Taking Off The Training Wheels – first published in Goal Lines Magazine April, 2008

Back in 1995 an author named Barbara Feinman Todd, whom I had never heard of, wrote a book titled “It Takes a Village”, that I never read.  Hillary Clinton pasted her name on the cover and made it an instant best seller, but was also thoroughly ridiculed for failing to acknowledge Feinman Todd’s efforts.  The book was quickly relegated to water-cooler mockery and shelved near Milli Vanilli’s debut album, “All or Nothing”, in the ‘Lacking Authenticity’ section of history.

Still, the concept ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is as old as man.  Aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, employers and coaches all provide depth and breadth to the growth of our children parents cannot hope to achieve alone.  Not only do these folks bring unique lessons and perspectives into the lives of our youth, they force the kids to cope with a wide variety of personalities in a very intimate setting not conveniently escaped.  Learning to cope with the world may be the greatest lesson of them all, as no one can hide behind their mother’s skirt forever.

In today’s America, coaches bring a unique set of lessons to the table.  Lessons parents shouldn’t teach, and lessons our litigious society has forbidden most schoolteachers to bring to the classroom.  Coaches demand!  They demand from the wealthy and they demand from the poor.  They demand from kids who are broken the same as they demand from kids who are whole.  The student either commits, or goes home.  This applies not just to athletic coaches, but all coaches that exist in places such as the fine arts, dance, music, voice, etc.  Coaches force their students to decide to work hard of their own free will, independent of their parents, or pack it up and quit.

There are good coaches and there are bad coaches and the difference between the two is often simply a matter of opinion.  I never played football and despised my high school’s football coach, but I do have to admit – he was a hell of a coach, winning a state championship my freshman year and league championship my senior year.  His players worked hard and respected his authority.  Wrestling was my sport, and besides my father, my high school coaches, Ron James and Rae Endicott, were easily the most influential men in my life.  They took a lazy, belligerent, smart-mouthed fourteen-year-old boy and destroyed him.  Every day.  For four months.  Halfway through my freshman season of sprains, pulled muscles and black eyes, Coach James and Coach Endicott took me aside and looked me in the eye without mercy, and told me… not asked… told me I needed to decide whether or not I wanted to be there.  It was a turning point in my life.  I was an awful wrestler.  I was half-ass.  I got pinned every time I stepped on the mat.  I could have quit and walked away and no one would have cared – a choice many of my teammates made.  Instead I committed 100%, and in return, my coaches committed to me.  I only won a single match that year, but achieved a far greater milestone.  My coaches forced me to make my first adult decision in their mission to change me from a boy to a man.

During those years my parents also gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life – they did not interfere with the relationship I had with my coaches.  They didn’t ring them on the telephone complaining about my many injuries.  They didn’t file a grievance with the athletic director when they thought I was cutting too much weight.  While they certainly did not enjoy watching me lose all the time, they never pulled my coach aside and whined.  As a freshman, I was so far down the depth-chart in my weight-class, I often spent an entire meet on the bench without a match.  No complaint from my folks.  Certainly, if either coach posed a real danger to me, say, supplying me with illegal drugs or alcohol, promoting sexual misconduct, intentionally making me the target of hazing, or withholding asthma medication, my parents would have stepped in and there would have been hell to pay.  In the absence of any serious threat, I was left alone to be my own advocate.  I could work hard, or I could quit.  It was entirely up to me.

I realize it was a different time back in the day when I was young.  Parents were generally far less invested in their child’s athletic careers than today.  The new generation of sports parent carries a load unheard until very late in the 20th Century.  Private clubs now dominate the youth landscape and they demand as much from Mom and Dad as they do from Junior.  We are used to meddling in the relationship between coach and athlete, and coaches understand they must manage the folks as well as the kids in order to make the system work.  This makes the day our sweet darlings enter high school all the more difficult.  We need to let go of our meddlesome tendencies and turn control over to the athletes themselves so they can start down the road to being an adult.  No easy task, for sure.  Many of us have been organizing teams, carpools and fundraisers since our tots were in kindergarten.  The titles of Soccer Mom and Sports Dad are not always easy to abdicate, but I am telling you, for the sake of your kid, you have to do it.  You have to begin turning control over to the athlete.  My eldest daughter turns sixteen this year and it scares the hell out of me she will be driving herself to school and practice alone, but I cannot let that fear prevent me from letting her take on adult responsibilities.  I have to step back and let go.

Wrestling in high school was easily the second most difficult achievement of my life, and it prepared me to survive my life’s hardest challenge, OSU’s grueling pharmacy program, far better than any class or teacher ever did.  Had I not been forced to make my own decisions and my own mistakes as an athlete, I likely would not be where I am today – and I am in a very good place.  In turn, as my parents did for me, I will try to do for my own.  I am just taking off yet one more set of training wheels.

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