50 years and counting: the journey continues

Next Monday marks the anniversary of my first day of coaching fifty years ago. I thought this would be an appropriate post to start the new year.

Even though it is now fifty years since the first Monday in January 1969 it seems like just yesterday. So much has happened in those fifty years. How do you measure what you have done – good, bad and indifferent? I do know one thing for sure that when I started coaching and teaching was sure I was going to change the world and fifty years later I am still trying. Back then I thought it would be easy, it seemed logical that people would want to change and innovate. Little did I know how much people resist change and new ideas. Fifty years ago, I had all the answers, now at age 72 I have more questions than answers. I have learned that challenging people with intelligent pointed questions is how real change occurs. Change is never easy, seldom comfortable, but it is a constant.

Let’s take a step back and look at the socio-cultural milieu in January 1969 when I stared coaching. In September 1967 I played my last football game at Fresno State. Up to that time I had defined myself as a jock football player, something I was never 100% comfortable with, I knew there was more there. Certainly, the world around me was changing at a head spinning rate. Quitting football, focusing on school and working in the agricultural unit at Fresno Sate doing heavy manual labor from 1:00 to 5:00 each afternoon sharpened my perspective and clarified my future goals. It was liberating, there was a whole wide world out there to conquer.

As 1968 ended and the Apollo 8 astronauts left earth’s gravity and circled the moon – a peaceful culmination to the chaos of war and social change that characterized the rest of the year. I just knew the world would never be the same again. I quickly learned that there was clear choice -you could be a leader or a follower. I chose to lead, to work to be a change agent. Certainly, my generation – the baby boomers – was leading these changes, although not always with clear goals or visions of where change would lead.

Sport does not exist independent of society and it was 1968 – 69 that the athletes began to wake up. Tommy Smith/John Carlos raised fist protest at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico was just the tip of the iceberg. Athletes had rights and now they were willing to exercise those rights, frankly it is a battle for those rights that continues unabated today. The way I was coached in college football at Fresno State was typical of coaching across the spectrum of sports in those days. It was characterized verbal, physical and psychological abuse. I knew it did not work and I vowed that when I began to coach, I would find a better way.

That was the main reason I gravitated toward track and field. There was clear objective measure of performance – the stopwatch and tape measure. I could measure my improvement, if I worked smart, I got better, pretty straightforward. No coach could tell me I was not tough enough or not good enough, the stopwatch and tape measure did not lie. In addition, the coaches I was exposed in track and field had a whole different mindset and demeanor. There were teachers and I could see the athletes responding to this.

So, there I was the first Monday of January 1969 in front of 93 eager and willing high school boys to start my coaching career. They were willing and I was scared! I wasn’t that much older than many of the seniors. I was friends with many of their older brothers and sisters. I had gotten to know many of them while working as a park ranger at a popular surfing beach the past two summers. Fortunately, the head coach, Bill Crow, who I had known since I was a little kid, was there to be a calming and guiding influence. Under high school rules at the time we could not train after school until second semester which began in February. We had 50 minutes for the athletic period, the last period of the day. I remember thinking that 50 minutes was too short, we needed twice that amount of time. Little did know then that it was perfect, it forced me to be very organized with my teaching, to be on point, no fluff. Less can more – first lesson learned although not always well applied over next fifty years. Until 1985 I coached Track and field at all levels with varied degree of success. I had great kids who were willing to work and focus. I think I learned as much from them as they did from me.

In 1985 I came to the crossroads and as Yogi Berra said I took it – I began another journey in what was then the infant field of strength and conditioning working as an assistant conditioning coach with the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox. In 1987 I went to work full time with the White Sox as Director of Conditioning. The next twenty years were a blur, many starts, restarts, pioneering, dealing with naysayers, eventually proving people wrong by showing that system based on sound training methodology would transcend the traditional training methods. It was not comfortable, nor was it easy.

In the 1990’s it became very apparent that an overemphasis on strength as an isolated component of training was counterproductive. It was clear that an athletic development approach were all physical properties are trained in varying proportions and they must be trained year around. This has been my focus ever since. To get this message out that athletic development grows robust adaptable athletes who thrive in the chaos of competition.

As I look back and also look forward the deepest joy has come from commitment to process and the subsequent outcome of performance. There have been championships, gold medals, record breaking performance’s as well as deep disappointments.God willing there will be more years ahead to apply and share the lessons the lessons I have learned this past fifty years.

Finally, I want to thank my family who have been so supportive over this journey. My wife who stood by me and supported me and always kept me grounded. My wonderful children who had to share their father with many other people. They are the best and inspire me. Last but not least the athletes that I have been fortunate to coach and learn from. Lest we ever forget that this profession is all about people and relationships.

Here are few thoughts and lessons I have learned in the in the past fifty years:

  • Have a clearly articulated philosophy and live it
  • Be true to what you believe in, never compromise your core beliefs
  • I have learned to use the chip on my shoulder for positive change rather than self-destructive behavior
  • Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent, messy practice can and is productive
  • There are no boundaries or limits
  • Be the best you, you can be
  • Always strive to keep making a better you
  • Passion is my fuel, but it is high octane and flammable so I had to learn to handle with care
  • You can’t do it alone – Family, true friends and professional colleagues are necessary
  • Build bridges not walls
  • Be the change you want to be
  • If you are wrong, then admit it
  • You will and should make mistakes, just learn from them
  • Love guides me – Love for my fellow man and love of the life we are given
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