He was the fourth or fifth coach I called.
I was asking high school coaches if they could really change the behavior of their teenage players.
Could they keep them from swearing? Could they keep them from cutting class or cheating? Could they keep them from drinking or doing drugs?
Could they convince them that working hard in a weight room and in a classroom will pay dividends that far exceed a scoreboard — even when they were losing games?
The first couple of coaches I called said they felt like they could influence some players most of the time. But real change, well, that’s something that comes from an individual, and that might be asking too much of a part-time coach.
But Bobby Porter had no doubt when the tide began to shift.
He was unequivocal. Of course he could help young people change. Of course he could influence their behavior.
In fact, he said, coaches held a special power.
“We want what they have,” he said.
After that, every coach I called echoed his opinion — coaches were powerful, sometimes the most powerful influence on a child’s life.
Most of us like to think of sports as entertainment. They’re a diversion, a break from the harsh realities of life. They are dessert — nice to have but not necessary.
But for many young people, sports are not superfluous.
The games are where they learn how to compete in life. The gridiron teaches them the necessity of teamwork, and the basketball court teaches them how discipline will reap greater rewards than impulsivity can ever provide.
A coach can change a child’s perception of hard work, of competition, and maybe most importantly, of themselves.
In nearly two decades of telling the stories of successful athletes, I nearly always hear one common detail. Somewhere along the way, the kids who find ways to succeed have coaches who believed in them. For some reason, it’s difficult to believe the compliments and assurances of one’s parents.
Maybe it’s that teens assume their parents are blinded by love, and therefore, unable to see the flaws that will lead to their inevitable (and humiliating) failure. So parents rely on coaches to reach their children in real, life-altering ways.
Parents hope that in some gym or on some sideline a coach will see the potential in their child. They pray that a coach or teacher will reach out to their son or daughter and inspire them in ways that they cannot.
They do this because it happens every day.
It happens on fields, in weight rooms and in classrooms.
Coaches encourage a young man with potential; they offer a girl with a desire to succeed an opportunity; they teach kids to see in themselves more than they see on their own.
Most of the time there is no fanfare, which makes it easy to overlook. Oftentimes there isn’t even a thank you, which makes it easy to forget.
But as this school year begins, don’t take for granted the life-altering work being done in schools and on fields by people we should hold in much higher esteem. The lives they touch, the young people they influence won’t just score points and win games. They’ll become people of influence and power, people who inspire us with art or save us with innovation or technology.
And maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll turn out to be coaches who understand in a visceral way, how the faith of someone else can inspire greatness in some of the most unlikely people.
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