by Jennifer Sey
The word “coach”, for me, is synonymous with tyrant. I know this is not true of all coaches. I've seen “Hoosiers”, I know coaches do good. But negative memes are stickier than positive ones. And my childhood experience with coaches is that their primary goal is to build a relationship with the athlete that is based on shame and humiliation in order to inspire performance. The better the athlete, the more ruthless, autocratic and downright cruel the coach's behavior can be. Sure they may say that their intent is to use sport, in all its nobility, to teach the value of a healthy body and mind, the spirit of competitiveness, collaborative teamwork and, most importantly, to impart the lesson that “if you just work hard enough, anything is possible!”
Maybe. But my intimate involvement with coaches is with those of the famed Karolyi kind. Not them per se. But coaches of their ilk. Coaches of their sport. And I have spent more time with coaches than I will likely spend with my own children during their adolescence. For nearly a decade I trained for 35-45 hours a week in a musty, chalk-filled gym. I know all the ways that coaching can go wrong. I know coaches. At least the dangerous ones that entice talented, hard working whiz kids and goad them to glory. Or leave them stranded in failure.
Bela Karolyi is the famed Romanian coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. He's produced more Olympic medalists than Phil Jackson has NBA Championship Teams. And while he is best known for bear hugs and that outrageous accent and hyperbolic speech pattern, he is also known to inflict near starvation diets on prepubescent 17 year olds. Transgressors, those who dare to pack on enough body fat to broach menstruation, are rewarded with pet names including Tank and Butterball. His wife Marta is now the reigning queen of American gymnastics though she has been accused of grabbing Dominique Moceanu, a member of the gold medal Olympic gymnastics squad known as the “Magnificent Seven”, by the scruff of the neck and slamming her face into a telephone. Rodica Dunca, a former Romanian national team member (1978-82), described Bela's training camps as “concentration camp. Or even a prison.”
Bela and Marta coach champions. It's true. And maybe this kind of abuse is worth it for a gold medal. But it is no secret (read Mark Hyman's “Until It Hurts”) that suburban baseball fields are replete with ogres calling themselves coaches; men and women who can't think of anything better to do with their time than send children to hospitals, and later, to therapy. I don't have to refer to hearsay or news reports to know that this is true. I experienced the wisdom imparted by my own coaches who doled out insults like “lazy” and “fat” as if they were handing out Halloween candy. And I never went to the Olympics so I'd venture this kind of debasement is not always worthwhile. If the Olympics are the holy grail, that is.
But here's my real point: why, oh why, do women (it seems they are usually women, but I've not studied this) want to adopt the title “Life Coach” when they transition from one career as a marketer, publicist or some such high flying fandango into another, more touchy feely profession, which by all accounts, seems to be best described as unaccredited therapist? Gabrielle Bernstein, recently featured in the New York Times article “Seeing Yourself In Their Light”, is a former public relations professional. Now she spends her time providing guidance to harried women desperate for meaning. “Hang out in the light. Take action once a day to do something that ignites your life,” she chants to women who are propped on pillows and engaged in contemplation, as she collects $180 for four weekly sessions.
In sports, good coaches provide technical guidance to improve athletic performance and the emotional taunt that drives a competitor beyond her own expectations. A bad but often successful coach screams, calls the athlete names, throws things and generally behaves badly to scare the recipient into delivering.
And so it makes me snicker when I hear of people engaging life coaches to help them find “balance in their lives.” The new agey breathe and be present in your life and you will find your true calling sentiment that I envision life coaches whispering, breathless and supportive, could not be farther from my own notion of The Coach. I wouldn't willingly hire anyone who called themselves a coach. It would be like paying someone to call me stupid and useless, to kick me when I'm down.
This word “coach”, once crusty and authoritative, rarely used outside of stinky boxing gyms and sweat laden basketball courts, is now bantered about in reference to women ohm-ing around and anointing their hands with fragrant oils while preaching to eager audiences about “finding light”. Official degrees are not required. Although they often attend the Life Coach Institute to make it as formal as possible. They become Certified Coaches and lead sessions about making positive change. Best I can glean, “coach” is a fashionable code word for a person who isn't a psychologist but will take your money to help you figure out what is wrong with your life.
My coaches didn't help me figure out what was wrong with my life. They created what was wrong with it. I'll give them some credit. At first they made a lot right. They pushed me well beyond what I believed were my limitations by prodding me to have a cast removed from a broken ankle after only ten days so that I could be ready for Nationals in1985. And I placed 7th. Their fervor was going to do me right, help me achieve my dreams. And it did, no doubt about it. I won the title of US Gymnastics Champ in 1986, just 10 months after I suffered a broken femur at World Championships. I will always be proud of that accomplishment and I mean that without any facetiousness.
Unfortunately, my coaches eventually became the cause of everything that was wrong in my life. I take responsibility. I allowed it to happen. But when my eating disorder reeled out of control and cortisone shots became a monthly occurrence just so that I could survive my 6 hour practices on a purple, swollen ankle that apparently had nothing wrong with it, it was hard not to blame my coaches.
Life coaches, I beg of you, why not go with “mentor” or “trainer”? What's wrong with the admittedly feathery but accurate “helper”? Why do you insist on the word “coach”? I suspect for those pseudo therapists that adopt the term it is a relatively innocent form of self-inflation. The implication that there is a similarity between what a life coach will do for you and what Phil Jackson has done for the LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls in undeniable. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan owe their careers, in some part, to his guidance. I guess the inference, at its best, is that if you hire a life coach you'll be the Michael Jordan of your own life. You might win the life equivalent of an NBA title. Coach has the authoritative ring to it of “King” or “C.E.O.”
But I'm not buying it. The word “coach”, for me, stinks of false bravado, faux legitimacy and abuse. I'll engage a therapist to guide me through my challenges. To help me make choices when I find myself at a fork in the road. But a coach? No thanks. It conjures up images of me at said fork in road, with a jeering, red-faced despot hurling insults with the false certainty that she, and only she, knows how to push me through the pain and guide me towards the right path.