I count playing football in high school among the most formative experiences of my life. Football helped me understand what it means to be a part of a team and had a profound impact on my sense of social justice, particularly in terms of race. Additionally, I made lifelong friends like Chris Dawson. Chris just took a job coaching at our alma mater, Broughton High School, and wrote the reflections below as a part of his re-introduction to the community.
We know more about football’s impact on the developing brain today than we did when I was playing in the late 90’s. As much as I loved playing football, I’m honestly ambivalent about the sport today. I am, however, not ambivalent at all about the lessons Coach Dawson describes below. We should engage every young person in ways that help her/him learn to work hard, have fun, and take care of our community. Chris’s philosophy of coaching challenges us all to think about how we are teaching these lessons to the young folks in our lifes, -JRTM
“Work hard. Have fun. Take care of each other.” If you come to any practice or game I’m coaching, you’ll hear me say this to my student-athletes before they take the field. This is my coaching mantra. This is my life mantra.
Work hard. There are no secrets to success, only hard work. In my experience,
the two greatest predictors of individual success are opportunity and work ethic. Broughton is a very heterogeneous community, and some of my student-athletes have been blessed with much better opportunities and advantages than others, but all of them have the opportunity to attend a good high school and play in a good
program. I demand that my student-athletes give maximum effort in every practice and game. Hard work requires sacrifice, persistence, focus, and a willingness to endure discomfort. I teach my student-athletes to embrace discomfort. According to John Wooden, one of my coaching idols, “the great competitors that [he] played for, coached, and admired all shared a joy derived from the struggle itself - the journey, the contest. They [did] so because only in that supreme effort is there an opportunity to summon your best, a personal greatness that cannot be diminished, dismissed, or derided because of a final score or bottom line.” Every obstacle, hardship, or setback is an opportunity to grow, improve, and strive for personal and collective greatness.
The highest virtue to the ancient Greeks was arête, a term that refers to generalized excellence, being the best you can be in all that you do, and achieving your full human potential. The ancient Greeks scorned specialists for their narrow focus and limited scope of abilities. In a world of increasing specialization, I push my student-athletes to be Renaissance men. They should never be satisfied with simply being great football players. They must also strive to be great students, artists, friends, family members, and the like.
Have Fun. Football is a game. Games are fun. We should never lose sight of this. Excellence in football requires an enormous commitment of time and energy. Folks should make this commitment unless they enjoy it. They might not enjoy every aspect of the process, but on the whole, it should be a fun, engaging, meaningful experience. Also, research has shown that people perform better when they’re having fun.
“Fun” in competitive sports is not the same thing as “fun” in the hallway or “fun” at your buddy’s house. Fun on the football field isn’t goofing around, telling jokes, or being stupid. Fun on the football field is pushing your mind and body to the limit in order to grow, improve, and overcome the obstacles in your path. Fun is losing yourself in the flow of the game. Fun is working in harmony with your teammates so that the whole of the team is greater than the sum of its parts.
When you feel yourself getting better, and when you see your teammates getting better, it’s fun. When you lose your concerns for yourself and feel completely connected with, and invested in, the success of the team, it’s exhilarating.
Take care of each other. Of the three exhortations I make to my players before they step on the field, the last is the most important to me. The richest gifts that teams provide are relationships, and the most important skills that team sports teach are those related to building and maintaining strong relationships.
My number one concern as a coach is that my players treat each other well. Great teams are built on a foundation of revolutionary other-centeredness.
They require players to put the needs of the team and their teammates before their own. This counter-cultural habit combats our “me-centered” culture, a problem that seems worse in teen culture. Selflessness is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It must be taught and practiced. The first and most important step in putting others first is learning to empathize. Put yourself in your teammate’s shoes. See and feel the situation from his position. I ask them to want success for each other just as badly as they want it for themselves. We also spend time discussing empathy towards people outside of our team, from opponents, to officials, to family members, to those less fortunate in and outside of our school..
The logical step from empathy is service. Leaders are servants, and I ask my team to serve each other.
I ask the same of the coaching staff. As the foremost leaders of the team, we must model how to serve. Serving my players means making each boy feel valued and affirmed, helping each boy find a meaningful role on the team, pushing each boy to live up to his potential. providing each boy with the best possible instruction, and teaching each boy the performance and moral character traits required of a good man.
I remind myself before every practice and game that I coach to serve my players -- not the other way around. I remind myself that my worth as a coach is determined not by my win-loss record, but rather by the impact I make in the lives of my players.
When I ask the boys to work hard, have fun, and take care of each other, I’m really asking them to engage in the process of becoming good citizens and people. I assist in this process by teaching them a work ethic that will help them to be successful individuals, an attitude that will allow them to enjoy life, and relational skills that will enable them to make life better for all those with whom they interact.
Football offers a platform like no other to help boys become good men, but this doesn’t happen through osmosis or chance. Student-athletes will only learn the life lessons that football can teach if they play for a coach who teaches those lessons purposefully, strategically, and overtly. That is what I do.
Chris Dawson teaches 11/12th grade English and coaches football and basketball at Gilman School in Baltimore, MD. Chris will be heading to Raleigh, NC with his family in the fall to take over the head football coaching job at his alma mater, Broughton High School, where he will also continue to teach English. Chris’s wife Lucy is also a high school English teacher, a much better teacher than Chris, in fact. Chris and Lucy have an 18 month old daredevil daughter named Eleanor.
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