Helping Athletes Forge Stronger Identities

I had a conversation recently with one of my former runners who is about to start his teaching career. He said, “Coach, remember when you had the team run once a year with the elementary school kids as a way of promoting running? You came up to me and said, ‘Patrick, I notice that you are really good with kids. Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher?’ I never saw myself in that light before that day. I immediately went home and filled out an application for college with the intent to major in education. I am very excited about becoming a teacher and I have you to thank for it.” 

People see themselves through the eyes of others. Our identity is constantly being formed by how others see us and respond to us. The image others have of us can easily become the image we have of ourselves. My perception of Patrick as a possible future teacher helped him view himself differently and form a new identity.

After graduating from high school in June of 1956, I immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps and headed for Paris Island Boot Camp in South Carolina. I was having success until it was time to qualify on the rifle range. I had never fired a rifle in my life and was not doing well in practice. I was quickly losing confidence and becoming fearful of not qualifying. The day before qualification day, the rifle range instructor came up to me and said, “Why is a big strong marine like you afraid of a M-14 rifle?”

I assumed he was speaking to another recruit as I certainly did not see myself as a “big, strong marine.”  As far as I was concerned, I was a scared seventeen year- old boy who had been failing in shooting practice every day for the past few days. 

The next day I qualified by two thin points.  I don’t remember much about qualification day except that I was not nervous. Who knows if the instructor’s words made the difference between failure and success but his words, spoken over thirty-three years ago, have remained with me.  

If it is true that the image coaches have of their athletes can quickly become the image the athletes have of themselves, then coaches are in a position of helping athletes form a strong and positive identity.

While surveying people for the writing of my book, Creating A Team Like No Other, I came across a coach who truly understood the importance of protecting and enhancing his athletes’ self-concept. He cautioned his assistants “never to yell negative stuff unless they were prepared to follow the athlete until dark to find something positive to say.” He was adamant that his players’ self-assurance be protected. 

Dave Tanner is a highly regarded swim coach in Bloomington, Indiana. He swam for the legendary Doc Counsilman at Indiana University. Dave told me that Doc’s focus was to help his athletes form better opinions of themselves and that one word of praise was invaluable. To quote Dave, “Doc would say something like, ‘John, you were so impressive today that I award you a rating of excellent for the next twenty-four hours.’ Doc said these words kiddingly, but you went home feeling so good about yourself that for the next twenty-four hours, you did feel excellent and you took more pride in all your activities, classes, relationships etc. Such is the power of positive reinforcement.” 

          

 

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