Many of us get our start playing organized sports during elementary school years when we first turn out for team sports such as baseball, soccer, hockey or football. That is also the first time in life that we encounter the people we call “Coach.”
On top of being a team captain in many sports over the years, I’ve done a ton of coaching over the years. During high school a classmate and I coached park district basketball together. He went on to get his Master’s Degree in recreation administration, then managed programming at a large non-profit health and fitness center. Even at seventeen years old, his attitude with the athletes we coached was one of encouragement and parity. I’ve never forgotten his example even thought I did not not always excel in following it. Coaching is not easy either as a volunteer or a professional. But we learn as we go.
Just out of high school I signed up to coach a large summer track program with athletes ranging from five years old to high school-aged kids. Some turned into national champions. We traveled with more than 100 kids competing across the state of Illinois for summer track meets with programs in Moline, Chicago, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, Belvidere and more. The experience those kids got competing against kids from every type of background was life-changing in many positive ways.
Along the way, I was getting plenty of coaching myself though high school and college, then for club teams in road racing. Most of the coaches along the way were great at what they did; teaching fundamentals, finding ways to motivate athletes, encouraging people to compete in healthy ways, and respecting the other teams and athletes we encountered.
But there were some bad coaches as well, petty people whose interests were almost all self-focused. I recall being made to sit the bench in a junior varsity basketball game because my friend’s father took us out of school on a Friday to do a college visit out east in Pennsylvania. We missed one basketball practice. It was an epic trip and an important step in the lives of young people trying to make decisions about their future. But all the coach cared about was the fact that I’d missed that practice, as if that was a sign of disrespect to him.
That same coach was known to sit pretty girls in the front row of the classes he taught so that he could look up their skirts. The girls knew it. They told me so. That permanently cemented my view of him, and I wound up avoiding basketball camp that next summer and never played again. Such are the negative influences of coaches without good character.
Bad characters and bad actors
Which makes me think about what it would be like if the likes of Donald Trump were to have been one of my coaches at some point in life. I met plenty like him in business over the years. Men who made a big show of being moral and upstanding, only to turn out to be less than ethical. One local developer with whom I worked while serving as a marketing consultant to a development firm made a show of wearing a crocheted cross in his front pocket. Then we learned that he’d run up debts with every contractor he hired. His entire enterprise floated on a sea of unpaid bills. The relationship between the two companies soon fell apart, as did the large deal in which they’d invested time and money.
The patterns evident in people of questionable character are so consistent and familiar it is astounding that they don’t get called to account more often. But there’s a tendency in this world to excuse bad behavior rather than confront it, especially when those dismissing the warning signs have some personal gain to make.
Standing up to bad actors
Confronting bad character in the moment is seldom easy, especially in business settings where personal reputations are on the line. But the rest of life is a rehearsal for our work life as well.
When I coached youth soccer there was a team in our league whose coach was famously confrontational. He and the fans attending the game to cheer on their kids broke every rule and brand of etiquette one could imagine. Despite league rules stating that no more than one head coach and two assistants could be on their sideline, he had five or six guys running up and down their half of the field yelling instructions to his players. The fans lined up in their lawn chairs yelled at the referees and even made comments about our players. Their team had developed that culture in the mold of their coach.
The scene came to a head just before the half when one of our forwards stole the ball at midfield and dribbled into their goal box to make a shot. Their goalie ran out, grabbed our player’s shirt and pulled him down to the ground. No call was made. It turned out the young referee for the game was actually the older brother of the kid playing goalie.
Obviously the environment got even more toxic before the game ended. Our fans began getting irritated and my own two assistants were angry and upset. When the game ended, I sent everyone quickly to their cars and was walking back to meet my family at our vehicle when one of their irate assistant coaches showed up in front of me and began yelling six inches from my face. I stood their mutely for a moment, then quietly said, “You do know how wrong you are right now, don’t you?”
Something clicked with him at that moment. He backed off an apologized.
I know what it’s like to lose my temper, get frustrated and blow my cool. For many years I was so competitive and hated to lose so badly I’d swear and act out. Even good coaches can lose their cool, especially when another team or competitor says or does something unacceptable. As a soccer coach for ten years, I confess to not setting the best example many times, even once tearing my hat in two pieces during a match after a bad call that cost us a goal.
So this is not to say that in assessing coaches throughout my life that I am (or was) perfect. Quite the opposite. But pointing out problems in the coaching style of others is not necessarily judging someone. It is healthy to try to look at the bigger picture and identify potential problem sources, not just dismiss or ignore them out of some desire to win or personal gain. Even great coaches such as Bobby Knight, the legendary chair-throwing coach at Indiana learned there are limits to their authoritarian models in coaching. Despite his winning ways, the University ultimately asked him to leave.
Now we’re living with President possessed of the same qualities as a bossy, abusive coach. Yet many of Trump’s biggest supporters insist that his imperfections are actually a blessing. Evangelicals even love to depict Trump as a man through whom God is working directly to effect good things in this world. By that measure, Trump can literally do nothing wrong. His flaws and even his outright fraud (Trump University) and conflicted interests on many fronts are ostensibly forgiven directly by God, so the providential claim is that the rest of us should just go along. Even the Senate of the United States was complicit in forgiving Trump’s egregious behavior in his attempts to coerce the President of Ukraine into corrupt actions on his behalf.
Learning from mistakes
But scripture tells us that learning from our mistakes is critical, or else forgiveness is not a given or a permanent state. Learning from mistakes is actually the most important quality of any good coach. A game lost is almost always a lesson won, unless you refuse to admit any sort of defeat or error. Then you are doomed to repeat them. A great coach knows how learn from his or her own mistakes as well as those made by the people around them. It is also true that you can tell much about the character of a person by who surrounds them and how they conduct themselves. It’s no secret why both John the Baptist and Jesus branded corrupt religious authorities a “brood of vipers” because they saw how religious legalism forced people into complicity with traditions corrupted by greed, self-righteousness and political power.
The lesson here is that a great coach learns to look objectively at situations and treat proteges with expectations, but respect. That is the most critical character trait of all. Everyone is accountable to one another. That is not judgment, it is good values.
That also means dealing constructively with complaint or criticism. One of the ways to deal with complaint is to frame its destructive qualities in terms of lack of respect, self or otherwise, and take ownership for any personal faults or errors before assigning them to others. That seems to be a big problem for Donald Trump. He refuses to learn from any of his past or present mistakes. Instead he whines and complains about how badly he is treated even when he leads the way in verbally abusing others and publicly revels in punishment and revenge. But his supporters seem to think that is his best worst quality. But a society that prides itself on belittling others is one diminished by its shrunken conscience.
No Apprentice please
Which is why I don’t think I’d ever be inspired to compete for Donald Trump if he was a coach. Back when he hosted that reality show The Apprentice I found the entire concept of firing people for entertainment’s sake to be offensive. What possible inspiration could one derive from seeing some bossy bully tell people “You’re fired!”
That is possibly the worst possible way to motivate anyone. Granted, creating an atmosphere of fear and trepidation is the tactic some successful coaches have adopted over the years. That Old School tactic was favored by tough old coaches for many years, especially back in the Good Old Days. But that is no guarantee it constitutes a Best Practice by any measure of civic engagement. After all, it was also common in the Good Old Days for people to experience sexual harassment as well as gender and sexual orientation and racial discrimination. The profession of human resources has evolved to prevent these Old School attitudes from dominating the workplace. That’s called progress.
Yet our current Coach In Chief exhibits all these negative traits in all phases of his life; personal, business and political. As result, the nation’s culture wars now flirts with outright civil war because he encourages old school attitudes with his claims of victimhood at the hands of those who dare question him. We all know coaches like that who rule the team or organization or league for years. They are the generals who refuse to be challenged on basis of their own claimed authority.
Old School War Mentality
Perhaps Trump is merely playing a role in his approach, adopting the Old School style of military commanders like General Patton or some John Wayne character that roils around in his head. Our nation lauds such leaders for sending men and women into war. But is the tactic of driving people by division and fear truly the best way to generate respect? Does breaking the will of men and women to rebuild it in the mold of a command genuinely create discipline and inspired competitors? Or is that an Old School anachronism?
War has always been known to reward a particular brand of mentality, one that frequently dismisses consequences in order to achieve certain outcomes. The war movie The Thin Red Line confronts this belief system in brilliant fashion, showing that soldiers and leaders truly do need to engage collaboratively in judgments of what it fair and sustainable even in war. Otherwise people die for no reason other than the ego of those driving them.
The United States essentially has an epidemic of soldiers coming back from the Iraq and Afghanistan with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps military veterans have always suffered stress disorders coming out of war, and it for centuries it simply fell into categories such as “shell shock” or other colloquial dismissals of mental health issues caused by war.
Despite greater awareness of the reality of this syndromes, some are still prone to stigmatize soldiers with PTSD. President Trump rankled military veterans with comments that were later published on StarsandStripes.com:
“Trump began speculating about PTSD on Friday morning when asked about the shooting, in which authorities say Marine veteran Ian David Long, 28, opened fire at a country-music bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and killed 12 people. Officers found Long inside an office in the bar, dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“He was a war veteran. He was a Marine. He was in the war. He served time. He saw some pretty bad things, and a lot of people say he had PTSD, and that’s a tough deal,” Trump said after describing the shooter as a “very sick puppy” who had a lot of problems.
“People come back – that’s why it’s a horrible thing – they come back, they’re never the same,” the president added, referring to Long’s military service.”
No empathy. No compassion. No Respect.
That’s not exactly an example of compassion, empathy or good coaching, do you think? How do statements like that make tens of thousands of veterans and their families feel when the Commander-in-Chief of our military makes broad-based statements like that?
Trump also maligned the service of the late Senator John McCain, a decorated veteran who suffered years of torture, then emerge to a successful political career. Yet Trump seemingly blamed McCain for the ordeal. As reported on Politico.com:
“Appearing on Saturday at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, the real estate mogul took his running feud with Arizona Sen. John McCain to a new level. “He’s not a war hero,” said Trump. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The problem with statements like that is they undermine trust and respect by using disrespect as a controlling tactic. Trump’s supporters seem to love his use of disrespect because it is “old school” like a tough old coach yelling at his football players to suck it up during two-a-days in the August heat.
But we’re learning that old school tactics are not always best for the long term health and lives of people in sports or business. Surely professional and college football teams are learning that the old attitudes toward concussions suffered in the support are not acceptable. New protocols to protect players suffering concussions are now in place at every level of football. Even rule changes for the game of football have been imposed over the last ten years to discourage players from engaging in hits that can hurt themselves or other players.
Some might call these changes unnecessary or, more cynically, the outcome of supposed ‘political correctness.’ There are still plenty of fans that prefer smashmouth football and fighting in hockey even if it causes those players to lose their minds later in life. That is a dangerous attitude to sustain in any society; that is acceptable to allow others to suffer for purposes of entertainment, to protect wealth, to satisfy sexual urges or achieve political power. If that all sounds a bit like Ancient Rome, the parallels are potently obvious. And what happens to empires that fall prey to such selfishness? They dissolve into vigilante factions eager to kill each other for dominance.
And sure enough, when Trump supporters showed up for rallies opposing stay-at-home orders due to Covid-19, many brandished guns to demonstrate their vigilante intentions, all while proclaiming some selfishly motivated form of “freedom,” to which their Coach tweeted, “LIBERATE!”
In other words, Trump incited those groups to insurrection of their own states. That is a crime.
That attitude of selfishness and the toxic anachronism at its core has taken over much of the American mindset. Even the twisted interpretation of the Second Amendment, calculatedly disregards the first half, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state…” in order to emphasize the second, far more selfish phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That elective interpretation potently illustrates how selfishly anachronistic attitudes have come to dominate the American experiment. As a result, the deadly annual pandemic of violence threatening every American continues year after year.
The person we supposedly rely upon to lead us through these problems is the “Coach” of our nation, the President. Yet as a “coach” Donald Trump exhibits a toxic selfishness that led him to ignore warnings about the threat of the Coronvirus pandemic in hopes that he could avoid any disturbance to the economy in advance of the fall election. Yet his selfishness delayed adequate response and preparation, and the nation was thrown into lockdown mode while deaths have risen to 55,000 and counting.
Yet even if Trump had displayed the personal courage to be honest with the country, few would have trusted him given his terrifically dishonest claims about what constitutes truth and what doesn’t. His daily flirtations with dishonesty make it difficult to trust his word on anything. The disrespect and suspicion he shows toward both his perceived enemies and members of his own staff, toward the press and even toward our own Constitution have all undermined national confidence in his true motives and judgment.
Except that’s not the belief of Trump’s base, people who believe wholeheartedly in the smashmouth “coaching” style of Donald Trump, whose version of “winning” is to use intimidation and when that doesn’t work, deploy outright force to accomplish its aims. In that game the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been happy to be Trump’s assistant coach.
Whether that strategy is a genuine “win” for the nation is now being exposed. The economy that Trump claimed as part of his “winning” record has now dissolved thanks to his bad play-calling. Yet rather than accept responsibility, Trump spends all his time blaming the Democrats for every problem he has caused. Even his prized tax cuts gutted the middle class while enriching the wealthiest members of his “team” of millionaires and billionaires. The same goes for his disturbing attempt at righting the trade imbalance with China. Trump stepped in to play Tariff Manager and cost American farmers their key markets. Hundreds of family dairy farms in Wisconsin alone went out of business. Meanwhile Trump’s agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue dispassionately told America’s farmers, “Go big or go home.”
All these bad outcomes are the product of a Coach with no clue how to even keep America running, much less how to actually Make America Great Again. He’s trashed environmental laws, broken legislation governing auto emissions and ignored the genuine problem of climate change for all three years of his term. Trump knows nothing about playing the long game, as his string of business bankruptcies and political impeachment prove. It’s all about selfish, short-term gains and then lying about the wealth that seems permanent, but really is an illusion.
But then again, what do you expect from a Coach who drives his own golf cart on the greens? That proves he’s the worst to ever play the game, or any game, for that matter.