Welcome To The Dugout

"If Pele had been born in the jungles of Borneo and somebody had given him a soccer ball, he'd have eaten the bloody thing!"

Thus was I introduced at a coaching clinic in England, to the notion that great athletes, even god-like soccer players such as the great Pele, were not born with skill. Clearly the clinician's humor was intended to make the point that skills are learned and although Pele was blessed with magnificent physical attributes he learned his sublime soccer skills as a result of the environment he grew up in.

His environment happened to be the back alleys and hard streets of Brazil where the kids, in essence, teach themselves. However, somewhere along the line there was a teacher, a mentor, a guiding light, a person of influence who aided in Pele's ascension to becoming the greatest player in the history of the game. Yes, even Pele needed a coach.

In decades past the stereotype of a coach was often that of a hard-nosed disciplinarian who took a straight-arrow approach to teaching and competing, believing that character is forged in the smithy of hard work. Coaches were teachers and they didn't care much about being liked as long as they were respected.

Fast forward to today.

I am a coach and I am of the modern era which requires that I be considerably more amorphous than the whistle-toting drill sergeant of the past (although I do carry a whistle from time to time!) Everything is different: expectations are higher; the clientele (in my case collegiate soccer players) is needier and more demanding and the role of sports in our culture has mushroomed into an unavoidable and omnipresent facet of daily life almost from cradle to grave.

As a college coach I am responsible for the teaching of my sport and the competitive preparation of the athletes and team. I also recruit, fundraise and manage the administrative functions of my program. However, those are merely the parts of the iceberg that can be seen above the water.

It is almost universally accepted that college coaches now behave as parental figures, disciplinarians, advisors, counselors and yes, whether we like the designation or not, we are role models.

While that may also have been the case in the past, the difference today is the degree to which we deal with the portion of the iceberg that is beneath the surface. In English soccer parlance it is referred to as "man-management" and in today's world a coach's ability to successfully deal with difficult people is almost as important as their ability to teach and win.

Much has been made of the emerging "millennial" generation of entitled young people and the parents that produce them; they are a very real phenomenon whose behavior is causing even the most traditional institutions of education, corporate business, marketing and entertainment to sit up, re-evaluate and adapt.

Those of us in the coaching profession are often front and center in this interaction, we have considerable influence on young people and often find ourselves with unique opportunities to set standards, expectations and limits for the entitled, those that lack resilience and those with unrealistic perspectives. Oftentimes we're successful, sometimes we're not but the search for better ways to deal with the challenges is an ongoing necessity in our work.

This seems to be true in other fields also where many companies are changing their management structures to incorporate a coaching model to replace the traditional supervisor-employee relationships of the past. Clearly the shift in the needs of young people has necessitated a re-think in how to get the best performance from them and perhaps foreshadows the direction of the leadership and management models of the future.

In View From The Dugout my intention will be to use this space to explore many aspects of youth, collegiate and even professional sports and culture from a coach's perspective and although I'm not likely to go to Borneo any time soon, I hope to encourage talented youngsters to kick soccer balls rather than eat them!

About the Author

Brian Tompkins

Brian Tompkins is the Associate Athletic Director for Student Sevices and former Head Coach of Men's Soccer at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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