Servant-Leadership and Coaching

I remember almost every single coach I have competed for starting with tee ball when I was five all the way through my current triathlon coach. These coaches do not stick in my mind because we were the best team (they invented the 5 run mercy rule for my little league team) or had the best record (except maybe the longest losing steak); rather, they remain in my mind and were (and are) great because they epitomized the paradoxical nature of coaching being not only leaders of their teams but also servants to their teams.

 

The leadership part of a great coach is obvious. Coaches are expected to provide guidance to their athletes and lead them to "glory"-be it a championship ring, a winning season, or a small personal achievement like losing weight or getting in shape. This type of leadership, though, is only half the job. They also have to lead their athletes off the field. In high school and college, when I had a problem -- be it academic, social, or familial -- I went to my coaches. Their office door was always open and even if they were extremely busy, they seemed to make time to listen. They did not always have an answer nor could they always fix the problem, but they could provide an open ear and understanding. They would turn off their cell phone, shut their laptop, and then sit with an open heart, a compassionate tongue, and patient mind while I unloaded my troubles. They rarely came up with the magical solution or tell me exactly what I wanted to hear (more often then not they would give me the right advice even if it was not what I wanted to hear), but by providing this outlet, they coached and led me through the rough spots and rejoiced with me in the good, a leadership quality that good coaches carry over into their athletic profession.

 

Similar to how they are present when their athletes struggle in life, coaches are also present when their athletes struggle on the field. In a hard interval set, race, or loss, the coach is there with his or her team as the team struggles and leads the team through it. They empathize with how tough the situation is but also gets the team through the exertion because the coach has been there as well. Instead of standing apart from the team, they are there with the team, relating and suffering with them and thus their gaining the respect. A team who feels that their coach can relate to them and their struggles will respect their coach as a leader and follow him or her because they know that the he or she is physically and emotionally invested in them through good times (or scores) and bad.

I remember almost every single coach I have competed for starting with tee ball when I was five all the way through my current triathlon coach. These coaches do not stick in my mind because we were the best team (they invented the 5 run mercy rule for my little league team) or had the best record (except maybe the longest losing steak); rather, they remain in my mind and were (and are) great because they epitomized the paradoxical nature of coaching being not only leaders of their teams but also servants to their teams.

 

The leadership part of a great coach is obvious. Coaches are expected to provide guidance to their athletes and lead them to "glory"-be it a championship ring, a winning season, or a small personal achievement like losing weight or getting in shape. This type of leadership, though, is only half the job. They also have to lead their athletes off the field. In high school and college, when I had a problem -- be it academic, social, or familial -- I went to my coaches. Their office door was always open and even if they were extremely busy, they seemed to make time to listen. They did not always have an answer nor could they always fix the problem, but they could provide an open ear and understanding. They would turn off their cell phone, shut their laptop, and then sit with an open heart, a compassionate tongue, and patient mind while I unloaded my troubles. They rarely came up with the magical solution or tell me exactly what I wanted to hear (more often then not they would give me the right advice even if it was not what I wanted to hear), but by providing this outlet, they coached and led me through the rough spots and rejoiced with me in the good, a leadership quality that good coaches carry over into their athletic profession.

 

Similar to how they are present when their athletes struggle in life, coaches are also present when their athletes struggle on the field. In a hard interval set, race, or loss, the coach is there with his or her team as the team struggles and leads the team through it. They empathize with how tough the situation is but also gets the team through the exertion because the coach has been there as well. Instead of standing apart from the team, they are there with the team, relating and suffering with them and thus their gaining the respect. A team who feels that their coach can relate to them and their struggles will respect their coach as a leader and follow him or her because they know that the he or she is physically and emotionally invested in them through good times (or scores) and bad.

 

Some coaches quit when the season looks grim and move to another team which may have a better record or players.  

Good coaches, though, see their team as the proverbial hand that they are dealt and then works with them through both wins and losses. They are therefore, in a way, selfless. They are able to shelve their own pride and aspirations for personal accomplishment so that the team itself rises as a unit. Therefore, they push their teams hard but not so that they themselves could win glory but so that the team, as a collective unit, could. It might be tempting for a coach to push an athlete to the absolute breaking point in order to achieve glory -- not the glory of the team but their own personal glory -- at the risk of injuring and alienating the team. It might be even more tempting for coaches to cut or not play the "Rudy"s of the team in order to avoid a loss or look bad in front of other coaches and teams. Great coaches though resist all these lures, sacrifice their own pride, and put the team as a whole in front of themselves. They recognize that no win is as important as an athlete's health and happiness and that if an athlete is willing to put in the time and effort, then he or she is part of the team and deserves just as much attention as the star. In doing so, they become servants to their team.

 

While Coaches Battaglia and Owen (my little league coaches), Leiderman (my crazy Russian wrestling coach), Delinsky (high school cross country), or Norman (middle school lacrosse) may not be elected to the Coaches Hall of Fame anytime soon, in my mind, they are up there already, right next to Joe Paterno, Vince Lomarbdi, Phil Jackson and even Mr. Miyagi because they were both leaders, leading their team as part of the team, and servants, serving the group as a whole with a selfless passion and commitment. Their screams, tears, curses, and sweat may have faded but because of their servant-leadership their impact on me and others plays on, which outlasts any trophy, record, or ring. As a cross country and triathlon coach now, I hope to bring the same loving commitment to my own team and athletes, motivating them to reach and surpass their own limits, and if they do not, then I still will take them out for ice cream after.

 

 

Chris Hague, an '07 graduate of the University of the South and 4-year varsity runner, is currently assistant coach to his former team; he remains an active runner and triathlete.