They Call Me Coach

It’s fair to say I have too many names. And the one that makes the least sense is “Coach.” I picked it up in 1989, as a freshman at Boston University. In a bizarre and random turn of events, someone in first year biology asked me my name, and I answered, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be called ‘Coach.'”

There’s a long story behind that quip, one that goes back to high school Algebra and the man who would be come the “Algebra Coach,” Mr. Casey, but suffice it to say, I said it as a lame, half-joke, and ended up wearing the name for the rest of college and beyond, despite never coaching a damn thing.

Part of the problem is my real name, John Emlyn Lewis. I’m named after my father’s grade school headmaster, who he credited with pushing him forward into a life that most kids in his village couldn’t pursue. In Wales, where my father was born, the name John Lewis is as common as bark on trees and water in brooks. Unfortunately, it’s also that common in this country.

Sometimes I tell people I don’t have a name. I have a placeholder for a name.

John Lewis is the legendary and recently deceased congressman. John Lewis is the jazz pianist. John Lewis is the union leader. John Lewis is the department store. I don’t make the top ten John Lewises, and if you search the internet for me, by that name, you find all those other Johns, who are/were much better people than I am.

So they called me Coach. (Later, some called me Robot).

It wasn’t until my late 30s that I actually coached something, first youth soccer and then group fitness. And in order to do the former, I took some coaching courses, which I didn’t think I needed since I’d played soccer my whole life, but in time discovered were hugely valuable, both to get people focused on learning a new thing, but also to my work as a writer.

Here’s what I learned about coaching:

  1. It goes best if you only give one piece of guidance in a session. Two tops. People, especially new learners, don’t process multiple directives simultaneously. Better to prioritize what you want from them, and guide them down the path slowly and methodically, one skill at a time. The same is true in writing. Only give limited information. Make your point. Be clear.
  2. Recognize people’s effort. See them. Say their names. Kids and adults alike feel anonymous in a group, but each wants them to rise above the fray, to stand out. When you recognize what they’re doing, they try harder still. The corollary in writing is to identify with people’s struggles, to identify the problem you’re both trying to solve.
  3. Repeat yourself. State your purpose, then repeat it. Then repeat it again. Repetition is clarity. Repetition takes hold in human brains.
  4. Challenge them individually. Any group will contain an array of abilities. When you recognize the individuals and understand their limits, you can set new limits for them. If you only set a goal for the group, those of less ability will check out, convinced they can’t measure up. A coach’s job is to set individual goals that challenge every member of the group. In writing, this equates to vulnerability, giving readers a voice through your own voice.
  5. Support your people. The kids used to laugh when I said, “That’s not what we’re looking for, but I still love you.” But it made them more willing to try and fail, and that’s where progress comes from. I also tried to thank them for their effort, assuming they’d made one. In my writing, I try to own my failures, and also maybe forgive myself.
  6. Recognize that coaches aren’t players. If your charges aren’t motivated or interested, you can’t coach them. Motivation comes first. On that score, people who won’t be motivated, can’t be motivated. It’s ok. Not every kid who plays a sport loves that sport and wants to get better. Not every adult I’ve coached wants to do more than show up and go through the motions. Not every reader wants to live your life and achieve the same goals. It’s ok.

In my heart, I’m an introvert. I don’t get a lot out of socializing, and I’m not a great joiner of teams, although I’ve enjoyed most of my team-based experiences. Coaching isn’t natural to me, but having been taught these basics, I came to enjoy my time leading groups more and with better results. I also became more coachable, and that might have been the best thing of all.

Coach is not really who I am, but you can call me Coach.