By Tony Holler
I’m different. I’m seldom a member of anything, let alone the majority. Mainstream holds no attraction.
This is the only article I’ve written twice. An arrogant track & field Twitter account inspired me to write “Us vs Them”, a scathing manifesto denouncing misguided programs. My trusty proof-reader is my son, Alec. Alec Holler coaches hurdlers at Edwardsville High School, this year’s Illinois 3A State Champs. Alec said my article was “damn edgy and R-rated”. The article remains unpublished sitting on the dashboard of itccca.com. “Us vs. Them” will never be published.
“Who I Am & Who I’m Not” will be the kinder and gentler version of “Us vs Them”.
My wordier tittle was “The Coach I Am vs. The Coach I Am Not”. I’ve had lots of time to think about the coach I am. My father was a coach for 47 years. From the day I was born, I was a coach’s son. As an athlete, I evaluated and dissected each and every guy who ever tried to coach me. My study of coaches continues as I enter my 35th year in the business.
My beliefs are my beliefs. My mission statement does not apply to anyone but me. We can all agree to disagree and continue to be coaching friends.
I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me, see like me, or be like me. – Bob Dylan from “All I Really Want to Do”
However, too many coaches are far too confident of their modus operandi. Too many coaches choose to be dogmatic and cocky. Too many coaches repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.
At the end of this article, I will discus coaches who have different agendas. I will be professional and thoughtful in my dissenting opinion, but I will be opinionated. If any of you are offended by the beliefs of others, grow up or stop reading.
In a recent Freelap article, Why Every Coach (Yes You!) Should Write, Craig Pickering delivers eight reasons why coaches should write. Craig’s article was spot-on. When we write, we are forced to organize our thoughts and put our beliefs into words. I write to clarify my philosophy and to exchange ideas with other coaches.
Before I get to the edgy stuff, I will attempt to tell you my mission statement. I do not pretend to be an A-student in all ten areas, but missions are like goals, things to work towards … intentions … objectives.
MY TEN-POINT MISSION STATEMENT
I am a teacher who is also a coach. I teach Honors Chemistry. I want to model scholarship to my athletes. I tell my students and athletes about the books I read and the articles I write. Many coaches today are not teachers, just coaches. Call me old school, but athletics should be a co-curricular activity. When coaching is divorced from academics, coaching gets ugly. When coaches teach five classes, they tend to have a healthy understanding of the big picture. I’m not a fan of entrepreneurial 7 on 7 football, travel baseball, or AAU basketball. I don’t participate in summer track & field. I am huge fan of student-athletes and interscholastic sports.
I am a promoter of kids. Some coaches refuse to promote, believing that raised expectations may come back to haunt them. Some coaches attempt to lower expectations by low-balling the perceived talent level of their team. Some coaches are defiantly old-school and treat social media as the tool of the devil. While most coaches were taking night classes and preparing to become highly paid administrators, I raised four kids and became an expert user of Google Docs, Excel, Twitter, photography, and web design. I use technology (@pntrack & pntrack.com) to celebrate achievement. In my experience, the high school athlete does not receive the recognition he deserves.
I’m not a strategy guy. I coach fundamentals. My track teams will execute 4×1 handoffs correctly. My kids will come out of the blocks correctly. My football team will never fumble a center-quarterback exchange. My football teams block and tackle better than our opponents. As a basketball coach, my teams always shot the ball well because I coached shooting fundamentals.
But fundamentals are coached everywhere, right? Ha. The average coach is more concerned with their opponents than their own team. Winning and losing dwarfs the teaching of fundamentals. Practice time is wasted focusing on strategy and preparation for things that may never happen. Track teams run laps, football teams prepare for their next game, and basketball teams play 5 on 5.
I shake my head when I observe basketball coaches at the lower levels. They all talk the talk but spend their entire practice on half-baked team concepts. Meanwhile their poor kids can’t shoot. Ironically, I’ve noticed coaches who talk the most about fundamentals often neglect them. Bad coaches fail to teach.
I love the pursuit of building a team culture that values every kid. I teach brotherhood. When I was a freshmen in high school there were four upperclassmen who treated me with respect and I still remember their names.
My seniors are friends with my freshmen.
Clan-building is more than team-building. Clan building is the process of making friends with other teams … our opponents. In Plainfield we have four schools. In my first year at Plainfield North, our kids had somehow been conditioned to hate their opponents. In a meet against Plainfield South we almost had a civil war. South was leading the 4×4, but we were gaining. My team was trash-talking South’s anchor runner who responded by flipping them the bird, during the race. North and South had to be separated after the meet. Since then, Jason Crowe, Mike Adamson, Jonathon Pereiro, and I have created #TrackTown. We are four schools but one TrackTown. We no longer fight. We cheer. We compete with tenacity but the competition is healthy.
We’ve made similar strides within our conference. Our kids are now proud to be a part of the SPC. I have attempted to bring this feeling to the state of Illinois. Aren’t we all in the same boat? Are we not, in a way, on the same team? I recently wrote an article about Illinois high school track & field, The Golden Era. By the way, Illinois is the best cold-weather track state in the country. Only Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California are better track states than Illinois (see rankings).
I feel the same way about establishing a coaching fraternity. In the past year, I have made over 100 new coaching friends. I have met my new friends at the three clinics where I spoke and one I attended. I have accepted invitations to breakfast several times. I answer all emails and return all calls. Every track meet is a reunion for me.
5. Data-Driven Statistician
I was destined to be who I am. I spent hundreds of hours playing Strat-O-Matic Baseball as a kid. I was my father’s team statistician at the age of nine. I teach the quantified study of Chemistry. No sport is more measured and quantified than track & field. Despite my love of football, basketball, and baseball, I was born to be a track coach.
Times and measurements are central to track & field. I take the “numbers game” a step further because I believe in data-driven speed training. We measure speed in multiple ways in workouts, especially in off-season and pre-season workouts. If you want to read more, see Inertia and Data-Driven Speed Training and 3 Simple Ways to Transform Slow to Fast.
“The two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and the recognition for achievement.” – Frederick Hezberg
6. Fitness Guru
But all coaches are fitness gurus, right? Nope. Some are, some aren’t.
I am lucky to have good DNA. I’ve run in four marathons (1995, 1999, 2001, and 2012). My monthly payment to Lifetime Fitness is more than I paid in rent back in 1981. I want my athletes to see their 56-year-old coach as someone who can still run and lift weights.
I have studied nutrition since my college days. I never miss a chance to tell my kids to eat lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. I urge them to eat good fats: salmon, olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, MCT oils, and sardines. I encourage boycotting all drinks with sugar, sugar in all forms, wheat products, and all foods that come in a box. Eat colorful foods and avoid the four white powders (sugar, flour, cocaine, and heroin). I encourage coconut water as a Gatorade replacement. Even if healthy eating is a total fantasy, we must continue to teach and model good habits. We are more than coaches, we are educators.
This long-time philosophy of mine came from the 1979 movie, “Being There”, featuring Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner. Most of you weren’t born when I watched “Being There” at age 20 (96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
I have tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers growing in my backyard, but I’m not referring to a literal garden. Just as Jesus taught his disciples to be “fishermen of men”, coaches should be “gardeners of athletes”. In a figurative way, as a coach, I prepare the soil and find good seed. I plant, water, weed, and pray for good weather. I also fertilize with lots of bullsh*t. Seeing myself as a gardener allows me facilitate growth and releases me from the pressure of creating growth. My garden is only as good as the seed.
How about the USC sprinter who has taken the world by storm? Andre De Grasse ran his first 100 meters as a senior in high school wearing long shorts and a T-shirt. De Grasse ran 10.90 without blocks, wearing borrowed spikes. The rest is history. Does your garden attract your school’s best athletes?
If my garden attracts good seed, my garden will be better than your garden. But then again, the weather must cooperate. We’ve all had good teams that fell apart due to factors beyond our control. Track teams are full of diversity. I have 100 athletes to plug into 18 events at both the varsity and fresh-soph levels. Regardless of the weather, I will harvest a decent crop.
Coaches are some of most competitive people I know. Who else invests so much time, energy, and emotion into the activities of kids? If you are a career coach, you have experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows.
I once coached a 4×4 team composed of four seniors who truly believed they could be state champions. We didn’t win but we competed. See video (Plainfield North is in lane-8).
Non-competitors may lead happy lives, but they won’t be great athletes. To a competitor, winning is glorious. Losing hurts. Sometimes I wish I was born without the competition gene. Life would be so much more balanced if there was no such thing as winning or losing. But evolution favored men who were willing to compete, and I’m stuck with their DNA.
I’ve always believed teams magically reflect their coach. Modeling is a terrific teacher and my teams will always be competitive.
My favorite book of the year is Essentialism by Greg McKeown. When I read the book, I realized that somehow I have become an “essentialist” as a coach.
“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” – Lin Yutang
Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” – John Maxwell
How many coaches live by the motto of “practice is overrated”? I do. When we accept that almost everything we do is unimportant, we are forced to recognize the essentials.
My sprinters never practice over 45 minutes. My sprinters, including my 400-runners, never run more than a 200 in practice. We don’t train harder, we train smarter.
My freshmen football teams have won 30 games in a row, winning by nearly 40 points per game during that span. We play on Saturday mornings. We practice two hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We go home after school on Monday and Friday. We don’t run sprints at the end of practice. We don’t train harder, we train smarter. Practice is overrated.
In addition, by practicing less, athletes will have the energy required to be students. Too many times I watched my own sons come home from practice too tired to eat, let alone do homework.
If you are a promoter (see #2), you are also a motivator. If you are a clan builder (see #4), your athletes will feel encouraged. If you are a data-driven statistician (see #5), your kids will be inspired by their improvement. If you are a competitor (see #8), your team will reflect your competitive spirit. And, if you are an essentialist (see #9), your kids will always have enough gas in their tank to get excited.
In some ways, motivation is just a conglomeration of five previously discussed topics. However, I still believe motivation has a place as its own separate entity. Motivation is what kept my dad coaching for 47 years.
If motivation is so important, where do we find it? I’ve always told my athletes “great teams inspire their coach”. Motivation is a two-way street. Maybe everything we do is a two-way street. The yin and yang of a coach and his team working together creates a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.
WHO I’M NOT
Jesus was a counter-cultural revolutionary. He was a man of peace, love, and forgiveness. Jesus rejected materialism. I may have a calling, but it does not involve the saving of souls. No part of my mission statement involves the recruitment of athletes to Christianity, Catholicism, or any other system of beliefs.
Obviously, those who coach at Catholic schools are expected to incorporate religion. But how about public schools? The Washington Post reports that 61% of Americans support school prayer. The secular nature of public schools drives the 61% crazy.
I’ve witnessed football teams being led in prayer by their head coach hundreds of times. In Illinois, public schools are required to allow for a moment of silence every day, but typically turn a blind eye to open prayer in the locker room.
I will never forget the time I witnessed a locker room Lord’s Prayer, followed by an expletive-laced rant. The rant included the goal of inflicting bodily harm on the visiting team. The leader of the locker room prayer and the the blood-curdling tirade was the same man, the head coach.
Sometimes local churches literally infiltrate coaching staffs. I once had a coaching colleague who was paid more to be the “Youth Leader” at a Baptist church than he was paid to coach. Another time, a local “Youth Leader” was allowed to hang out with kids in the school cafeteria during lunch periods. Almost all schools have a club called “FCA”, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Despite the fact that less than 2% of all high school athletes will ever play NCAA Division-1 sports, the scholarship chase is rampant. Parents of kids who have zero chance winning a scholarship invest thousands of dollars dreaming of huge returns.
Some coaches manipulate these misled parents. I’ve heard coaches brag of the five kids who have received full-scholarships in the past ten years. These coaches feed the monster.
I believe athletic scholarships are a by-product of a good athletic program, not a goal. Coaches are educators, not capitalists.
To be honest, I hate athletic scholarships. Why should big & strong kids attend college for free. If I was king, I would eliminate athletic scholarships and cap the salaries of college coaches. Billions of dollars in athletic revenue should go to lowering college tuition, especially to those students who show academic excellence combined with financial need. I once told a group of coaches that athletic scholarships should be eliminated. They looked at me as if I was the Antichrist (or Bernie Sanders).
As I said in my introduction, I’m not mainstream. By the way, I have donated to the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Ha.
3. Maker of Men
This is mainly a football issue. Testosterone-driven football coaches love to brag about turning boys into men. These coaches are ate up with the manliness of football.
You never hear coaches talk about turning girls into women.
Football has come a long way. Coaches allow their players access to water at practice. Football coaches aren’t allowed to send concussed players back into the game. Physical and verbal abuse is now somewhat limited. However, football still has a long way to go.
I’ve never believed coaching should be a money-maker. To me, rich coaches are like rich preachers.
Throughout my 34 year career, teaching accounted for approximately 85% of my total salary. Coaching consumes about 30% of my work but accounts for only 15% of my pay.
I run a “Speed Camp” every summer. However, my school district takes 45% of my camp income. By the time the government takes their share of my share, I only earn 36 cents on the dollar. I’ve always been working for the man.
5. General Patton
Humans have evolved for over four million years. Since the days of Australopithecus afarensus, we have developed strategies for survival. One strategy is living in peaceful, loving, supportive communities. The other survival strategy is war. One strategy is clan-building, the other is clan vs. clan. Our country vs. your country. Our religion vs your religion. Our team vs your team. North vs South.
If you don’t see the war-sports connection you aren’t paying attention.
The analogies are everywhere. Coaches “scout” their enemy to discover weaknesses. Coaches motivate their teams with war propaganda. Coaches preach discipline, toughness, sacrifice, courage, and loyalty. Semper Fidelis. Some coaches use Navy Seal training as their blueprint. Old school coaches still get into kids’ faces like Sergeant Carter addressing Gomer Pyle.
War may be permanent in football culture. Blitzes, bombs, and sudden death are here to stay. But, my football team doesn’t do a team prayer and we don’t go psycho-military in the locker room before games. I like a Zen locker room. I believe fast guys score more touchdowns than soldiers.
Football ideology spreads to other sports. One “official” twitter account for a track team in Illinois tweets like a football team:
- “God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.”
- “Put the haters to bed.”
- “We are taking no prisoners.”
- “The gloves are off.”
- “Are the soldiers ready for battle today?”
I write this not to indict God’s soldiers. I write this to make coaches think. Friedrich Nietzsche said “Many a man fails to become a thinker for the sole reason that his memory is too good.” Ponder that one. People repeat what has been repeated. People do what has been done. Why? Because our memories are too good. Our habits are permanent. Our patterns of behavior are repeated daily.
We must learn to think.
Can athletes perform at their best without pretending to go to war? Can a coach be effective without praying for God to bless his troops? Can we value academics over masculinity? Can we promote healthy competition instead of Us vs. Them?
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