"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Coaches: Good for Life

In the United States, roughly one in ten kids are growing up in a single-parent home. The divorce rate among first marriages is 40 percent or more, and 40 percent of all births in the U.S. are coming out of wedlock. The consequences of the collapse of the family are well-documented. Of course, challenges also exist for children born into strong and wealthy families.

Regardless of the situation for a given child, many youth—roughly 41 million each year—will spend time under the supervision of an adult with a unique title: Coach. Back in 2005, Michael Lewis, author of bestselling books The Blind Side and Moneyball, wrote a New York Times Magazine article-turned-book titled, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life.

Lewis tells the story of his high school baseball coach, Coach Fitz, and the impact the man had on his life and his teammates’ lives.

“I’d spent the previous year racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers, and thinking up new ways to waste my time on earth. Worst of all, I had the most admirable, loving parents, on whom I could plausibly blame nothing. What was wrong with me? I didn’t know. To say I was ‘confused’ would be to put it kindly; ‘inert’ would be closer to the truth. In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at two in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars—you needed a hacksaw and two full nights to cut the winged medallion off a Bentley. Now this fantastically persuasive man was insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero.”

Earlier this year, the NCAA released the results of a surveyof 20,000 collegiate athletes across all divisions. One of the themes that came through unquestionably is the influence coaches have on their players. A few of the findings from the report:

– Coaches have a profound effect on college choice. Between 40 and 60 percent of student-athletes said it was unlikely that they would have chosen the same institution if there was a different coach. Men’s and women’s basketball players were most likely to tie their decision to the coach, as were highly recruited athletes in all sports.

– An initial look indicates the strong role that coaches play in the student-athlete’s experience. Fully 11% (7% of men and 16% of women) cited the coach or some aspect of their relationship with the coach as the one thing they would most like to be different.

– Overall, graduates were statistically more likely to report that their graduation was an important goal for their coaches. And, again, when examining separately by gender, ethnicity and sport group, the importance of graduation to the coach remained significant.

A coach may also become a form of parent-figure to his or her players. Grant Teaff, the former Baylor coach and current head of the American Football Coaches Association, says, “The coach, in our sport, is a surrogate father to a way higher percentage of student-athletes than we’d want to have. They have a great responsibility, and they work hard to live up to that.”

The influence of coaches can begin at the youth level, where an estimated 2.5 million adults in the U.S. annually volunteer their time as coaches of youth sports teams. Studies consistently show that coaches and teachers who coach under a “mastery climate,” where successful participation is defined, recognized, and evaluated in self-referenced terms, develop in players feelings of competence, enjoyment, social acceptance, and autonomy; greater intrinsic motivation, improved motor skills, and more frequent physical activity. Lewis describes the lessons learned from Coach Fitz as something that he could never have explained at the time but nevertheless have stayed with him through the years. His former high school teammates say that they still think about Coach Fitz and even have flashbacks of him when their own discipline is slipping.

“We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. What he knew—and I’m not sure he’d ever consciously thought it, but he knew it all the same—was that we’d never conquer the weakness within ourselves. We’d never drive the worst of ourselves away for good. We’d never win. The only glory to be had would be in the quality of the struggle.”

Bill McCartney, the former head foot ball coach at the University of Colorado, once said, “All coaching is, is taking a player where he can’t take himself.” As young people in the U.S. cope with the pressures of overbearing parents, or missing or divorced parents, kids today could use good coaches—like Coach Fitz—to do just that.