Football, Virgil, Gracefulness: Lessons From a Wise Coach

MY friend Robert isn't a sports fan, but he's troubled by the direction youth team sports have taken over the last two decades. The problem, he argues, is that parents who weren't standout athletes themselves insist their children fulfill their frustrated dreams by becoming sports heroes.

Robert voiced his concern after reading about a Little League father who was arrested for assaulting an umpire. The ump had called the man's son out on a close play.

Despite the absence of athletics in his own boyhood, Robert has first-hand experience empowering kids to control their own sports programs. He accidentally became a high school football coach for one season in the early 1950s.

When Robert graduated from college 44 years ago, he had never attended a single sporting event. He was a Latin major who played piano and acted in amateur theatricals.

Yet when he was hired for his first teaching job in a rural Illinois high school, the superintendent demanded Robert assume the added assignment of varsity football coach. The regular coach had been granted a sabbatical leave, and when the interim coach suddenly resigned to take another post, a crisis arose. The assignment fell to Robert, the most junior member of the staff.

Robert resigned himself to the predicament but adamantly refused to learn anything about the game.

Gathering the squad together on the field for its first "rehearsal" as he would come to call practice sessions, he confessed his ignorance about football. He told the three dozen boys on the team they'd have to plan their own strategies. He blew his whistle and said, "Go ahead then and do whatever it is you do to prepare yourselves. Sic transit gloria."

The team elected captains to make coaching decisions, and "rehearsals" began. Robert carried his copy of "Virgil" with him to rehearsals and prepared conjugation exercises for his Latin classes. Now and then he would watch scrimmages for several minutes through uncomprehending eyes.

Whenever he grew bored, Robert put down his copy of "Virgil" and blew the whistle. "Do that again," he'd order. "It wasn't graceful."

His team won its first four games and was contending for the conference championship. All should have been well, except some fathers of the players understood the new coach was clearly out of his element. After one closely fought victory, a father confronted Robert. "This team would be ranked in the state's top 10 if they had a real coach," the father said. "You don't know a thing about football."

To which Robert replied, "And you, sir, know nothing at all about being graceful."

Robert's team tied for the conference title that year, its first in nearly 20 years. The following season, when the regular coach returned and the team was mired in mediocrity, Robert was asked how he had generated his success.

"We worked on being graceful," Robert responded.

"What does that have to do with football?" the coach asked.

"What works for one coach may not work for another," was Robert's enigmatic reply.

I have no doubt the boys on Robert's football team probably had their most pleasurable athletic experience playing for a man who had no understanding of the game.

He allowed them to have fun. It seems enjoyment is what's missing for today's young athletes. Their organized competitions are often fraught with anxiety. Players who strike out or miss tackles may be roundly criticized by coaches, teammates, and parents.

Great athletes from the past developed without highly organized childhood teams and leagues. They enjoyed playing games with neighborhood friends. Serious competition came later.

Sports provide great outlets for kids, and both boys and girls should be encouraged to participate. But adults have over-organized youth athletics. We fork over big bucks for skating lessons or hockey camps, sometimes in spite of our children's lack of interest or aptitude.

Have you watched tiny, uniformed children playing a team sport lately? You see grim-faced kids bearing down, and sometimes hear a youngster curse after he's muffed a play.

Sadly, there are few, if any, adults like Robert coaching these days; folks who let young athletes play and have fun - and hope they learn about grace in the process.

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