AUGUSTA — Coach says.
The two most influential words heard by American adolescents who participate in sports today are: “Coach says.”
Research shows that in a culture affected by divorce, single parenting, material entitlement and at least occasional resistance to parental guidance, sports coaches from youth leagues to Division I athletics have far more influence on young Americans than they did two generations ago.
When asked who their most important role models are, adolescents choose coaches over parents, teachers, friends, grandparents or clergy.
Which, in turn, means that coaches today must use that influence wisely.
That was the message sent on Saturday by Jeff Duke, who holds a doctoral degree in education, works for his son as an assistant high school football coach in suburban Orlando, Fla., who once coached under Florida State football legend Bobby Bowden and is a post-graduate lecturer and professor at the University of Central Florida.
Duke spoke at the Augusta Civic Center to 70 high school and middle school coaches representing schools from Portland to Lincoln. He challenged coaches to go beyond focusing on strength, endurance and skill building. Far beyond.
“A lot of us coach, how? Like we were coached,” Duke said. “The problem is the athletes and the culture have changed.”
Duke’s presentation, sponsored by the Maine Fellowship of Christian Athletes and offered at no cost to attendees, centered on what he calls the three dimensions of coaching.
First, coach the athlete’s body: strength, speed, skills, endurance. Then, coach the athlete’s mind, including how to motivate players, using effective but overlooked techniques like teammate-to-teammate instruction. Finally, there’s “holism,” where the coaches put themselves on the line at times, showing their own vulnerabilities and willingness to grow.
The vast majority of coaches never venture beyond level one, Duke said. Want proof? Weight rooms and school fitness centers today far surpass the facilities available to athletes a generation ago. “That’s where we get stuck,” said Duke. “It’s what we understand.”
But shiny weight-lifting equipment, indoor tracks and turf fields only go so far. Duke offered examples from Florida where under-equipped high school teams hired coaches who went beyond skills training and strength building — and quickly produced winning teams. They cared about their players. They made the athletes care about and mentor one another.
During his days as an assistant football coach at Florida State, Bobby Bowden told Duke that sports go beyond the scoreboard, beyond wins and losses. The players and their families don’t always see that.
“Kids today are motivated by three things: I want playing time. I want the position I want. And I want a chance at a scholarship,” Duke told the coaches. “What’s your strategy to motivate kids at a higher level than what they get out of sports?”
The message was well-received.
From Brunswick, the mother-daughter coaching team of Joan Iuzzolino and Karin Paquin said Duke affirmed the approach they are taking with field hockey in their school. Iuzzolino is the middle school field hockey coach. Her daughter is just off her first year as the high school coach. The Dragons went 1-13 last season.
But the Brunswick girls also did something special: They boarded the Downeaster Amtrak train and went to Cambridge, Mass., to watch the Harvard field hockey team play and meet with a few Harvard team members.
“The Harvard players told our players that they get good grades but they couldn’t do it without field hockey,” said Paquin. “The two things go together.”
From Madison, coaches Ted Brown and Michael Edgerly said that when players first show up, a wall can exist, a self-defense mechanism that players use to keep adult coaches at arms’ length. A key to coaching is to remove that barrier.
“We’re not your parent but we are your mentor,” Brown said. “We care about you. We love you. We want what’s best for you.”
Deciding on the best approach can be difficult, however. Duke said some coaches reflect today’s culture and emphasize external goals: championship banners, trophies and even college scholarships. Duke said parents and coaches should know that 3 percent of all high school varsity athletes receive college sports scholarships, and many of those provide only partial aid.
Too many end-of-season sports team ceremonies focus on external recognition such as awards for most valuable player, most improved player, best defender or scorer, said Duke.
Some of the best sports banquets he’s heard about don’t include awards at all. Instead, players write letters to their parents about what they learned by playing on a sport or a team and the seniors read those letters aloud after their final seasons. Attendance booms as grandparents, friends and underclassmen all want to hear what’s being read.
“Sure, the coaches still give out awards to the players,” Duke said. “External motivation can be great. But that’s done privately, an in-the-locker-room kind of thing.”
To drive home his point about the importance of coaching, Duke asked the coaches to watch what parents do at future sporting events.
“Parents only watch two things during games,” he said, “their kid and their kid’s coach. When their kid does something good, they look to see how the coach reacts. When their kid does something bad, they want to see how the coach reacts.”