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Coaches focus on emotions as much as skills

Emotions Matter

For someone who is just 13 years old, Danny Rupp appears inordinately mature.

And not just in stature. Standing nearly 5-feet-9 and weighing around 146 pounds, the Garry Middle School eighth-grader is entering his fourth season of football – his second playing for a Spokane Youth Sports Association-sponsored team.

But more impressive than his physicality is how adult Rupp sounds when asked about the sport he loves. He reveals emotions that people many years his senior have trouble understanding, much less expressing.

Example: When asked about what he ideally wants in a coach, he doesn’t hesitate to explain. “I want a coach who will not yell at me but will push me to my limits,” he said. “If you tell me that I’m doing something wrong, I’m not the kind of person who gets down. It brings me up, so I know what to do the next time. I want a coach who is understanding but who is tough.”

Being and acting tough is expected of any athlete, but it’s particularly so for boys and men. For as long as humankind has stood on two feet, toughness has been a popular measure of what it means to be a man. And for the past couple of centuries, outside of war, sport has been one primary way that toughness has been measured.

However you examine them, such notions of manliness traditionally have been too narrowly defined. In one respect, “manliness” itself is gender specific. Want to insult a boy? Tell him he “throws like a girl.”

For another, such notions are outdated. Just ask future Hall of Fame baseball player Albert Pujols, who once famously struck out when facing former All-American and Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch. (You can find it on YouTube.)

In addition to being narrowly defined, many traditional views of manliness are simply wrong-headed, a fact that an increasing number of coaches in all sports are realizing. Many, such as Rogers High School football coach Ben Cochran, have already concluded that the best way to get the most from their players is to use the tools associated with emotional intelligence.

Those tools are especially valuable when dealing with what Cochran calls the “myths of manhood.”

“We talk to our kids about this,” Cochran said. “We tell them, ‘To be a man is not sexual conquest. It’s not about material things. That doesn’t make you more of a man. Those are myths. Just be the best man you can be. Develop your ability to love others and to let them love you.’ ”

Be in the moment instead of letting the past define the now

As author Susan David explains in her book “Emotional Agility,” the way to emotional health is to reject such “confining stories of the past” because these “rigid postures stop us from being agile when we need to deal with life’s stressors.” It’s better, David says, “to be fully engaged with the world around us: to hug our children, to be present with a colleague, to create something new or to simply enjoy the smell of the newly mowed grass.”

Emotional intelligence isn’t a complicated concept. Basically, it’s a school of thought – with solid science behind it – that those who understand and are able to control their emotions have a better chance at succeeding in life. As the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence states on its website, “Emotions drive learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships and health.”

Dr. Marc Brackett, director of Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a senior researcher at Yale University, said as much in the New York Times: “Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn. They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”

It was the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence that authored the 2015 Emotion Revolution online survey, which was promoted and supported by performing artist Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. Results of the survey, in which some 22,000 high-school-age teens participated, indicate that a vast majority – some 75 percent – of high school students have endured negative experiences at school.

Rogers football coach Cochran knows all about the negative experiences his students face. “What do you tell a kid who has no electricity at home but he’s got a 3.8 GPA?” he asked. “It’s not their fault. They’re outstanding kids. There’s trauma that happens.”

Repairing trauma is one of Cochran’s goals. A graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, Cochran played for legendary coach Frosty Weathering. He took over for Mike Miethe, who became an assistant football coach at Whitworth University.

Miethe and his team were featured in a powerful 2013 Spokesman-Review series written by Jonathan Brunt. In the lead story, Brunt reported that Miethe required his players to complete an unusual assignment: “writing their obituaries, imagining the end of their high school careers and their deaths at age 99.”

The assignment fit Miethe’s overall intent, which was to teach his players what Brunt described as “life skills: rejecting passivity, being empathetic, making good choices, being ‘real men.’ ”

Cochran, then one of Miethe’s assistants, has chosen to continue in a like manner, using what he learned from the late PLU coach Weathering and from former professional football player and author Joe Ehrmann.

“The Frosty approach,” as Cochran calls it, involves “teaching the inner game, seeing the entire person.” In it, he talks about two models of winning: Red Car and Blue Car.

“With the red car, if you win, you win,” Cochran said. “If you’re not winning, you’re a loser. If you’re not No. 1, you’re no one. So basically your identity is based on your performance. If you’re top dog, you’re the top of everything.”

The problem is, he says, “You’re not always going to be the top dog.”

The option? “The Blue Car model is what we teach our kids,” Cochran said. “And that is you versus you, you against your best personal self. And no matter what school you’re playing for, the best of the best or the lowest of the low, you’re always competing against your best self.”

Choose coaching styles that build kids up, and build character

Author Ehrmann, who played 10 years in the National Football League, wrote an influential book titled “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.” In it, he divides the coaching community into two camps: transactional and transformational. On National Public Radio, Ehrmann supplied these definitions:

* Transactional coaches – “(They) basically use young people for their own identity; their own validation, their own ends. It’s always about them – the team first, players’ needs down the road.”

* Transformational coaches – “They understand the power, the platform, the position they have in the lives of young people, and they’re going to use that to change the arc of every young person’s life.”

In short, Ehrmann declares, “(T)he great myth in America today is that sports builds character. That’s not true in a win-at-all-costs culture. Sports doesn’t build character unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.”

Of course, neither football nor male myths have a monopoly on the need for such nurturing. These days in particular, the call for emotionally intelligent coaching is just as important for girls as it is for boys.

Traci McGlathery was fortunate enough to learn this lesson from one of Spokane’s great coaches, the late Linda Sheridan. A longtime Shadle Park volleyball and girls’ basketball coach, Sheridan – who died in 2013 – won seven state championships for the Highlanders.

But for McGlathery and others, Sheridan was far more than just a successful coach. She was an inspirational teacher about life.

“She really taught us how to be great people, first and foremost, and how to translate that onto the court,” McGlathery said. A 1991 Shadle Park graduate, one who played on a state-championship-winning volleyball team as a sophomore, McGlathery now works as a community relations manager for Spokane Teachers Credit Union.

And lessons that Sheridan taught her help her even today. “Part of my job is crisis communication,” McGlathery said, adding that one thing Sheridan stressed was “being mentally prepared and being cool under fire.”

“She taught us not to let the situation around us affect us,” McGlathery said, “to try just to hone in on the game and tune out everything going on around us. To be in the moment with our teammates.”

Differing temperaments require varied approaches to coaching

Certainly, emotionally intelligent coaching was what Deyla and Brandon Tanner looked for when their daughter Trinity showed an interest in gymnastics.

“Trinity is sensitive,” Deyla said. “When she was younger, we did a lot of research on the sensitive child just because she was so sensitive.”

She adds that they found the right spot at the Northeast Spokane-based Dynamic Gymnastics Academy. “Definitely positive disciplining is a big thing for us,” Deyla said. “And they’re great here.”

Both Trinity, 11, and her 8-year-old sister Taryn are among some 800 students who train at the academy, which is owned by coach Adana Harris. Both girls have won medals in national competitions, though each has her own temperament.

“Their personalities are like day and night,” Brandon Tanner said. “Even as parents we have to deal with them totally differently. And the coaches do the same thing.”

“Every single one of them is different,” Harris said of her students, “so we treat every kid differently. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.”

Example: “One gal, we have to yell at her,” Harris said. “And she’ll tell you, ‘I won’t go unless you yell at me.’ That’s her motivation, and she knows it. We’re like, ‘But I don’t want to yell at you.’ And she’s like, ‘But I won’t go unless you yell at me, so please yell at me.’ Other kids, you can’t yell at all because they shut down 100 percent.”

That latter group includes such kids as Trinity, who has been doing gymnastics since age 2. She said she likes “the feeling that gravity can’t hold you,” and without blinking adds that she wants one day to win a scholarship to Stanford University.

And what does she want in a coach? “For her to believe in me, which all my coaches have.”

Randy Potter agrees with gymnastics coach Harris that a cookie-cutter teaching approach doesn’t work. The manager of GolfTEC, a Spokane indoor golf-instruction center, Potter spends as much time trying to figure out who his clients are as he does what abilities they lack.

“The mechanics of the golf swing, that part of it is really not that complicated,” Potter said. “But it’s learning who the person is and how I can best learn how to use emotion to push them along.”

Emotion is something that Potter had to learn to control his own game. Raised in Othello, he developed into a good enough golfer to win a scholarship to Gonzaga University. But, he admits, “When I was a junior golfer, I was a bit of a hothead.”

“I would either play very well and win, or I would just completely melt down and borderline embarrass myself,” he said.

It was his father who set him straight. “He simply told me, ‘You’ve got to get out of your own way and stop basically sabotaging yourself,’ ” Potter says. “And all of a sudden one day it just clicked in my head. I thought, ‘Hey, if I don’t get so frustrated over a couple of bad shots, I could actually play a lot better.’ I don’t know why it took so long to realize that.”

But, eventually, he did. He developed the same kind of regard for his emotions that Rogers High coach Cochran is trying to instill in his football players.

At the end of life nobody’s going to talk about how many girlfriends you dated, or the cars you drove. “They’re going to talk about the relationships you had. That’s what we try to teach our kids, and out of that we get better football. Because we love each other,” Cochran said.

It’s the same emotional intelligence that Danny Rupp craves from the coaches he plays for.

“I just want coaches to be understanding that these are not just kids but they’re growing up to be men,” he said. “So don’t treat them like little babies or like grown-up adults. Just kind of be moderate in the middle.”

The alternative, he says, can be destructive.

“Football has helped a lot of kids that I know with bad attitudes and stuff,” Rupp said. “Good coaches can make kids with bad attitudes have good attitudes, while bad coaches can make them just have even worse attitudes.”

That’s sage advice. And remember: It’s coming from a 13-year-old.

 

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