When I agreed to become the soccer coach while teaching English at my hometown high school, I had two foundational commitments. One was I wanted to have the support to do the job right, and two was I wanted to start a girls program—with my eye on my daughter and her friends having a team when they were older.
Something I miss dearly about no longer teaching at that high schools is also about tension. As a white, male redneck myself, I knew my white, male redneck students—and especially my white, male redneck players on the teams I coached. That knowledge created an odd and even palpable tension among us—part brotherhood, and part distrust.
Committing to doing my job as soccer coach right meant that I had to learn soccer quickly—having never played myself—but it also meant I had to build a program (and not just a team) and a culture of professionalism—all of which I had come to understand through my daughter’s club soccer experiences.
That effort at building a culture of professionalism antagonized players, parents, and fans at matches.
I have no interest in ignoring or erasing the past—not mine, nor history writ large. But as a teacher and coach, I saw me in my students, and I did work quite seriously at rehabilitating the worst aspects of my redneck past that I saw in those students and athletes.
Step one with my soccer team was addressing warming up before matches. Before I took over, the team prepared for the matches in a way that reminded me of a carnival—lots of mayhem and lots of yelling and laughing.
If there is one thing about being a redneck that is our fatal flaw it is our proclivity to be loud and brash—an unwarranted arrogance that rips through anyone, any time like a tornado through a trailer park in springtime.
My players loved to play soccer; they begged every practice to scrimmage, only. But there was no sense of practice, and no grasp of the purposeful dedication to detail that was required to be successful.
Practices were a constant battle—how to instill the importance of drills, but also how to convince players to practice well.
So warm ups became the key turning point for moving the team from a doormat for other teams to a solid high school soccer team.
The team was entrusted with running warm ups on their own—guided by captains, but everyone’s responsibility. And the new norm was silence. The routine was precise, and the effect was crucial—as we immediately appeared to be a team with a mission, a team that was all in.
And it is in these efforts that my inner-Coach K and inner-Bobby Knight were on display. I have never been one for discipline or authoritarianism, but I have always been drawn to doing things right—with care, purpose, and precision.
Doing things right remains in our control, while being gifted is at the whim of the gods.
As a wanna-be athlete, as a teacher, as a coach, as a parent—nearly to a fault (if not to a fault), I sought to do these commitments right.
For all his flaws that we seem to ignore, Coach K, for me, embodies that same drive—as did Bobby Knight, Larry Bird, Tiger Woods, Bill Russell, Muhammed Ali, and many, many athletes I admired, like my daughter and my wife.
It is an intensity to be admired, an intensity destined to cross lines we shouldn’t cross.