Goal Posts

Commentary on the complex relationships between motivation, performance, competition, cooperation, and goals.

Role Models for Children: Dennis Denning or Tiger Woods?

Why a Bulldog is better than a Tiger

Over the past two weeks, Tiger Woods has been the center of a media maelstrom due to numerous accounts of his marital infidelity. Despite Tiger's pleas for privacy, the media and the public appear to be less than satiated with Tiger updates. Where Woods used to be renowned for the steely glare and an unwavering focus in his eye gaze on the course, we are now learning of his propensity for his eyes to wander (and more) when he is off the course.

Of course, this saga has caused psychologists, sports media, and spectators alike to speculate as to the underlying causes for Tiger's behaviors. In addition, it has brought back an age-old debate about whether professional athletes ought to be role models for children.

NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley caught a lot of heat when years ago he said, "I think the media demands that athletes be role models because there's some jealousy involved. It's as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we're going to make it tough on him. And what they're really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can't become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can't be like Michael Jordan."

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Although some viewed this as Barkley wanting to abdicate the responsibility that accompanies a role model, others viewed it as Barkley highlighting that kids ought to look for role models in their own communities working at jobs that do not require abnormal size, speed, quickness, or athletic ability. Barkley's quote, although controversial, is relevant once again as we evaluate Tiger Woods as a role model.

At this point in the blog, you may be wondering who is Dennis Denning and why is a bulldog better than a tiger when it comes to role models? Coach Denning retired today as the Baseball Coach at the University of St. Thomas. He inherited a moribund baseball program in 1994 and immediately turned it into a national powerhouse in NCAA Division III. Over the past 16 seasons, Coach Denning's record was an incredible 522-157. The Tommies won the National Championship in 2001 and 2009, allowing Coach Denning the rare opportunity to retire as a national champion. He also had unparalleled success at the high school level, coaching Cretin-Derham Hall High School to six state titles in a twelve year period. He coached players such as MLB Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, and had Joe Mauer in his youth baseball camps that have been attended by thousands of kids for the past thirty years. He has coached numerous players who went on to play both collegiately and professionally. Simply put, Coach Denning is a legend in the eyes of other coaches, his players, and baseball purists.

I had the privilege of playing for Coach Denning in high school. He always talked about wanting bulldogs on his teams. He defined a ‘bulldog' as one who competed hard and fair, who never gave up, and never backed down from a challenge. Coach Denning's players over the past several decades have learned innumerable lessons from him - I summarize a few of them below. I think these lessons highlight why our children are far better off modeling themselves after a local legend like Coach Denning than professional athletes such as Tiger Woods who have careers that very few children will have the opportunity to emulate, and many of whom behave in ways we hope our children absolutely will not emulate.

Lessons to be Learned for kids wanting to be a "Bulldog"

1) Loyalty - Coach Denning has lived and coached in St. Paul, MN for the past 43 years. During that time, he has passed on numerous opportunities to coach at higher levels in college or the professional ranks. He chose to remain loyal to his roots and impact young athletes at the local level.

2) Passion - I first met Coach Denning when I was six years old. At the time, he was coaching at a local grade school. I'll never forget the time he took with each young kid, no matter how talented. There was something magical about the way he was able to demand excellence while he simultaneously let each kid know they were important. I went on to play for Coach Denning in high school. We won a state championship in 1990 and I always say that I liked baseball, but I loved playing baseball for Coach Denning.

Today in his press conference Coach Denning talked about how blessed he was to coach a game that he loved, and have a chance to impact so many people. He retired because, "The coaching, recruiting and administrative tasks are a 12-month commitment and take an extraordinary amount of time and energy. Frankly, I don't have the energy today to do the job at the standard I feel it deserves." Keep in mind this is a National Coach of the Year coming off a National Championship, yet he didn't feel he could provide the experience he wanted to for his players. Rather than riding out several more seasons, Coach Denning would only coach if he could do it with the passion and energy he felt necessary to teach his players important lessons. To step away from something one loves because one believes kids deserve more energy and passion is the ultimate sign of integrity and respect for one's sport and one's players.

3) Motivation - Dennis' son Wes and I were the same age and close friends beginning in grade school. As the son of a coach known everywhere in the state of Minnesota, Wes had high expectations surrounding his baseball career. Dennis had played several years of professional ball, ascending to Baltimore's Triple-A team before an injury ended his career. In grade school, Wes was very fast, but not big or strong. He was a good baseball player, fundamentally sound, but did not stand out on the diamond. I recall people asking Coach Denning when he was going to start pushing Wes to be great. His response was always the same, and it struck this 12-year-old as incredibly sensible and well-thought out. "I've let Wes know that if he decides he wants to try to be great at baseball, I'll help him anyway I can. Until then, I'm staying away from coaching him, pushing him, or controlling him." What a refreshing attitude that highlights the value of providing a child with autonomy to promote intrinsic motivation.

Whatever happened to Wes' career? He blossomed in high school, and became as passionate about baseball as anyone I've ever seen. He received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota where he had an outstanding career. He was then drafted by the Montreal Expos and played several years in their minor league system. I am convinced Wes would have never attained such success, nor would they have the strong father-son relationship they possess had Coach Denning pressured Wes to devote more time to baseball as a youngster. Less can be more when it comes to youth sports and motivation.

4) Fundamentals - Coach Denning always drilled his teams to be impeccable in baserunning, bunting, and special situations. I will never forget the precision he demanded from us in our execution during indoor practices early in the season. Those practices taught us lessons about the importance of details in life. If somebody missed a sign or got picked off a base, there were going to be consequences. Dennis' teams never beat themselves, and they always put themselves in a position to win. Kids learn tremendous lessons from an emphasis on fundamentals and basic skills that lay a solid foundation for success.

5) The journey - At his press conference today, Coach Denning talked about the overemphasis placed on winning in our society. He talked about goals such as striving for excellence and to be good people, and that winning would take care of itself. This philosophy on winning is not shared by all, particularly in our culture where winning is often valued over everything else. However, coaches such as Dean Smith (North Carolina) and John Wooden (UCLA) both write about similar philosophies in terms of focusing on the journey, not the destination. This leads to greater joy and less concern over things that a team cannot control. Kids who learn to focus on the task at hand, rather than on the outcome, develop better coping skills in pressure situations and in dealing with adversity.

6) Efficiency - For years, baseball teams held practices where one player took hits while 15 others stood around waiting for a ball to be hit to them. Coach Denning was one of the first baseball coaches to have multiple stations set up, where one player would bat at home plate, another in the outfield, two more in batting cages, and several others taking soft toss practice against a fence. It was no surprise that his teams were always advanced; he simply found a way to be more efficient with practice space and time, providing his players many times the repetitions that players on other teams received.

7) Responsibility - Coach Denning's fields have always been immaculately manicured, due in large part to his own work. However, he also had a rule that each player took care of his own position, so before and after every practice and game, you would see Coach Denning's players raking, shoveling, and smoothing out dirt in the infield, on the pitching mound, and behind the plate. He talked often about treating others and their property with respect. In fact, in his retirement speech he mentioned how proud he was that his players always cleaned up after themselves on bus rides and after road games. How many coaches who win National Coach of the Year Awards and National Championships take pride in such simple but important tasks? One way we can build gratitude and discipline in our kids is to expect and demand that they act responsibly when it comes to their own and others' property.


8) "Dare to be great" was a common mantra from Coach Denning. He did a better job of instilling confidence in his player than any coach I have seen. Several months ago, a close friend and I were having dinner and Coach Denning's name came up. My friend Shawn marveled at Dennis' ability to instill confidence in players. Shawn recounted a story from the 1989 High School State Championship game. Coach Denning put Shawn at first base for the last inning of a one run game. Looking back, Shawn commented that he rarely played the field and that he should have been scared to death. Not only was Shawn not nervous, but he remembers wanting every ball to be hit to him. He looks back in amazement that he was so confident in that situation, and he credits Coach Denning's influence for much of that confidence. Kids who develop confidence will be more likely to seek out challenges in life after sports.

In the 2009 region finals, St. Thomas was set to play St. Olaf in a game that would decide who would advance to the World Series, Coach Denning chose a surprise pitcher to start the game. Dan Leslie, a senior infielder who came to St. Thomas as a top pitcher had not pitched in two years due to arm injuries. Dan focused on hitting and fielding for most of his outstanding career. After a two year layoff from pitching, how could a coach know Dan would be capable of a peak performance? The outcome? He threw a 3-hit shutout, St. Thomas advanced to the World Series, and had several remarkable victories in a row on their way to a National Championship! How did Dennis know that Dan would come through in the clutch? Maybe it's a sixth sense, maybe it's a read on clutch performers, and maybe it's the confidence that all of Coach Denning's players develop. This is a skill that all young athletes ought to develop by daring to be great!

Our kids have lots of access to information on professional athletes. These pro athletes, through no choice of their own often become kids' role models. This can be dangerous because (a) the vast majority of kids will never meet these role models, (b) many of these role models have little or no interest in being a role model, particularly to strangers, (c) most kids will not have a future in the same profession as their role models, and (d) many of these "role models" may well engage unscrupulous behavior.

On the other hand, most communities have role models in their business leaders, teachers, doctors, coaches, and countless others. What our kids need is to see people who wake up every day and give it their best shot, regardless of the profession or outcome. If our children learn values such as loyalty, passion, motivation, and confidence, while they focus on the journey, on fundamentals, and on daring to be great, they can learn valuable lifelong lessons like the ones Coach Denning has taught to thousands of players over the past 43 years.

Organized youth athletics were designed to develop character and values in children. Youth sports might actually return to their roots if our children focused more on guys like Coach Denning and less on guys like Tiger Woods. And Dennis' days of teaching and coaching may not be over. "I have 12 grandchildren, 11 of them under the age of 10. If I could get them all on one team, I might coach again,'' he said yesterday, laughing. "That's a possibility." Coach Denning - thanks for being a tremendous teacher, coach, and role model for thousands of young athletes!


John Tauer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas.


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