How to Truly Care for your athletes

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My back ground is pretty straight forward-a high school, college and club athlete, who got into coaching, first at Bellarmine, then Santa Clara University, then Foothill college. The week of Thanksgiving, I was given the best gift I could have dreamed of--a few hours with three of my former athletes...

For the past six or seven years, my Thanksgiving week goes like this: Nike Border Clash on Sunday before Thanksgiving, meetings in Portland on Monday and Tuesday before Turkey Day and then, down to San Jose, California to meet with my family for our favorite Thanksgiving Day.

This year, I had received a call from Brendan OFlaherty, one of my former athletes. He was in Beijing, but would be back on the Tuesday before Turkey Day and wanted to see if we could grab a drink at his father's pub, OFlaherty's. So, on Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of meeting with Brendan, his teammates, John Maloney and Ernie Stanton.

I had coached Brendan and John at Bellarmine, when they were sophomores to seniors. Both taught me alot. Brendan was involved, as a senior, in a qualifying race to make varsity cross country league meet that still haunts me. The head coach at the time had Brendan and one of our top sophomores duke it out over two miles to see who would be number seven on the varsity squad. It came down to the last fifty meters and Brendan put the peddle to the metal, won and then promptly passed out. Scared the hell out of me. Brendan went on to run in college and law school. The father of four, Brendan is a good man, the highest praise I can give someone.

John was our team manager and then he came out for cross country. John was my shadow through his high school and college career, running long runs with me and adding to the color of our two hour runs with thoughtful commentary on local fauna and local colorful personalities. This commentary did tend to get us into certian situations, but as John is a the proud father of two, retired head coach at Santa Clara University and a good buy, we shall leave the remininces at that.

Ernie ran at St. Ignatius, other Jesuit high school in the Bay area, so we were quite competitive. He was a freshman at Santa Clara with Brendan and John, and then, after graduation, went off to the Marines, from where he has just finished 20 years. Now a teacher and counselor, Ernie uses his street sense to help kids with their lives.

We spent two hours together, catching up. It nearly brought tears to my eyes about how much I missed them, and also how proud I was of them. All had grown from their sports experiences and school experiences to having families, helping kids in trouble and running businesses or coaching.

All three had lived what they were challenged with when they left high school: the founder of the Jesuits had said admajorem dei glorium-all for the greater glory of God. The ideal was to use one's gifts for the betterment of the community or society.

As a former coach, I think I did the long runs and interval workouts fine. The part that scared me was how I was given the opportunities to mold young people and did I take it seriously? Did I teach them that there was right and wrong? Did I teach them that they had to value life? Those were the parts of the job, the role of coach that kept me considering my vocation.

Coaching is a vocation, and an avocation. One sure does not get into coaching track or cross country for the bucks. But the truth is, whether it is having a laugh with Bob Larsen, one of my favorite coaches or catching up with Bob Sevene, or an infrequent email from my mentor, Terry Ward, all have had some much fun being coaches, and have received so many gifts in coaching, that the hard work gets forgotten.

The late Emil Zatopek was an honorary coach at FootHill College with my good friend Joe Mangan and I way back in the early nineties. Joe and I drove him to Carmel, after a track meet and had hours-probably six-to ask Emil questions about our sport. One of his comments has stayed with me: " Not all great athletes make great coaches-it is much easier just to go out and do the training oneself. How does one give someone drive? How does one give the athlete a reason to work hard? "

It is in the little moments, when there is a coach sitting at his desk and a kid, sitting near the desk, reading old track magazines, that change lives. When my high school coach, our junior year, Steve Pensinger told me I could run the mile pretty fast, it gave me the drive to stay focused and see what I could do.

How do you truly care for your athletes? Listen to them, motivate them, challenge them, and keep it fun.

For more on our sport, please click:
http://www.american-trackandfield.com

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