Mentoring Amidst Our Mistakes

Paul Barna, an assistant football coach at Monsignor Donovan High School in Toms River NJ, had a blow up with a player during a game. His head coach, Dan Duddy, asked him to apologize ... which he did with a lot of humility and then also asked him he would mind writing about the experience in the hope that it might help other coaches.

Thanks, Paul, your humility and effort is awesome.

According to my wife, I am the poster-boy for the definition of a Virgo. On the positive side, I am modest, shy, meticulous, diligent, intelligent, and analytical. On the negative side, however, I am overcritical, harsh, and a perfectionist. For the past 5 years I have used the negative side of my personality to coach both the varsity and junior varsity players. 

It was the coaching style that I grew up with from age 7 playing Pop Warner through my toughest years in college. I felt that it made me a stronger person mentally both on the field and off of it as well. The “toughness” my coaches modeled for me has helped me develop what some people call “cold blood”. It is not that I am “cold”. It is that when presented with a tough situation, I have the ability to shut the other person out; if only for a time.

In today’s society, our young men are faced with many more challenges then we were as teenagers. Because of that, they are more high-strung and emotional. We, as educators, have to take that into consideration when we correct or discipline these students. During the offseason, after reading Tony Dungy’s book “The Mentor Leader”, I made a heartfelt decision to start coaching with the positive side of my personality and learn to control the negative side. 

As Coach Dungy says in his book, “mentor leaders seek to have a direct, intentional, and positive impact on those they lead. At its core, mentoring is about building character into the lives of others, modeling and teaching attitudes and behaviors, and creating a constructive legacy to be passed along to future generations of leaders” (Whitaker, 2010). 

I knew it would be an uphill battle because it is hard to change something that has been ingrained in you since a little boy. There would definitely be “slip-ups” but it would be how I reacted to those that would determine my growth at season’s end.

In the past, during the mentoring sessions with our players, the coaches were told to help our players develop a resolution based on the “virtue word of the week”. These resolutions had to be measurable and precise. This year, we were asked as coaches to make a measurable resolution to our players as a way to model what we were looking for. I made a resolution during “bold” week to be more patient and positive on the sideline during games. 

“Mentor leadership works best when the ones being mentored are aware that the mentor leader has a genuine concern for their development and success. Those we lead will be more receptive if they believe we genuinely want them to succeed” (Whitaker, 2010). 

A player does not feel that you want them to succeed if you are yelling at them in front of their family and friends. He will shut you down faster than it took to trust you. I told the players in my group that if I slipped up, they could call me out as quickly as I will if they slip up with their resolution.

This past Friday night, during a frustrating 1st half, I had a blow up on the sideline with a player. The situation that happened on the field is irrelevant. I felt insulted by a player, but what I failed to remember is that I am working with young men that are still growing both mentally and physically. An adult should never feel insulted by a teenager because a majority of the time the child does not know they are insulting you. 

The fact of the matter is that I did not act on my resolution, which I knew was going to happen at some point during the season. When we got into the locker room at halftime, I asked a player in my mentoring group to tell the other players what my resolution for the week was. After the team heard my resolution, I let them know as a team that I screwed up. Following that I apologized to the player that I called out for losing my cool with him on the sideline in front of his family and friends.

By doing this, I hope I showed all of the players that just because I missed on my resolution once does not mean that I have to throw it out the window. It means that as long as I want to continue to pull from my positive traits, I have to work harder on pushing the negative traits out of my life. From this revelation at halftime, I feel that my relationship with the players, especially the one I called out, has grown even stronger. 

Nobody is perfect but not everybody can admit to their mistakes. It takes a man to admit he was wrong. By speaking to the team, I was able to model to them what a real man does when presented with a situation like I put myself in. 

As written in Tony Dungy’s book, “mentor leadership is all about shaping, nurturing, empowering, and growing. It’s all about relationships, integrity, and perpetual learning. Success is measured in changed lives, strong character, and eternal values rather than in material gain, temporal achievement, or status” (Whitaker, 2010). 

I can only hope that these players are able to learn not only from my experience in football but from the failures I have made and grown from in my life.

Works Cited
Whitaker, T. D. (2010). The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams That Win Consistently. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.