Behind the lines…Stress? What Stress?

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    I’m not sure where the venerable old coach found the article, but he brought the tattered, yellowed newsprint story to me one afternoon before basketball practice. It listed the top 10 most stressful jobs in America.

    Not surprisingly, air traffic controller at a major airport was number one, followed by emergency room nurses, emergency room doctors, and then, high school basketball coaches.


    My friend, the late Dick Cotton was a master at digging up little tidbits of information. His coaching was peppered with phrases, statistics, and drills he openly admitted that he had “borrowed” from other people. He was a storehouse of knowledge.

    Coach Cotton was as much a mentor to younger coaches as he was to athletes, and they didn’t have to play for him, he was there for everyone.

    His lifetime partner in crime, my other late friend, football, basketball, and track coach extraordinaire, Chuck Wells had similar entertaining stories, but Chuck, and especially his wife Yvonne knew the pressures of coaching as well as anyone.

    When Chuck coached the Southern California 6-A state football champions back in the early 70s he had a staff of 28 assistant coaches from freshman through varsity level. They had two freshman programs, a sophomore team, a junior varsity squad, and the varsity.


    One evening at their home north of Shoshoni Yvonne told Sue and me that only she and Chuck were the only couple from that staff still together. There were five bachelor coaches, and the remainder, 23 young men, divorced their wives.

    That was a sobering example of stress at the athletic level.

    I remember a fateful remark I made one dreary Sunday back in 1993 as I emerged from our basement after taking statistics off game film.


    We couldn’t get a break that year, losing in overtime a couple of times, and late in the season by two to five points after getting blown out repeatedly early in the year.

    It was eating me up.

    As I walked upstairs, the kids were playing in the living room and I said to Sue, “Losing is worse than dying. You don’t have to wake up when you’re dead.”


    That was it. I tried to keep basketball and home life separate, but how can you?

    She told me in no uncertain terms, it was time to quit coaching varsity basketball. Five weeks later I did.

    Many coaches suffer undue stress in the sport that they love. It’s always been there, but now in the age of social media and with unwarranted self-esteem running rampant, it’s reached ludicrous levels.

    A coach can’t have a life without worrying that something he said, a bar he dropped into with a friend, or most often, some lie a disgruntled parent said about him or her that sprouted a rumor will end their career.

    How do you beat the stress?

    In 1990, I had perhaps the best basketball team I ever coached. These guys were sophomores on our state championship team two years before but were playing excellent basketball in an unbelievably competitive league.

    We lost in overtime in the Five Rivers Conference Tournament at Byron on Friday Night to my friend Alfred Redman and the Chiefs. We handled Riverside easily in the play-in game Saturday morning and waited for the Chiefs to beat Lovell later that night at Northwest College, hoping for a Monday challenge game to qualify for state.

    It didn’t happen. The Bulldogs took the Chiefs to two overtimes before hitting a three-quarter court shot to win the tournament.

    Only two of the nine teams in our conference went to state that year and the Chiefs beat us the night before so there was no challenge. It felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.

    How did I handle the stress from that loss?

    Later that spring I went to Green Mountain with some Forest Service permits, cut a truckload of 10 and 12-foot logs, and built Brian and Staci a play log house. We still have it in our backyard and the granddaughters love it.

    It was a stress reliever to cut those logs, then peel the bark with a drawknife, notch them and build the little cabin. I didn’t even mind the sap sticking to the hair on my forearms as I worked. It was mindless drudgery with a dual purpose. I worked out most of that loss and created something long-lasting for my family.

    Not everyone has that outlet.

    Another late friend and mentor took Indiana University head basketball coach Bobby Knight trout fishing in the summer. It was a release for Coach Knight from the pressures of high-level Division I basketball.

    A few of my students worked at the Holiday Inn in those days and would tell me when Coach Knight was in Riverton. I never bothered him. I knew why he was here, and he valued his privacy.

    Fishing did the trick for the big man in the overstretched red sweater.

    Many other coaches choose to listen to music, hike, fish, hunt, or spend time in the shop. It’s a necessary release from the pressures of this ridiculously stressful occupation.

    Sadly, they sometimes seek other outlets.

    I’ve known a lot of chain smokers from the early days of coaching. You don’t see that much anymore, but you still see those who crawl into a bottle to release the demons.

    Alcohol never works as a solution. It always takes more than it gives, and no matter the short-term relief, the long-term damage is much more intense.

    It’s that time of year when the rumor mill gets rolling in high gear. Regional and state track meets are where everyone hears stories of the latest insane, helicopter, or snowplow parent ruining a coach’s career, followed by stories of how the administration stood idly by and let it happen. It’s just the way it is, and in most places, always has been.  

    Stress is greater than ever, even for lower-level coaches these days.

    Social media is the death knell of prep athletics. There are just too many experts in the stands with fetid access to social media accounts who are held to no accountability at all.

    The men and women leading young adults deserve better.


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