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Guest Blog: Coaching: A Sacred Trust

About the author: Tom Sexton was born in Philadelphia in 1939 and was raised in Oaklyn, New Jersey. He graduated from Camden Catholic High School in 1956 and immediately entered the United States Marine Corps. Tom began teaching Latin and English in Pitman High School in New Jersey in 1964 and began coaching cross country in 1965. Two years later he began teaching at Cheltenham High School in Penna. where he taught English for the next thirty-five years. He retired from coaching in 2016. His teams have won over 70 percent of their meets for the past 45 years, went undefeated the past two years and won the league championship in 2016. He resides in Hollywood, Pa. with his wife Marge. Tom has three children, Nicolle, Sean and Tom and one stepson, Joe Silberstein and one deceased stepson, Ron Silverstein. Tom can be reached at: [email protected]

About the blog: In his own words Tom explores the importance of coaching and how coaches really are people of influence. Making the point that coaching is indeed a sacred trust and a responsibility to be taken seriously.     

“Power is given to you by others. It is a great responsibility to be used for the benefit of those whose trustee you are.” Mohandas K. Gandi.

Let me begin by saying that I love coaching. I love working with young people and helping them improve and succeed. I love being part of a programme, which can stretch athletes both mentally and physically. I love taking a group of individuals and helping them become a team in the true sense of the word. And I love being part of all the important life lessons that athletes can learn under a good coach. Self- discipline, submitting one’s ego for the good of the group, handling both victory and defeat, learning to push oneself and accomplish what is hard to achieve, and helping them carry out a commitment. I love being part of the pursuit of excellence and the struggles and satisfaction that comes with it. And of course what coach does not love the feeling of winning a hard fought competition against a formidable opponent? Coaching is a pretty awesome experience as far as I’m concerned. In fact I consider it to be an honor.

The main reason why I consider it an honor is that, as coaches, we can and often do make a significant difference in a young person’s life. The legendary Sam Bell, a Hall of Fame and Olympic track and field coach, said it best: "Your sport is simply a vehicle for the athlete’s growth and development."  Sports is about growing and developing both athletically and personally. This is why I believe coaching is both an honor and a huge responsibility. Make no doubt about it, coaches are people of influence and they can help their athletes grow, or stand in the way of their growth.   

When I conduct workshops for coaches or lead roundtable discussions, I begin by saying to coaches, “What would you say if I told you that there is at least one person out there who considers you to be one of the most influential people in their life?”

How do I know this? First of all I know from personal experience. While the story I am about to tell is a testimony from one of my former runners, the story is not really just about me. I think it represents most coaches who work hard, care about their athletes and treat them with respect. This is just what we do as coaches. A few months back I got a phone call from a runner I coached in 1968.  I will call him Fred. Here is what he said: 

“Coach, this is Fred. Coach, I woke up this morning with one thought. ‘Coach has got to know.  Coach has got to know that he and my mom are the two people who have influenced me the most in my life.’ Coach, I recently had a professional crisis which had me depressed and feeling defeated. In the middle of the crisis, however, I woke up around two in the morning and said, 'There is no way I am going to take this lying down. I have to fight back.’ And I did. To make a long story short, I found a way to win my case against what looked like insurmountable odds. After the crises had passed, I began to ask myself some questions: 'Where did that discipline come from? How was I able to keep my positive attitude when things seemed so hopeless? Why did I refuse to give up?' Then I began to think of other losses I have experienced in life and how I did not allow myself to be defeated by them. It was because of you, Coach. As a teenager I heard so many messengers, why was I willing to listen to you? It was you, Coach.  You were the one. So I thought to myself today, ‘Coach has got to know' and that is why I am calling.” 

A few years ago I decided to write a book on coaching entitled 'Creating a Team like No Other'. I began by giving written surveys to current and former athletes asking two questions: What did your coach do that was helpful in your development and what did your coach do that was counterproductive?  I always knew that a coach could leave his or her mark on a player but the stories I received back even surprised me. While some of the stories were inspirational and others were disheartening, what could not be denied was the strong impression coaches had on those in their charge. So many of the men and women surveyed remembered their coaches' exact words and actions, which had occurred ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, along with the same feelings that came with these experiences. Here are a few examples of what they wrote:

"Coach always said that we did not have to like everyone on the team but that we did have to take a good attitude toward our teammates. That philosophy has served me well in life and I take it to the workplace every day."

"I struggled with my composure after strikeouts, errors and other screw-ups. Some of my coaches tolerated this and saw it as a sign that I was invested in the game. My coach, however, got on my case big time, more for tossing my bat in frustration than for throwing the ball over the first baseman’s head. I thought he was full of crap but he forced me to change how I approached the game, a wonderful and much needed lesson that I could apply to life beyond baseball."  

"One of my teammates made a stupid mistake which cost our team the game. I was angry and upset and was critical of him in front of the team. My coach immediately stepped in and said it was an honest mistake and was made from effort, caring and trying too hard and that no one felt worse than my teammate. I immediately then took on coach’s understanding attitude. I try to do the same in my dealings with people in my life today."

I could go on and on with more examples but I think the truth of what I am saying is obvious. I call it the 'wet cement' theory. Coaches meet their athletes at very impressionable times in their lives. Who the coach is as a person, what the coach says and does, and the experiences the athletes have, can and frequently do make deep and lasting impressions - comparable to carving one’s initials in fresh cement. As one of those surveyed said, “We went on with our lives but Coach’s voice continued to live within us.” 

Another reason for the lasting effect a coach can have on a young person is that the title of coach carries with it a lot of weight. It is a position of trust and respect. Athletes come to their coaches full of hope. They want to improve and succeed and are counting on 'Coach' to help make it happen. Also they are trying to prove themselves thus a coach often plays a very important role in helping a person forge their own identity. Coaches are in the enviable position of being the ultimate teacher and role model.

The whole point of this article is to bring home the truth that coaching is an incredible honor but also a huge responsibility that should not be taken lightly. I read once that the purpose of human existence is for people to grow and develop with the hope of coming closer and closer to reaching one’s unique potential. If this is true, then coaching is indeed a sacred trust. When I met my first team in 1965, I sensed I was walking on holy ground.  Now 51 years and over twelve hundred runners later, I’m more convinced of this than ever.

Tom Sexton, Cross Country Running Coach, Hollywood, PA (USA)

Follow: @runningwithsexton