Randy loves tackle football. He started playing when he was nine, and football helped shape him into who he is. Although he didn’t reach the NFL, Randy believes he got more from pursuing his dream and not getting there than he got out of many of the dreams he actually accomplished. At first, his dad dragged him, kicking and screaming, to join a league. Randy was a tiny, wimpy kid, but his fear turned to awe when he met his coach and mentor, Coach Graham. Jim Graham was an enormous man who was a linebacker at Penn State. He was extremely old school. On the first day of practice, Coach Graham didn’t bring along any footballs. When one of the kids pointed it out, Coach Graham told them they didn’t need footballs. He asked how many guys there are on the field (22), then how many of them have the football. “So we’re going to work on what those other twenty-one guys are doing.”
Coach Graham fully embodies the idea of working on the fundamentals—and fundamentals are all about earning success rather than being entitled to it. Instead of focusing on what the one quarterback does with the ball, Coach Graham believes in focusing on what everyone else is doing, which shifts the students’ attitudes from valuing only the results to relishing the hard work that goes into achieving those results.
Fundamentals. That’s the gift Coach Graham imparts to Randy—if you don’t learn the fundamentals, “the fancy stuff is not going to work.” Coach Graham rides Randy hard—one day, he makes Randy stay to do push-ups after practice, and when he’s finally dismissed, an Assistant Coach comes over to talk him. He says that Coach Graham riding Randy so hard is a good thing, because “When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.” Self-esteem, Randy believes, cannot be given to someone—it must be built. Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone, because he knew that there’s only one way to teach kids how to develop self-esteem: give them something they can’t do, make them work hard until they can do it, and then keep repeating the process.
Rather than learning how to do a flea-flicker or Hail Mary on the first day of practice, Coach Graham teaches Randy that mastering the fundamentals before working up to more complex skills is the best approach to becoming a competent and versatile player. Coach Graham also changes Randy’s attitude; Randy goes from being wimpy and unsure of himself to being self-assured and confident in the power of hard work to build skills.
When Coach Graham first got hold of Randy, Randy was tiny, with no discipline, physical skills or conditioning. Through hard work, Coach Graham made Randy realize he could do things tomorrow that he “can’t do today.” Randy knows that these days Coach Graham would likely get thrown out of a youth sports league, because parents would complain. Randy remembers one game where his team played horribly, and Coach Graham got livid when the boys all ran to the water bucket at half time. “That’s the most I’ve seen you boys move since this game started!” Coach Graham yelled, then he dumped the water bucket all over the ground. Coach Graham then told an Assistant Coach to give water to the first string defense, because “They played OK.”
Coach Graham doesn’t believe anybody is entitled to anything—even a water break at half time of a football game should be earned by hard work during the first half. Randy describes this as a way for Coach Graham to respect the boys’ abilities and demand that they do their best, rather than as a cruelty that Coach Graham inflicted on his players.
Coach Graham, Randy notes, would never endanger any kid, and the dash to the water was more about the kids being brats than really needing hydration. Randy laments that if this incident happened today, parents on the sidelines would pull out cell phones and call the league commissioner or a lawyer. It saddens Randy that kids today are so coddled, because he remembers how he felt during Coach Graham’s halftime rant—disappointed, and, further, humiliated for letting his coach down. Deep down, Randy and the other kids knew that Coach Graham was right, and he let them know in a way they’d never forget—getting chewed out by him really meant something to them. During the second half, they played much harder.
Being coddled, to Coach Graham and to Randy, isn’t the same as having a positive, realistic attitude. Being positive when there’s no reason to be is simply delusion, and Randy believes that everyone should be able to look at themselves honestly in order to improve, just as Coach Graham tried to impart to his team that they needed to improve their effort level during this game. And his lesson worked—through Jim Graham’s feedback, the team learns a lesson and works harder in the second half.
Randy says he hasn’t seen Coach Graham since he was a teenager, but his coach continually shows up in Randy’s head, forcing Randy to work harder. Randy attributes this to Coach Graham having given Randy a “feedback loop for life.” Randy says that we send kids to play organized sports not to learn the sport itself, but for the fundamental character traits sports teach—“teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, an ability to deal with adversity.” This kind of indirect learning is what Randy calls a “head fake”. Randy says that there are two kinds of head fakes—literal ones, like when a football player fakes one way, then goes another. That’s like misdirection. The second kind of head fake is “the really important one,” which is the ability to teach people things “they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process.” Coach Graham, Randy says, was a master of the second kind of head fake.
The “feedback loop” that Coach Graham gives Randy is the ability to assess how hard he’s working and to determine if he’s doing everything in his capacity to make whatever situation he’s in better or more efficient. Also, Coach Graham teaches Randy the ability to teach people things they don’t even know they’re learning; just as Coach Graham taught kids self-esteem and hard work by teaching them football, Randy will work throughout his life to lecture students about one thing but really teach them another. His last lecture, for instance, is allegedly about dreams, but it is really about how to live your life.