“You are better than that. Do not let me see you do that again.”
I played American football in high school. Though I played many different positions, my main positions were QB on offense and Strong Safety on defense. One game my senior year, I learned a very valuable lesson in the art of inspiration.
I remember many plays throughout my career, but there a few situations that I think of more than others.
Setting the stage, it’s Friday night and we are playing the Bears at home. For a high school team, the Bears were very talented and disciplined. Our team had talent, but we were not playing as well as I think we could have at that point in the season. At this point in the contest, we are on defense in the third quarter and down by 14 points. I was about nine yards off the line of scrimmage playing the strong safety position. My job was to cover the offense’s tight end. The tight end is usually a lineman but has the added ability to catch and run with the ball. This particular guy was all of that, but more. He was a mountain of a player—a boy in a man’s body. I was a decent size high school football player, but to take this guy down would be a team effort, especially once he got moving in the open field.
The bears jog to the line of scrimmage and I take my position about nine yards off the line of scrimmage. As the offensive linemen get set, the quarterback looks at me, then yells to the tight end something I don’t quite understand. The tight end looks up at me and immediately the message is clear.
The guy I am guarding is going to get the ball and I am currently the only thing standing in his way.
We are taught in football to ignore fear. Every coach I ever had as a football player talked about overcoming fear and playing “all out." Experience had shown me to that point in my career that those who played this game scared end up getting hurt. Football is not a contact sport, it is a collision sport, and those who hesitate are rewarded with a —at best— a face mask full of grass and dirt, but often the consequence for playing scared was much worse.
The center snaps the ball to the quarterback and immediately the quarterback tosses it to the tight end. It was obvious they have run this play many times before. The tight end catches it, turns toward me, and makes a slight move to my right. I miss him, getting only an arm on him which he blew through my attempt like it was wall made of silly string. However, it was not his move that made me miss. Football is a game of inches, and within a few inches of contact, fear gripped me, causing me to hesitate and subsequently miss the tackle. The tight end is tackled about 10 yards later by my teammates and I am relieved. Then, ashamed.
“LEATH! LEATH!” I hear my replacement yelling my name. I jog to the sidelines and report to my position coach. He is furious. At 5’9, my defensive back coach played college football at the same position I was just relieved of. I prepare myself for a wicked tongue lashing, but I get nothing.
Another play goes by. He says nothing. I am embarrassed by my actions I know what I did wrong. I could have done better, but I let fear get in my way.
I turn to leave and he grabs my facemask, pulling me back to standing next to him. Another play goes by.
My coach turns his head toward mine. I stay facing forward but I can feel his eyes piercing through my helmet. In a barely audible voice, he whispers, “You are better than that. Do not let me see you do that again.” “Yes, sir.” “Can you go in there and do your job? Your team needs you to just do your job.” “Yes, sir.” “Go.”
He slaps my backside and I sprint to join my team and take my place on the field. The Bears jog to the line of scrimmage and I lock eyes with the quarterback. He chuckles, then calls to his tight end. The tight end looks up at me and smiles. I pretend not to notice, but I know exactly what is about to happen. I feel a calm come over me and I have one single thought.
I am going to destroy this man.
The ball is snapped and I take off toward the tight end. He catches the ball, the same play from before, except this time after he secures the football I am my face at the ball and hit him with everything I have. He fumbles, we recover, and a small celebration ensues. As I jog back to the sideline, the offense takes the field and they slap my helmet in a gesture of appreciation for another chance to score. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my defensive back coach.
We make eye contact. He nods in approval with a slight smile on his face, then turns around and walks the other way.
Just a nod. That is all I needed, all I wanted. The approval of my coach…that is really all an athlete wants.
This coach knew the power of a whisper. He knew that yelling at me would have shut me down. I would have been upset at him— but really at myself—then taken a seat on the bench, perhaps not going back in.
A great coach knows how to motivate and inspire, but those are two different abilities that require understanding which to use in any given situation. There are many coaches out there who are great motivational speakers, but few who have mastered the art of being an inspirational whisperer.
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Coach, next time your athlete makes a mistake, take a deep breath and talk to them in a whisper. They know what they did wrong, and if done right, you might create a moment that athlete will remember the rest of their life.