Working With Athletic Coaches: Tips for Success |

Terrific column by a medical doctor and former coach who talks about working with great coaches throughout the years.

by Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL (Hon)

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.

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