Working With Athletic Coaches: Tips for Success

Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL (Hon)


October 27, 2017

'Lights Out' Moment

It was a beautiful spring day in West Point, New York, but my mouth was full of blood. As an attackman for the lacrosse team from State University of New York, Cortland, I'd been outwitting my West Point defender. He was a linebacker, probably 6'3" and 250 pounds. Each time he got the ball, I'd check him, he'd lose it, and I'd pick it up and score. Each time that happened, he said he'd get me. And after my fourth goal, he did.

It was a lights-out moment. I woke up in the Army hospital with an immense headache, dizzy, with a cracked tooth, a split lip, and my coach leaning over me. "The score is tied," he said. "Seven minutes to go. I think I can get you back in the game."

That was more than 30 years ago, but it was a defining moment that affected all I would do and become, first as a lacrosse coach at Johns Hopkins University and then as a sports physician working with athletes at every level of competition.

Stewards of the Game

In sports, disparate stakeholders come together: athletes, parents, families, friends, coaches, opponents, referees, fans, trainers, and physicians—all of whom are stewards of a game whose ultimate purpose should be to enhance the growth of its participants.

We look to our coaches to coordinate not only the athletes but all of these other stakeholders as well. More than anyone, coaches must create an environment for young athletes to learn lessons that will benefit them throughout their lives, lessons about learning from mistakes, discipline, control, and persistence. As physicians, our job is to support our coaches and, whenever necessary, remind them of that bigger picture.

Learning Valuable Lessons From Coaches

The word "coach" comes from the French word for vehicle. Good coaches transport an individual from one place in life to the next. That's because sports don't just improve health and fitness, they raise participants' self-esteem and improve their academic performance.[1,2] That's most likely to happen when athletes see themselves as citizens of both the game and the larger community. When Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State, was recruiting me to work there, he told me, "There is no better classroom than the sports field."

Teaching those lessons requires the coach to be like the conductor, understanding all of the elements of the team, who says what and when, how people communicate, and how people see the challenge and then rise up to the challenge together.

Working with a great coach is a deeply enriching experience. I'll never forget 1994, the year the United States was hosting the World Cup of soccer, and I was working as physician for US Men's National Team, which hadn't made it into the tournament in 40 years. We were scheduled to play our first game at the Pontiac Superdome in Detroit.

The night before, I got a call at 2:00 in the morning because our star forward, Eric Wynalda, had developed an allergic rash to one of the dyes in a sports drink. He was anxious to the point that he wasn't sure he could play. After working with him for 2 hours, I'd done everything I could to reassure him and decided to call in the coach.

Velibor "Bora" Milutinovic

Velibor "Bora" Milutinović had taken the team to new levels. "Leave me," he said, when he got to Wynalda's room. Twenty minutes later, he came out and said, "No problem, he will play." Wynalda went on to score a crucial goal on a free kick against Switzerland. That moment of interaction showed me the amazing connection coaches can make with their players.

As physicians, we have to stay on top of every aspect of medicine related to sports—preventing sudden cardiac death, moderating heat and cold, or tracking specific vulnerabilities such as sickle cell trait. But experiences like that one have taught me that the soft skills are even more important: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and moral authority. We must bring to our jobs the highest degree of emotional intelligence in fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath. We have to respect our coach's authority and at the same time show that we have high expectations of them.

Many of the best moments of my career have come from working with great coaches. From John Smith at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I learned the importance of building recovery into an athlete's training regimen. Together we came up with the notion of a cyclical progression.[3]

Bob Scott, the winningest coach at Johns Hopkins, taught me that discipline, control, and respect are the ultimate marks of the successful athlete. One of Bora's successors at the Men's National Soccer Team, Bob Bradley, taught me the value of overpreparation. Bruce Arena, the team's most recent coach, amazes me with his sensitivity and commitment to detail; he seems to sense an athlete's injuries long before I notice anything or the athlete speaks up. Siegfried "Sigi" Schmid of the Los Angeles Galaxy seems to know how to take every athlete from where he is to where he needs to be to reach full potential.

Wooden's Eight Suggestions for Succeeding

John Wooden, my mentor and the great UCLA coach, distilled his coaching wisdom into eight principles[4]:

John Wooden

  1. Fear no opponent. Respect every opponent.

  2. Remember, it's the perfection of the smallest details that make big things happen.

  3. Keep in mind that hustle makes up for many a mistake.

  4. Be more interested in character than reputation.

  5. Be quick, but don't hurry.

  6. Understand that the harder you work, the more luck you will have.

  7. Know that valid self-analysis is crucial for improvement.

  8. Remember that there is no substitute for hard work and careful planning. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

But it isn't only the good coaches who have taught me valuable lessons. When I lay in that Army hospital bed, I learned never to fall prey to the aura of the game. I told my coach that day that I couldn't go back into the game. The team went on to win anyway, and I realized that every decision a coach or physician makes should have the best interests of the athlete at heart.

Those moments when a physician protects a player from the pressure to return to play too early are the moments when the physician really shines because he or she is the ambassador for our profession and for the game.

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