Leave it up to the Olympics to help me get this writing thing back on track. And leave it to one of the darlings of the games- along with Gabby Douglas and the Golden Girls of Women’s Beach Volleyball, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh—to inspire me and this post.
I certainly enjoyed watching other sports and athletes during the Olympics. Watching the American hoops team bring home the gold was fun. Watching Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee from South Africa who advanced to the semifinals in the 400 meters, was nothing short of amazing. And watching a human being run as fast as Usain Bolt had the feeling of watching something that could, or at least should, not be possible. But Allyson Felix is the one who got me off my you-know-what, prompting me to pull out my laptop and write.
She did it for me. More importantly, she finally did it for herself. After finishing a close second in her signature race, the 200 meters, in both Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), she grabbed the prize that had mercilessly alluded her, bringing home her first individual Gold Medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. The joy and jubilation on her face was almost as telling and transparent as the relief in her voice during the interview that immediately followed conquering what must have seemed like the most insurmountable of obstacles. You could tell she’d struggled with it, the disappointment of failure. You could almost feel it, the pain she had to overcome each time she fell short. And watching her, we all knew that she’d wanted to give up at least once or twice during the eight years that must have seemed like eighty between her first failure and her ultimate triumph.
But like with all stories of achievement, not completely unlike those most of us have experienced; even if in small, personal ways; we knew there had to be a tremendous support system behind the Gold medal. There were people pushing and pulling her along the way. Parents. Friends. Teammates. And, yes of course, those irritating coaches. You know, those men and women that yell and scream at us to “get up” and “stop whining”. The ones that remind us of what we want and the sacrifice necessary to grab it. Yelling and screaming at us. Often belittling us. Forcing us to look, with courage and strength often well beyond our belief (and sometimes even our current capability), at what lies ahead. But that’s what coaches are for—to help athletes tear down those walls, face those fears, and overcome disappointments like the ones Allyson Felix undoubtedly had to face.
It seems so unfair- having to wait four years for another crack at overcoming the ten hundredths of a second by which she lost in Athens. It seems outright wrong to have to train four more years to overcome the ten hundredths that separated her from Gold in Beijing. But she did it. And I can only imagine how hard that was. Pouring your heart into something–whether it’s the Olympic games, making the varsity team, or passing an especially daunting exam—only to come up short can be demoralizing and disappointing. Depending on how long the journey and how much blood, sweat, and tears have been shed—both figuratively and often literally—it might be downright depressing.
But he was there the whole time, yelling and screaming at her not to feel sorry for herself.
That’s what coaches are for.
But he was there reminding her of her power and strength, how capable she was of greatness.
That’s what coaches are for.
And when she felt like she could do no more, as I’m sure she did on at least a few occasions, he surely put his arm around her and told her “one more set” (or sprint or lap or whatever else she was working on).
That’s what coaches are for.
The ‘he’ in this case is Bobby Kersee, husband and former coach to legendary heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who is considered one of the best female Olympic athletes of all time. He is tough. I can still picture him yelling at his wife during the ’88, ’92, and even ’96 Olympics. To be honest, it was uncomfortable. I remember feeling sorry, even embarrassed, for her. How could he treat her like that? Why was he yelling at her? Why was he so rough?
The answer came in the form of a hamstring. An injured hamstring to be specific. In 1996, Joyner-Kersee injured her right hamstring during the Olympic Trials. She still performed well enough to qualify, but never fully recovered. As a result, at the Olympic Games, she reinjured it and was forced to withdraw. Seeing the intense pain she was experiencing was enough to touch the heart of even the most apathetic of fans. But what happened next was as surprising a scene that I’d ever seen. The self-proclaimed tyrant of a coach Bobby Kersee walked over to his pupil, put his arm around her (I think he may have even picked her up and carried her), and told her it was time to shut it down. He, and surprisingly not she, made the decision to withdraw.
When asked afterward why he’d decided to do so, ending Joyner-Kersee’s chances at a third Gold Medal and the title of World’s greatest female athlete, he simply said it was time for the husband to step in and overrule the coach.
It was at this moment, after hearing this statement, that I realized something. But it wasn’t until years later, now that I’m older and have coached and taught many people, including my own two children; that I can fully appreciate it.
It is not a coach’s job to be liked. In fact, oftentimes it may, in fact, be the job of a coach to NOT be liked. The job of a coach (or teacher or parent) is pretty singular in nature- to get the most out of the player. Not to be a friend or buddy. Not to be liked. And I firmly believe most players (or pupils or children) want to be good. They want to achieve, they want to grow and learn. They sincerely do. The problem is they often don’t know how to do that. And more importantly, they usually don’t know how hard it is. And as coaches, teachers, and parents; it is our job to show them. To reveal to them not only how hard it is, but to help them through those difficult times and challenges. It is almost always difficult. Running another ten sprints is not fun. Doing the same damn routine one more time sucks. And sitting down to study for another few hours instead of watching television or playing video games never seems fair. But we coaches, teachers, and parents can see in our pupils what they can’t see in themselves. Potential. We know what is necessary to fulfill that potential. Sacrifice. And we understand that our own sacrifice–namely, dissatisfaction and dislike from those we love and care about in exchange for helping them get the most out of their God-given abilities and talents –is worth every minute of disagreement, every dirty look, every difficult punishment.
Thankfully, there are stories like Allyson Felix’s to reinforce that truth. After years of difficulty; after years of being yelled at and tormented; and after she’d undoubtedly heard and seen every story of the same about the relationship between Bobby Kersee and his other and former athletes; Felix finally wrapped around her neck that precious Gold medal. It was that same gold medal that she probably lost sight of amidst some of the hard training sessions- but he didn’t. It was that same gold medal that seemed, at times, probably not worth all of the yelling- but he knew it was. And it was that same gold medal that she thought she’d never win- that HE knew she would.
It gives me faith and inspiration. It helps me get through the rough times. And it should help all of us remember that if, after all the yelling and scolding and disagreeing and just plain saying “No”; our players, pupils, and children win a gold medal–literally or more likely figuratively–then, it will have been well worth it!