Dan Gable was a competitor like no other. As a high school wrestler in Iowa, he was the undefeated state champion for three years, with a record of 64-0. His collegiate career was even more impressive, with a record of 118-1, his only loss being in theNCAA finals during his senior year. That loss made him even more determined to be the best in the world. He became a world champion in 1971. The next year, he became an Olympic gold medalist, without surrendering a single point to an opponent at the Munich Games.
As a head coach, Dan Gable had an even more impressive record. He led the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to 21 straight Big Ten titles, 15 NCAA titles (national championships), and a record of 355-31-5 in 21 years. He coached 45 individual national champions, 115 All-Americans, and 106 Big Ten champions. Simply put, Dan Gable was one of the greatest coaches of all time. As a rookie wrestling coach in 1998, I wanted to be just like him.
There was only on problem: as a young wrestler for eight years, I had been fairly unremarkable. As a collegiate athlete, I participated in cross country, where I was equally unexceptional. As much as I loved sports, I never ranked above average in any athletic event. In fact, I had been captain of several sports teams in middle school and high school, not because I was faster or stronger than other athletes, but because I could endure great pain and still cheer for my fellow athletes. I scored points as a thrower on the track and field team, and that made me feel like I was making a real contribution, but I was no Al Oerter.
How could I, as a coach, talk about winning when I had never achieved any great victories? The answer came to me almost by accident. I was watching a video of the fabled Dan Gable, and an interviewer asked him about his winning ways. He said something that had a profound effect on me. As an athlete, he competed only against himself. His opponent might be a state, national, or world champion hungry to keep his title, or a challenger seeking to dethrone Dan as the king of the ring.
To Dan Gable, the challenge was not to beat the other guy, but to be the best he could be. If he did everything necessary to win, practiced as hard as he could, gave his best effort, and worked harder than everyone else, the results would speak for themselves. As an athlete, he spent more time mastering the fundamentals than anyone else, and every time he lost, he just went right back to the basics.
As a coach, he knew that he would be judged on his team’s record. He could no longer go out onto the mat to score those points himself, so he prepared his athletes the same way he had prepared as an athlete. He helped them determine their individual and team goals, and then he charted a course for them to follow. And then he told them that if they wanted victory, they would have to make sacrifices, keep their commitments to their teammates, master the fundamentals, and out-work the competition.
I decided then that I would listen to my athletes, help them determine their goals, and then chart a course for them to meet success in the place where preparation meets opportunity. I spent most of that first season as a head coach talking about intangibles like teamwork, motivation, visualization, courage, leadership, sportsmanship, integrity, academic excellence, and the value of hard work. Every day, I focused on the basics: conditioning, positions and moves. Before every meet and every tournament, I told them that if they lived the values we discussed every day, they would be champions for life, regardless of the outcome on the wrestling mat. Yes, it’s great to bring home a ribbon, a medal, a plaque or a trophy. But more important than any of those things was having an official or opposing coach talk about how well my athletes conducted themselves, or having a parent tell me how their kid was keeping his grades up just to be academically eligible to wrestle on my team.
My season as a rookie head coach was a difficult journey, and there were bumps along the way. My car died on the way to the state finals, one of my personal training clients died suddenly, and I was in emotional turmoil. But when the season ended, something extraordinary happened. At the team dinner, after I gave out a few awards, each of my team captains got up to speak. They talked about the life lessons they had learned, the friends they had made, the struggles we had faced as a team, and the values I had talked about everyday. They said that my Saturday morning study sessions had improved their grades, and my bagel breakfasts had made them a family.
One of the captains handed me a matchbox car and made a joke about me driving it. I laughed too, but then he told me to turn it over. There was a key attached to the bottom of the little toy car. The room grew silent, and then one of the athletes’ parents suggested I try to start the car outside. I though this was a joke too, until the team ushered me outside. There was a 1988 Ford Escort in the parking lot with a big green bow on it. I used the key to open the door, and when I put it in the ignition, the engine roared to life. I sat there, stunned.
In that moment, I realized I had something even better than Dan Gable’s winning record. And just like him, I knew I had found my calling. For the next few years, I took several part-time jobs to support my “coaching addiction”. I coached that team for four seasons, and I also coached cross country and soccer at the same school. All of my athletes graduated from high school, and some of them went to college. One of them is now the head wrestling coach at Daniel Wright, and every season he talks to his team about the coach he admires most.
Today, I’m a different kind of coach. As a certified personal trainer, I provide fitness coaching for the IIT community. But more importantly, I am an empowerment coach. Instead of enabling people, I work to empower them by helping them harness the power that already resides within them. When I work with the throwers, I allow them to listen to their own instincts by asking them to “tell me about that throw”. It would be simple to tell them what they did wrong, but I know that they already know the answer.
When I accepted the position of Director of Intramurals & Recreation at IIT, I knew I had a simple mission: to engage and empower the students, to help them articulate their own desires, and to turn their dreams into goals that they can achieve through physical activity. When students come to me to form a new club or plan an activity, I point them in the right direction, and let them go through the process of planning.
Keating Sports Center is where you can come to set and reach your goals. Run faster, throw farther, jump higher, or learn to dance. Compete in sports and set new personal records. Make new friends. Discover new worlds within your own body through the practices of yoga, tai chi, or Pilates. Free yourself from performance anxiety by taking up belly dancing. Learn a new sport, like cricket, squash, or handball. Play badminton, volleyball, or basketball. Go for a swim. Lift heavy weights, and feel the liberation that accompanies your new strength. Take the first step toward one of your goals today. Run a mile, bench press your bodyweight, or learn to dance the Argentine Tango. Whatever you want to do, my staff and I are here to help you meet success on your personal journey.
2010 - Spring - Issue 9