Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Power of the coach

  • Jim Johnson

Published: 9/4/2023 1:57:11 PM
Modified: 9/4/2023 1:56:26 PM

My sophomore football year in high school was embarrassing. We were supposed to have a good team but lost the first nine games. The coaches had no idea what to do other than blame us. Prior to the last game our quarterback announced that he would coach the last game, ignoring all calls from the coaches. We won. The school soon hired three new and well-qualified coaches.

My junior year was great, and I played every minute until the ninth game when I broke my ankle. The break was complex and didn’t heal. My coach, Charlie Oakley, arranged for the LSU orthopedic surgeon to fix it and drove me back and forth to Baton Rouge for treatment.

I suffered a serious injury in the first game of my senior year and my football career ended. Coach Oakley helped get me a full scholarship to LSU as an athletic trainer. I don’t think I would be where I am today if not for him.

Coaches change lives, usually for the better but occasionally worse. If a coach grades success simply by their win/loss record, they usually fail. Let’s face it, for every contest there is a winner and a loser; the average success for all contests is only 50-percent. A student who only passes half of their tests fails. A surgeon who is only successful half the time won’t have any patients. Coaches must understand that their job is to achieve more than a winning record but to develop those skills that make a better person. Athletes need to learn how to win and lose, to develop poise, cooperation, toughness, self-control, and many other attributes. Coaches who don’t have this philosophy should do something else.

On the negative side, I believe there are two basic problems: 1. Coaches who abuse players, and 2. Coaches who are not trained. Earlier this summer we learned about the hazing incidents at Northwestern University. The head football coach said he was unaware but later we learned that some of the assistant coaches were involved. Hazing is an equal opportunity activity as there are widespread reports on girls and women’s teams.

I am loathe to understand any positive result of systematically humiliating a teammate. One of America’s great coaches, John Wooden, had three golden rules. One was, “Do not criticize your teammates.” What would Wooden think of a common hazing practice, the atomic sit-up, where a nude player is made to do sit-ups repeatedly into the naked butt crack of another player? How can this possibly make you a better athlete?

Want to be a manicurist, a barber, send flowers? Pass a test and get a license. Coaches are not required to have a college degree, pass a test, or have any specific education. In fact, anyone can get a job as a coach. Certainly, schools try to hire coaches who have the appropriate education and experience, but many coaches are not hired by schools. Youth coaches often receive such low pay that programs cannot specify anything other than an application. If there is in-service education it is often oriented to the rules rather than how to be a better coach. As a result, many simply coach the way they were coached, regardless of quality. Untrained coaches often put their athletes and the least trained often coach the most vulnerable. I am bothered by coaches who punish their players for losing, especially with exercise. How does one rationalize exercise as a punishment when we also teach the benefits of exercise?

I have carefully observed sport for over 60 years and I believe the vast majority of coach/athlete relationships are positive. We tend to be more aware of the abuses than the good things. There are thousands of coaches who know why they are there, who don’t rate their success purely on how many contests they win. I do tend to think these positive experiences happen more at smaller schools and programs rather than Division I schools where alumni cry and pay for success.

I am reminded of one of our well known local coaches, Kim Bierwert. Kim has coached a number of Smith College swimmers to successfully swim the English Channel. One of the students was my advisee and I asked upon her return about the swim. She told me that Kim stood on the side of the boat the entire 12 hour swim, never moving, always there to support her, steadfast. Kim was there for every breath she took. Now that’s a coach.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at


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