This article was written by Jiu Jitsu Black Belt and Custom Jitz head coach Adam Stacey.
The high school photo above is of Penny Anderson. I don’t know a lot about her other than she possessed a knack for making bad decisions. At a young age, she got heavily involved with drugs and alcohol. Also, at a relatively young age, she gave birth to four children, with each father being out of the picture. In 1996, I was told she was struck and killed by a car somewhere in Oregon. Often, I pull out this picture and wonder how Penny’s life would have been different had she genuine people mentoring her? What would her life be like if there was a sidekick patiently guiding her when she got wayward? Would she have benefited from Jiu Jitsu? What if Jiu Jitsu could have saved her life? I wonder these things because Penny was my mother. Now, before I pull on your emotions too intensely know this: I am well. I was saved at age seven by Joyce and Larry Stacey. They adopted me and welcomed me into their family. They gave me a home, health, and family. And, although I don’t call or write as much as I should, every day I am thankful for their compassionate willingness to take in a ragamuffin like me. You see, I bring up my mother because unlike her: great coaches and mentors have positively influenced my life. Pastors, friends, friend’s parents, teachers, coaches, all have stepped up to their role and took a moment to invest in me.
Aside from the Stacey’s some of the greatest people in my life have been coaches. It makes me wonder: where were hers? As a child, I had plenty to do. I played: Track & Field, Wrestling, Danzen-Ryu Ju Jitsu, and Judo. As an adult, I got into Soccer, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit, Karate, and Sambo. In every activity, I can remember the qualities of my favorite coaches. Today, I want to offer a perspective on four of these qualities I’ve seen in life-changing coaches; I share this humbly because as a jiu jitsu instructor, I attempt to emulate these in my own approach to my students. Effective coaches do their best to prevent people like my mother from slipping through the cracks by their ability to fill in the G.A.P.S. They are Genuine, Accepting and Patient Sidekicks.
All of my coaches were unique. Some demanded excellence whereas some merely expected that I participate. Regardless of the standard ALL of my favorites were genuine. Meaning, they all had a standard but when they said something it was sincere. It was honest. They never BS’d me. When I made mistakes, they let me know. When I did well, they told me. They were straight shooters. Likewise, and more importantly, they never tried to be anything they weren’t. They were normal people trying to do the best with what they had. I can look back and say: Coach Kerr, he was Coach Kerr. I don’t remember him being, or pretending to be, anyone but Coach Kerr. Nor have I met anyone like him since. I always appreciated his authenticity. He genuinely cared for me and wanted me to be the best wrestler I could be.
“I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.” – Will Rogers.
Another Rogers, Carl Rogers, an American Psychologist who developed a humanistic approach to psychology held “Unconditional Positive Regard” as one of his main approaches to counselling. “The second attitude of importance in creating a climate for change is acceptance, or caring, or prizing—what I have called “unconditional positive regard.” When the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at the moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely to occur.” (Rogers, 1980). Simply put, the best coaches, in my personal experience, were not always smiling or pardoning everything I did. They were, however, always accepting of WHERE I was on my journey. Even in my failures they respected me as a human attempting to navigate this world as best as I knew how. To paraphrase one of my college professors: “They loved me where I was but refused to leave me there.” For one reason or another, they knew how to facilitate a great climate that motivated me to be better.
Dan Gable, 1972 Summer Olympics Wrestling Champion, and one of the greatest wrestling coaches of our time, shares a warm story that illustrates the effect of a coach with Unconditional Positive Regard. It was when the Hawkeyes were getting ready to leave for the 1982 Big Ten Wrestling Championships. Coach Gable noticed that Barry Davis, one of the team’s star athletes, was missing. None of the other athletes knew where Davis was and all that was left was a note on his locker that said: “I am sorry I’m not going to make this trip with you guys. I wish you all the very best at the championships. Don’t try to find me because you never will. Good luck. –Barry Davis.” Coach Gable immediately dropped everything he was doing, he sent the team ahead of him to Michigan for weigh-ins, while he stayed in Iowa to search for Davis. Long story short, Barry, after a brutal season of making weight, was tired of fighting to make weight (grapplers know the fight). So, he intended to quit. Coach Gable finally found him at a grocery store stocking up on food. This is what Coach Gable said: “As soon as I saw him, I started to cry. I’m an emotional guy, and here is Barry, whom we’ve been searching the entire city for, and he’s about to quit. He was on the verge of giving up……Even though Davis had left the note imploring me not to come looking for him, I did so anyway. When the two of us walked out of the grocery store and sat in my car, there was no tough love or shaming. Rather, I asked the sophomore one question.” ‘I’ll never forget it,’ Davis says now. ‘All Coach said was, “What do you want to do?”' Davis reports, ‘I told him I wanted to make weight’” (Gable, 2015). Coach Gable positively influenced Davis simply by being there. No guilt. No shame. He cared.
We’ll get back to that example in a moment, but it leads us to our next quality: patience. Patience is not-so-much a virtue as it is a skill. “Patience is not something one buys, owns, and has forevermore. It can be ephemeral” (Rotella, 2015). I’m going to be straightforward; I am probably one of the most impatient people you could meet. I want things done, and I want them done quickly. No, I’m not inherently patient. It’s been a learning curve for me. Its taken practice, but I’ve developed a skill that helps: the ability to shut my mouth. I was once a know-nothin’ ornery little kid. In fact, we have all been the student at one point or another. What makes you think the people you mentor are any different? Help them rather than scold them impatiently. Hold your tongue. Speak when you need to. For adults, I trust they want to do a good job. When I catch myself getting too impatient, I shut my mouth, back off, and let them work through the movements. For kids, I‘ve learned to let children be children. I tell them this: “I have no problem helping you learn the basics of Jiu Jitsu, even if it takes YEARS, as long as you are honestly trying. I only lose my patience when I see that you are not trying. I can’t work harder than you.” There WILL be times when you have students who work less than you do. For those students, I present the information, try to help them, but if they refuse to work I encourage them to continue the bigger picture then walk away to help the next students.
Of the entire acronym, this is by far the most important. Primarily because it provides the context for the entire the article. The best coaches were merely constant sidekicks. Not overbearing counsellors. My role as coach is that of sidekick. I’m not trying to be the most important person in their life. Likewise, barring any major events, I don’t get overly involved in my student’s personal lives. I assume they will inform me if they want to. I’m just trying to help them succeed in their own Super Hero story. I see some students with blessed lives and for those I come alongside and cheer for them. I see other students with some heavy burdens, for those I come alongside and help them carry the load. I never try to take the burden or be the kid’s parent. I am merely a sidekick. However, I do want them to know that they have a person in their life that will fill in the GAPS to help them avoid any pitfalls. To bring up Coach Gable again, after his show of support, Barry Davis decided to stay on the team and make the championship. He traveled to Ann Arbor, made weight, and won the Big Ten Championship. Davis did it, as the book says: “for himself”, but it was also because DAN GABLE, the Olympic Champion, the NCAA Coach of Champions, the LEGEND, showed a 19-year-old kid that even Coach Gable cares.
If you're a coach, you’re deceiving yourself if you think you play only a small role in your students' lives. Your role is absolutely vital. Going back to Penny, her opportunity has come and gone, and the decisions she made led to her situation. I don’t live in a constant state of sorrow rather I live in an inspired state. I am motivated to be the type of sidekick my mother needed when she was young. I want to be a 'Penny Saver'. Being a coach is a huge responsibility. You never know how you will positively affect someone’s life. If you’re like me, you can look at every moment in your life and find that a coach or someone similar was there helping you make it through. Send them a thank you for filling in the GAPS, and remember that it's now YOUR turn to do the same for all the Pennys out there.