Schwinn Stingray, watching all my pals practicing and playing football half a block from my house.
Finally, as my mom realized that she couldn’t hold me back any longer, I cut the cord, and began to play football in eighth grade. That was the key to letting me discover what I could do with myself, and I was lucky enough to have a successful athletic career that extended beyond high school and into college. Most importantly, during those days of my life, I was lucky enough to be mentored by some monumental men who taught me about toughness, not just physical toughness, but mental toughness and the value of discipline. The best of them were master motivators; something that I believe is a key ingredient in coaching, both on the fields and in the classrooms. Of these masters, there was one man who ranks at the top of my hierarchy, Ed H. Emory, my head coach at East Carolina University, from 1982-1984.
To make a long story short, I returned to East Carolina for the 1984 season, and I did compete. In fact, I made the traveling team and played in all eleven games that fall. Sadly, because Coach E. had a habit of doing things “my way or Trailways” style at ECU, it cost him his job at the end of that season. However, I will never forget his motivation, drive, and determination, and most importantly, the way he coached me. I still have that jagged edged leaf of yellow legal paper with scrawled red writing.
The reach, influence, and lessons of a good coach can survive far beyond the time you put in on the practice and playing fields; it has the potential to last a lifetime. We all have a coach inside us, and we should always be willing to take the time to help people practice for success, no matter what our profession or office in life. These relationships are not always rainbows and butterflies; sometime coaching means being honest and tough. However, when it comes to the classroom, great things can happen when a teacher coaches rather than just “delivers” a lesson.
Unbelievably, one other thing I learned from Coach Emory was how to let myself be loved. . I have to admit, I loved this man. He would often say, “Ahhh, if I can’t put my hands on ya, I can’t coach ya. I’m jus’ showing ya I love ya.” Knowing that he was showing me “love” helped ease the pain I experienced each time he jerked my by the face mask when I missed a block in practice. It felt good to be loved. Tough-loved.