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Do You Wanna Be A Coach? (Originally Published June 23, 2008)

I remember my first day as a coach. My friend, Kirk Poulos, was going to compete at Canada Games and asked me if I would fill in for him while he was away. At age 16, this would be my first summer job, even if it was only for a week. Kirk had one of the highly coveted "boatman" jobs at Banook Canoe Club. He was a year older than me. Back in the late 70's, the way it worked was the club hired 2 "boatmen" who essentially ran the day program, including regattas, coaching approximately 200 kids. It was a seven days a week, 12 hours a day job. You dealt with parents, crew selection, house league versus triple A, safety issues, winning, losing, everything you can think of. Every paddler in the club over the age of 16 wanted one of these jobs, and they were pretty well bequeathed to the next guy.

I was really lucky. I did well enough in my one week stint that the next year, Kirk and Ken Russell, who was the other boatman, lobbied the Board at the club hard enough that they created a third position for me. Well, actually they made Ken and Kirk co "Head Boatman" and they made me "Boatman". This meant that I did pretty much everything that they didn't want to do - but believe me I was happy to do it. Much of the time I worked the dock (picture total mayhem - kids taking boats, tipping, fighting, paddling backwards, crashing, you name it). You would try to spot the kid who really wanted to learn and help them, and help the other kids empty boats after they tipped. And I learned about coaching. I learned on the job. Kirk was very smart and taught me how to survive the parents and how to make the kids take you seriously. Ken had an unbelievable manner with children, to this day I don't think I have seen a coach who relates better to kids than Ken Russell. He taught me the importance of being positive and making it fun.

Over the next 4 years I made a lot of mistakes - I took myself too seriously, when we started to have success I had an inflated opinion of myself, I favored athletes, I didn't deal with nerves well, I screwed up crew selection at times, I made the mistake of overselling to the kids, I did some things that seriously compromised safety - like buying alcohol for my athletes. Thirty years ago no one was worried about liability and there was no manual to follow - you learned as you went. But the biggest single mistake I made was falling into the "us against the world" trap. I hadn't learned that us doing well did not mean that everyone else did badly. I was coaching in a situation where our main competition resided in club houses within 100 meters of ours. We trained on the same lake, usually at the same times. We watched each other warily, and our programs received validation only by beating the other program. If you didn't win, the parents would question you, the kids would hang their heads, and the alumni coaches, who passed you the torch, would be calling for your replacement. Remember too - paddling is THE sport in Dartmouth. It was as competitive as it gets.

Another young coach who came out of that environment, from the Senobe Aquatic Club, was Tony Hall. Tony was the Head Coach at the Senobe Club when he was 14. He also made many of the mistakes that come with youth. One of the things I find amazing in the canoeing world is that there are people who watched the coaches make mistakes as teenagers and think that's who we are as people today. Believe me it happens. I'm a lot different person and coach now at 48 than I was at 18, but there's a lot of people who still act toward me as that 18 year old.

I believe that the coaches job is to create the best possible environment you can to give your athletes the best chance of achieving success. Success ultimately is defined by the athletes.

One of the most important things the coach has to have is no ego with respect to the achievement. You have to understand that your job is to facilitate - the athletes are the ones that deserve the credit for the actual achievement -and they have to achieve it , you can't do it for them. It is really easy to say, really hard to do. It's like being a lawyer - you are an advocate for your charges - but the success is theirs, not yours. You have to get your highs from the process - a good practice, athletes enjoying themselves, good team chemistry, the day to day stuff. If you are a really good coach you will enjoy the respect of your athletes - that's your payment.

I'm trying to say something in that last paragraph - define the essence of coaching - that's very hard to describe. I'll try another way:

When Michael Jordan was driving with a friend to Chicago Stadium to have the statue in his honor dedicated (after the NBA titles, the awards, the money, the fame), he found himself caught in traffic. He was going to be late for the ceremony due to legendary Chicago traffic. Miraculously, they made it to the stadium just in time, but there were no parking spaces. His friend found a space right by the entrance. It was a handicapped space. Michael Jordan turned to his friend and said, "We can't park here. Coach Smith (Dean Smith his coach at the University of North Carolina) is going to be here and if he finds out I parked in a handicapped spot he'll be disappointed in me." Instead, they were late for the nationally televised ceremony.

How do you think Michael Jordan learned his virtually perfect footwork? Probably everyone reading this knows who Michael Jordan is. I bet a lot of people don't know who Dean Smith is. I can guarantee you Coach Smith wants it that way.

In August 2004 I am standing on the dock at Banook Canoe Club. Tony Hall is standing in a motorboat parked at the finish line, talking to Steve Giles, who is in his C1. Tony is demonstrating some very basic canoeing movements. I have seen this scene many, many times. Except this is Steve's last practice before he is leaving for the Athen's Olympics. It is his last practice on Lake Banook as a competitive athlete. Steve is a World Champion, Olympic Bronze medalist, and a 4 time Olympian. Tony has coached Steve since Steve was 12. In their last workout together, Tony is going over the same basics he did when Steve was 12. Process.

Fast forward to Steve's retirement dinner. CBC television has prepared a video presentation of Steve's accomplishments as a tribute. They show Steve's world championship race, as originally called by CBC commentators. Tony gets up to speak. Incredibly (to me anyway) he says, "That's the first time I've seen that race. Didn't have to. When I was told he won, I knew exactly how it went. I've seen it in practice. 1000 times."

Your job is to put the athletes first and your achievement is that they get the credit.

Do you wanna be a coach?

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