I've been discussing college football coaches in the last several blogs because they exemplify all the issues surrounding intercollegiate athletics, both good and bad. The validity of the whole enterprise as an educational endeavor depends upon the quality of the coach. The implosion of a number of prominent college coaches this year gives me pause to think about the stresses and pressures they experience.
Mike Leach of Texas Tech, one of the true characters and offensive minds of college football coaching, was fired this week. Allegedly he consigned a player who had suffered a concussion (another stalwart danger that never goes away in football) to enforced darkness in a small room (sounds like a form of torture, but it is alleged). Mike Locksley, coach of New Mexico, assaulted an assistant coach early in the season, one of several alleged and clear incidents of coach on coach violence of the last two years. Most interesting of all, Urban Meyer, the hard driving and absurdly successful coach of Florida, announced his retirement from coaching a week before the Sugar Bowl. He had suffered from increasingly serious stress and heart related issues. He abjured his "self-destructive behavior" and declared he needed to devote time to his "faith and family." Two days later he joylessly announced he would instead take a leave of absence after meeting with his players.
Coaches compete. They compete relentlessly to recruit, coach, win. They compete for jobs, salary, status and kids. Most coaches utterly and intensely hate to lose; few enjoy the fruits of victory very long. (Bill Bellichek of the Patriots embodies the ultimate joylessness of modern coaching) One game gone; the next morning they are working on tape for the next. One season end; they are on the road recruiting. College coaching grinds on and never ends. Coaches compete and depend for their jobs and their glory upon wins, upon recruiting successes, upon outsmarting their opposite numbers.
All these rewards feel external. Winning & competing depend upon external validation. Coaches find it very difficult to find a place of stability and peace. Most football coaches teach their players to play with "controlled rage." Football's violence seeps into the bones of players and flows from the pores of coaches. They model the controlled rage for their players. That simmering anger, that drive to win and prove oneself, the controlled and focused force exists in most of the coaches themselves. Players read it, respond to it and understand the emotional language.
Competition, controlled rage, utter dependence upon external validation are recipes for disasters for human beings, players and coaches. Most coaches constantly exhort their kids to "play within themselves' and to "control what they can control," their own effort, focus and emotions. Coaches need to follow their own advice because if they take it too seriously, if they rely upon external world for validation, they will be vulnerable to the implosions we see on a regular basis in coaching. They will suffer the stress, the violent eruptions and heart and impairments that flow from it. They'll respond with obsessive behavior--eating, tape watching, working out, excessive control, hyper vigilance.
Young coaches have to learn to channel that anger and rage and desire to win and be the best; they can share it with their athletes, but to survive in the long run, they need more. Many coaches discover or turn to faith as a source to provide an awareness that "it's just a game" is really true. Their faith provides a way of understanding and and getting distance from the tectonic stresses on college coaches.
If they are lucky their family remains intact and family can provide the same, but coaching brutalizes family life with long hours away and emotional preoccupation. If they can keep their family together, it provides another space to renew and remember that worth and value flows from deeper values and not "just a game." Finally, the very best coaches renew themselves daily in coaching not with their competing and recruiting and countless demands to "win" but rather by connecting with their players and fellow coaches. They experience the abiding satisfaction of helping young people grow into adulthood and achieve excellence and develop the dimensions of life that can help them excel later in life. This reciprocal relation of mutual growth eludes too many coaches, but when they discover it and keep it intact, they discover a reservoir for sanity.
And yet, even this relation can become a source of destruction for the coach. Someone as obsessively controlling as Meyer needs to learn how to hold others accountable. As a perfectionist he can't let go but needs to for others sake. If a coach or any leader holds themselves accoutnable for everything and everyone, they bear a burden that cannot be borne and take away the opportunity for the assistants and players to grow. Learning how to care and share responsibility keeps balance and health. It helps insulate oneself form the self destroying pressures of leading. At the same time his connection to his players may have motived his sudden turn around which may not be a good thing for Meyer or his family.
Coaches don't have to implode, but their work conditions invite it. Meyer should listen to himself; this is about family, faith and perspective, not coaching.