Lighting The Way From Behind: A Lesson For Coaches And Parents

Photo Credit: CBS News

My father died rather suddenly and unexpectedly from a late-diagnosed, very aggressive, inoperable brain tumor. I gave the eulogy at his funeral, and one day while mowing the yard I was thinking about what I wanted to say. For some reason, Dad following me in the truck so I could run in the headlights kept popping into my head, but I couldn't figure out exactly why.

Suddenly it hit me, and I stopped mowing dead in my tracks.

I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before.

Dad following me in the pickup wasn't just a simple act allowing me to run. It was a parable with some invaluable lessons. Right away, two things jumped out that made Dad's simple act of following me in the truck much more profound and meaningful.

The first thing I realized was something that Dad didn't do. He didn't tell me I had to run. He didn't tell me that if I didn't run I was going to get my butt kicked by my competitors. He didn't say he was going to be disappointed in me if I didn't run. All he did was remove a barrier to me being able to run that I couldn't eliminate myself. Everything else was up to me. It was up to me to have the passion and discipline to come home after being at a forensics tournament all day, change into multiple layers of clothes and go out into the cold night to run on snow-packed roads. Dad was smart enough to know that you can't make someone want to do something, but he was also smart enough to know that sometimes even motivated people need a little bit of help removing barriers that they cannot remove themselves.

The second thing Dad did was -- both literally and figuratively -- light the way from behind. Standing in the backyard, stopped in my tracks with the lawnmower still running, I realized that was a metaphor for how we as both coaches or parents need to approach our kids. It is so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to blaze the trail in front of them, removing all obstacles, giving them a straight, smooth road to "success" and showing our kid to the world. This trap takes many different forms, and none of them is helpful to the kid or flattering to the parents or coaches who do it.

It is not helpful to the kids or athletes because they don't learn how to overcome challenges when the road is made entirely smooth for them, and all difficulties, learning opportunities, and need for self-motivation are removed from their path. By doing so, they are denied the opportunities to develop the grit and tenacity that are the essential precursors to fulfilling their potential.

It isn't flattering to the parents or coaches who do it because -- let's just be brutally honest here -- those parents and coaches are making the kid or athlete's success about them, not about the kid or athlete. They're calling more attention to what they did for the kid or athlete's success than what the kid did themselves. Think about it like this: If a coach or parent is lighting the way from the front, the coach or parent with the light is the first thing people would see, with the kid being second, obscured behind them. But if a coach or parent lights the way from behind, the kid is the first thing someone would see, and that is as it should be.