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Unnoticed by design

The lasting value of a coach

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Do you remember your first coach? I’m not talking about a sports coach. Not necessarily. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. For me, a coach is someone who sees your gifts and encourages you to use them. Someone who sees your gaps and helps you fill them. Someone who sees your potential and guides you toward it.

My first coach was my grandmother. I write about her a lot because she was awesome. Think of the most awesome person you know. Then apply a factor of 10. That would be her.

She’s been gone almost 15 years and she’s still my barometer. I guess to a certain extent, all grandmothers are perfect to their grandsons. As an adult, I can look back and admit she wasn’t perfect. Who is? But even her flaws had a certain grace about them. Or humor. Or both.

I often think of her when I’m at a crossroads, wondering how she might handle a decision. It makes me smile when it dawns on me—as it always does—that if I asked her, she’d say something like, “The real question is, how would you handle it?”

Maybe that’s the essence of a coach—a person who gives you what you need to be successful, including the freedom and flexibility to figure out how, when, and even if you’ll use any of it. Coaches are givers to their core. They aren’t in it for the recognition or the glory. True coaches—the best ones—want to make heroes of their players.

Last year I was fortunate to receive an honor from my hometown. In full disclosure, I was reluctant to go the ceremony. It wasn’t so much the idea of speaking in front of a group that I was dreading. It was that I was supposed to talk about me. I hate that kind of spotlight. I’m always afraid it will shine on some part of me I’d rather remain in the dark. In full disclosure, many of those darker places are now marked on me in ink like some kind of twisted treasure map. Plus, I’m told I have no poker face, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Shortly after I arrived at the event, a remarkable thing happened. I was overwhelmed by the number of people I thought of as coaches at various stages of my life. People who travelled long distances to be there for what they considered my moment. People who didn’t realize they were still coaching me in that moment—because as I took the microphone, all I could think about was that I was up there to celebrate them. Because, if I’m being honest, if they hadn’t been who they are, I don’t know who or where I’d be right now.

I could see their faces in the crowd. Even the ones who weren’t there. The ones who spent countless hours at the Kenan Center, Boulevard Twin Rinks, and all the other ice sheets from Mississauga to Vancouver, and Fort Covington to Long Island. The ones who may have volunteered because they had a kid on the team, but kept showing up every day for all the kids on their watch. People like Jim Welsh, Jim Urtel (and Gramps), Jim Hildreth, and Harold McNitt. I wonder why so many Jims.

I’ve had a wealth of wonderful coaches to guide me over the years. From Esther Owens, who defied the baseball gods by putting a lefty on second base. To Jumbo Corica and Tate Pitrello, who dragged me kicking and screaming to the “other” side of the plate. To Roy Mansell, who stepped back and let me be a self-centered jackass because he knew I wasn’t ready to learn how not to be one, and maybe because he knew I needed to fall before I found myself again. To Jim Brigger who took a chance by hiring me for a role he never intended me to fill, because he saw another way for me to contribute. To Jim Purvis, who helped me understand that sometimes the right questions are more important than the right answers.

I could keep going, but I won’t. I’ve had so many more coaches, not all of them Jims. But that’s another thing that defines the character of a coach. She doesn’t need to hear or see her name, because she isn’t in it for the notoriety.

Coaches quite literally change your life. You may not know it at the time. You may still not know it. But the value of those lessons stays with you even when that person is no longer around.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t know where to find some of my coaches today, but I don’t feel any less gratitude toward them. They made an impact—sometimes a figurative gut punch or a Three Stooges-style poke to the eyes—and I’m thankful for every moment they chose to coach me.

Earlier this week, I was in a team meeting. We—three of my coaches and I—were doing one of those self-reflection exercises that everyone hates to do, and I was in a particularly sappy mood. Maybe I should use a more positive-sounding term. Let’s say reflective.

Part of the exercise was to list three life achievements as though we had already achieved them. My mind rode a wrinkle in time back to a little kid tugging on an old lady’s housecoat, and the first thing I wrote was “I made my grandmother proud more often than I disappointed her.”

I warned you. Sappy mood. I mean reflective.

As I sit here on a plane not sleeping (what in Hell is wrong with me?), I realize I’ve made some marks—even recently—on the wrong side of that ledger. But I keep trying. Every day is a new opportunity to smile. To notice others. To help someone else be his or her best. Even to meet a new coach. Because it’s what my coaches—all of them—taught me to do. There have been times I forgot some of their lessons, but I’ll never lose them entirely. They seem to resurface when I need them the most. That’s the lasting value of a coach.

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