By Wilbur Braithwaite
A coach with any degree of longevity is well aware of the gamut of reactions individuals or groups have to his/her style of coaching. Praise often is followed by various gradations of ridicule, and loyal support can erode into disenchantment. What seemed like a coaching haven this season can vanish into a stormy harbor next year.
A high school coach's basic philosophy of sports coupled with character should act as a steadying influence, bridging the gap between good and bad times. Like a military commander knows the strength and weakness of both friends and foes, coaches ought to be versed in the traits of groups and individuals that follow the school's programs, and particularly the coach's specialty.
Let me share with you an idea of how to categorize the group called fans, defined as anyone who attends games or follows your program with interest. Roughly they can be divided into four sets: PURISTS, LOYALISTS, PERFECTIONISTS and EXTREMISTS. Here's a closer look at each type.
PURISTS – In the main, this group views sports much like an aficionado of the arts may relate to a symphonic concert. Even if a rare mistake is made by a trumpet player, the overall beauty of the event enthralls them. Similarly the purists acknowledge the great plays executed by both teams, although their prime backing is for their team and school. (Perhaps one has to be a senior-senior citizen to recall when fans applauded spectacular moves of an opponent. It actually used to happen.) Basically, these people are not disturbed when a mistake is made. Sports are seen as an arena for developing competitive skills and the character of the participants; thus emotion plays a lesser role than analysis and observation. It is not their nature to cheer loudly and booing is taboo.
LOYALISTS – In both victory and defeat, loyalists feel the joy and disappointment of the contestants. On occasion, they may be critical of the coach and team, yet they have a knowledge and clear perspective of the proper role of high school athletics. Sportsmanship, gameness of competitors, empathy for the youngsters who engage in the risks inherent in performance on a noisy stage are acknowledged as legitimate reasons for secondary competitive sports. Expect this category to be at the next game cheering on the team.
PERFECTIONISTS – Perfectionists disdain flawed performance of both the team and individual members. There is a tendency to hold error-prone high school learners to the same high standards as smooth-functioning professionals. In football, fumbling, dropping a pass thrown to the letters or jumping offside is quickly traced to "lack of execution" and "lack of the coaching of fundamentals." Seldom is consideration made for inexperience under competitive pressure. Similar examples of errors in basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, softball, tennis, and to a lesser degree, the curriculum of all high school sports can easily be cited. Yet, performance frailty is soon forgotten and forgiven. Perfectionists will usually come back to the next game and continue to deplore the ineptness of the players and coaches but still pull for them.
EXTREMISTS – Winning is very important, an elixir to satisfy their egos. A loss acts as a depressant, a personal rebuff. The feeling may linger for days, weeks or longer. Grudges formed are not easily forgotten or forgiven. Ironically, extremists are often driven individuals who succeed in business, the professions and other fields of endeavor. Extreme self-confidence (at least on the surface) is usually a trademark.
On a percentage basis, consider dividing the fan base into the following proportion: PURISTS, 10%; LOYALISTS, 75%; PERFECTIONISTS, 10 %; EXTREMISTS, 5%. These are not waterproof compartments. Seepage occurs between the purists, loyalists and perfectionists. Each group has subsets of parents, relatives of players, administrators, men, women, students, et al. The one more or less isolated type is the extremists, although perfectionists may be recruited to join this cadre for special purposes.
The "clear and imminent danger" to a coach and his/her program comes from the five percent category. This group can often find a motive for aggressive action and has the drive, and unfortunately the power, to attempt to derail a good program. But it is far from inevitable that their effort produces concrete results.
Again, as previously stated, a high school coach's basic philosophy of sports, coupled with one's character, act like a gyroscope or compass as a steadying influence, bridging the gap between good and bad times. A gyroscope spins with balance and control. A compass points due north while on a turbulent ocean or deep in a pine tree forest. Below are practical ideas to enhance an offensive or defensive game plan to help define your program.
1. Bolster your Base of Support:
- Develop mutual trust in the player/coach relationship. The proven virtues of fairness and empathy to the needs of others work wonders. Players respect you if you respect them. Consider this quote from Dudley Flood, a former coach and superintendent of schools in North Carolina: "People tend to become what they think you think they are."
- Unite the 95-percent fan base through selling your philosophy of sports via every resource available, i.e., radio and press interviews; faculty meetings; school, city and state newspapers; and more.
- Make sure to develop an honest relationship with the school's educational team, such as the athletic director, principal and assistants, teachers, clerks, janitors, lunch room workers and others associated with the school and district. Do so in a spontaneous, natural way. Capitalize on the opportunities when available.
- Keep up-to-date in the coaching and teaching profession. Know your "stuff' and continue to learn.
- Be professional in your relationship with the superintendent, board members and district workers.
2. How to Relate to the Extremist Group.
- Never back-down to false accusations or concede to the “winning is not everything; it's the only thing” adherents.
- Do not confront those who are disciples of this distortion as to the purpose of high school sports. Let them confront you. Return anger with calmness, hard as this may be at the time. Robert Louis Stevenson said it well: "Quiet minds are like a clock in a thunderstorm that keeps moving along at its own private pace in fortune or misfortune." Defend your actions and give honest reasons to counter their contentions.
- Difficult as the duty is, prepare your family and loved ones for the criticism and request patience on their part.
If you love coaching – not for the purpose of building a reputation or to compile winning stats and accumulate trophies, nor to merely satisfy a need to compete, rather because of your love of youth and a desire to be a positive catalyst for their present and future development – you can confidently look to the future. Your unwavering example will not go unnoticed by 95 percent of the community. The program is well worth the price of fighting to perpetuate it. Why let the five-percent vocal, pressure prone, petition-wielding minority dictate your program's future? Shore up your base of support each day in practice and in every game played, and use the public platform, unpretentiously, to espouse your faith in our youth and the value of sports in their lives. Good luck and keep your head high and eyes on the ultimate goal.
"Not to the clamour of the crowded street,
Nor the shouts and plaudits of the throng;
But within ourselves are victory and defeat."
About the Author: Wilbur Braithwaite coached basketball at Manti (Utah) High School for 37 years, retiring in 1988. He was one of this nation’s most beloved high school coaches and one of the key contributors to the early success of the NFHS Coaches’ Quarterly. Braithwaite, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 83, contributed more than 30 articles to the publication, including this one. He was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 1989.