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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Coaching - From Little League To The Boardroom An American Fad Is Born

My son had a great coach in Little League.  He taught the kids the fundamentals of baseball, balanced winning with learning, never played favorites but rewarded talent and desire.  Best of all he kept parents in line.  They were rabid and angry, and the bleachers at some games resembled the worst racist parent protests of the Civil Rights era in the South.

One day after our pitcher walked two batters in a row, the parents behind the screen started ragging him. They were not cheering him on, they were humiliating him. “Go back to right field where you belong”, screamed one mother. “Better yet to the bench”, howled her husband.  The coach walked slowly out to home plate, spoke with the umpire who called time while the coach went over to the bleachers.  “He’s a boy”, he said calmly. “And this is not the Roman Coliseum.”

The coach, Jim Bartlett, taught Classics at Georgetown, and had shared stories of antiquity, especially of Rome.  “Bread and circuses”, he said.  “The Emperors were great politicians.”

He had written many publications on the phenomenon of gladiatorial combat.  “We want blood just as much as the Romans did”, he said.

The term ‘coaching’ to apply to more than sports came into vogue around the time that ‘lead’ replaced ‘leash’.  It was time to rethink the master-dog relationship and convey a more appropriate sense of cooperative effort; and so it was with ‘coaching’. Tutoring implied too much of a top-down educational approach, but coaching suggested support, guidance, and understanding.  Students had much to give as those who taught them, the argument went, and it was about time to acknowledge the contribution. 

Coaching was in keeping with cooperative learning, theories of multiple intelligences, inclusivity, and a respect for diversity.  Everyone in America is on an equal footing; and if they are not, it is up to coaches to right the balance by holistic counseling.  Listening is as important as teaching.

This is nonsense, of course.  Teachers are there to teach and students to learn and coaches belong on the ball field.  Parents who try to be their children’s friends learn the hard way about cooperative enterprise.  The rudderless offspring sense a moral opening, go off on their own track, and quickly fall off the rails. The same for parallel teaching/coaching. Children – at least those with some brains and ambition – understand that they know very little and need to be taught.  Otherwise what would be the point of six hot, boring if not grueling hours in an airless classroom? 

My son’s second-grade teacher had the right idea. Reading, writing, and arithmetic; and anyone who doesn’t pay attention gets shut up in the broom closet.  Most parents complained about Mrs. Albert because of what they saw as her arbitrary discipline and harsh penalties for misbehavior, but my son was so pleased with her that he re-upped when she moved to the third grade.  “No one disrupts the class”, he said, meaning that teaching and learning were efficient, and if he had to spend so much time in a penitentiary, at least got something out of it.

A lot of children in those days required tutoring.  They couldn’t quite get the hang of algebra, grammar, or reading adult texts, so parents hired tutors to help. 

I tutored lower form students in French and Latin in prep school.  Most students had some aptitude for language learning, but had gotten stuck on tricky constructions like the ablative absolute or the past subjunctive.  With individual attention, they caught on; and I gave them tips on how to address the even more complex structures they would soon encounter.

Tutoring has a long and revered tradition. Roman tutors educated young men according to the precepts of Cato the Elder and taught them the principles of fairness, respect, honor, discipline, and honesty in addition to Latin and geometry.  Young French and Russian aristocrats were educated by tutors specializing in different subjects. Children in well-to-do English families were no different, and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew revolves in part around tutors.  The pedagogical system at Oxford and Cambridge is based on the primary role of individual tutors who provide guidance, intellectual stimulation and competition, and critical review.

Occasionally I would get a complete dunce as a tutee, and Robert Myers was one.  He desperately wanted to pass his first year French course, avoid summer school, and to satisfy his demanding parents; but the strangeness of the foreign language completely flummoxed him.  He couldn’t make heads or tails of even the simplest phrases and constructions, and no amount of repetition, drills, or exercises could get them to sink in.  Whenever I asked him to repeat a phrase, he mumbled and garbled it so badly that it could have been Hebrew or Amharic.  He spent minutes over every sentence, touching each word with his finger, hoping that somehow he might absorb meaning rather than have to understand it.  Metaphor, simile, and even the simplest idiom were beyond him.  I wrote a note to his parents politely suggesting that they live with his coming ‘F’ in French and be happy with his adequate performance in other subjects.

I never ‘coached’ him, never looked for an emotional trauma that added to his struggles with the doubt and uncertainty of the subjunctive, or made him stutter his way through je suis, tu es, il est. I saw that for whatever reason his modest intelligence simply could not find its way around the French language; and no matter how basic and fundamental I got, he looked at me with a blank stare. He was a hopeless case and would probably flounder in other subjects as well.  Bobby Myers was simply as dumb as a stone and was at Lefferts only because his father was a wealthy furrier.

Students in the public schools are given a free ride today.  Coaching, participatory learning, and efforts to improve self-esteem rather than the nuts and bolts of learning are just refrains from Dixie.

If the failure of multi-purpose, multivalent coaching in primary and secondary schools isn’t bad enough, the idea has seeped out into the business world.  If an employee is having trouble dealing with a competitive, stressful work environment, she can hire a coach to help her get her pluck back and deal with a bitchy boss.  If a mid-level manager is asked to oversee a complex, multi-faceted project, but quakes at the thought and is afraid to move out of his uni-dimensional professional closet, he can hire a coach to allay his concerns.

Everyone knows that the ability to handle large, complex projects in an expeditious, efficient way; to manage a range of tasks from budget spreadsheet analysis to writing succinct proposals; to coalescing a team of young professionals into an efficient unit; is a matter of intelligence.  You either have the mental discipline and agility to solve three different puzzles at the same time and to navigate the often roiled and dangerous waters of office politics at the same time, or you don’t.

I worked at the World Bank a number of years ago when the seniority system was still entrenched.  If you hung on long enough, you would be promoted to a senior position regardless of your managerial skills.  Root van Schippers had labored away in the Africa Division for years.  He put up with endless delays in mosquito-infested airports from Lagos to Luanda, collaborated and colluded with government hacks to push a loan through, and made his bones by settling a nasty political fight in Kano which without resolution would have jeopardized a multi-million dollar loan. 

When he took over as Division Chief for Water and Sanitation, he was in way over his head.  He hadn’t a clue about management.  He berated high achievers, overlooked the slackers, wrote insignificant and irrelevant memos, and did more for destroying whatever esprit de corps existed in our fractious group than any of us could have imagined.  He not only was a clueless manager.  He was a destructive idiot.

No coach on earth could have taught him management.  He screwed up so badly that the Bank sent him back to the salt mines where he belonged and where he labored until retirement.

Coaching – or better yet expert tutoring – has its place if the context is right, the candidate is able but lacking only a few specific skills, and he is willing to accept expert advice.  If it is designed to make someone over – to make them into a good manager or project supervisor when every fiber, synapse, and gene in their system militate against it – it will always fail.

Root van Schippers was just about as dumb about management as Bobby Myers was at French.  Bobby ended up as an Assistant Branch Manager at his father’s clothing outlet in Passaic.  The hope that Lefferts would lead to Yale and Wall Street and expunge any last vestiges of the Jewish rag trade from Myers family history, turned out to be an idle pipe dream. Myers Senior misjudged his son as badly as the Bank did Root van Schippers and both Bobby and Root ended up where they belonged.

It gets worse.  Not only have coaches milked thousands from hopeful and naïve parents who misjudge their children as badly as Myers Senior, but they have entered the world of psychological counseling.  Cheaper than licensed therapists or psychiatrists, coaches can provide another feel-good experience for young and adult alike. I know one coach whose client is a genius but who has the jitters. He can crank out theorems and musical scores by the dozen in the basement of his suburban Washington home, but the minute he has to defend or perform them in public, he goes white around the gills and freezes up.  Rather than explain to him that he has no need to come out of the cellar – that the brilliance of his work needs no personal representation, the coach outlined a 10-step plan of Cognitive Centering.  When the ten weeks of New Age meditation, holy texts, and Harvard algorithms produced absolutely no results, and the boy genius still shook like St. Vitus, the coach suggested that ten more weeks were needed.

Being coached has one big advantage over therapy – it has no tinge of mental illness or incompetence.  Coaching is participatory method to bring out the best and to deflect the worst.  There is no need for drugs or the talking cure.  Family horrors can remain buried, sexual frustrations hidden where they belong; and focus can be on the here and now, the limitless potential of the individual, and transformational power of the Being.

I coached basketball in the New Haven slums as part of Dwight Hall, a Yale service organization that recruited undergraduates to coach and tutor in the public schools.  I was never a great basketball player, but I knew the fundamentals of the game, and after my tutoring experience at Lefferts I had learned patience and forbearance. I explained the pick-and-roll, back-door cuts, double-teams, and the full-court press.  I demonstrated the limp wrist follow through for foul shots, protecting the ball, bounce passes, and hard picks. The kids that didn’t get it sat on the bench. Some of my better young charges made it to the high school varsity, I was later told, so my coaching may have done some good.

I would like to leave coaching in the gym and on the diamond.  Men like Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, and Greg Popovich give the profession a good name.  Imagine how hard it is to stuff the oversized egos of NBA superstars into small uniforms and get them to play team ball.  Any one of these coaches would be far better managers than Root van Schippers even though they don’t know where Angola is.

Coaching, if stripped of its PC, New Age trappings, is little more than snake oil salesmanship.  The coach knows the desperation of parents with a dumb child in a competitive world; or the young professional who is $100k in debt to a minor graduate school which taught her nothing, but is now scrambling for her job; or the shaky fat kid who has been scared out of his pants by his parents’ obsession with bullying.  These parents and young professionals will do anything to join the mainstream, head to the top, or be liked; and coaches are right there to help.

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