COACH! THE TRANSFORMATION OF A PROFESSOR
by John Beatty
Professors and coaches are two distinct statuses and roles found in most universities. While professors are normally involved with the teaching of "academic" subjects while coaches are seen as teaching specific sports, the dichotomy is much more complex.
It is the sound mind, not so much the sound body that academics value. Despite contrary evidence, student athletes (jocks or dumb jocks) are seen as being at the opposite end of the spectrum from the more serious type of student. Academicians seem to have fewer problems with students being dancers, actors or musicians than athletes. They apply negative appellations to these statuses. Student athletes are aware of this. They report feeling some hostility from many of the faculty based on their being involved in sports.
Faculty members meet classes for three fifty minute periods, fourteen weeks a term. As coach, I saw my wrestlers 5 times a week for about 2 hours a day not only through the school term, but through vacations, inter-sessions and holidays.
The type of interaction varies as well. Professors lecture in front of the class, meet with students during office hours and discuss class work. Rarely do students raise personal issues. As wrestling coach I worked out with the wrestlers, running and doing calisthenics and actually grappling with them on the mats. Students do not physically attack their professors, throw them on the ground nor do they expect similar behavior from them (at least not without a potential arrest and law suit). Students are generally restricted in the areas in which they see the faculty: classrooms and offices. Faculty are seen dressed. Coaches change clothes in locker rooms with athletes and are seen not only in teaching garb, but in shorts, T-shirts and occasionally even without these.
When the team travels, the coach goes along, spending hours driving the van, staying in the same hotel rooms with the team, eating with them, sleeping with them and generally having a much more intensive relationship with them. On these occasions, the athletes discuss many aspects of their lives that most faculty never hear about (and often would not want to!) The relation between the coach and the athlete is far more personal and far more intense than it is between professors and students in general. Coaches are substitute fathers in ways that professors rarely are.
The coach must command the respect of the athletes in terms of knowledge of the sport, and is also forced into dealing with general problems in the athletes’ lives. It is here the team members turn to the coach to help resolve problems in other aspects of their lives, often influencing the moral and ethical upbringing of the team members. Many of the faculty claim that they discuss morals and ethics in their classes, but it is rare that they are forced to live these out in front of the class, or that they are approached by the students for guidance in such matters.
Athletes need the technical ability required to perform the sport, as well as the dedication and commitment to do the job. It is here that athletics training reaches its most complex. In a society where winning is everything, the understanding that "giving 100% and more - even if you lose” is really more important. Faculty rarely have to live with their stated principals in front of their students. Trying to convince a defeated athlete, that this may have been a fine moment in life, is not easy. But if the coach has done the job right, the athletes will attempt to understand what is being said no matter how bad they feel.
The result of this is that the student athletes do not see the coach as a threat, or a disinterested figure propounding some academic argument. Rather, the coach tends to be seen as an ally, a helper, a friend, a "parent" or just someone to whom the athlete can reach out. Faculty members are often surprised when students call them at home. Coaches are not. Coaches are not seen as the adversary. To some degree, the students’ perception that faculty have to give a certain number of A's B's, C's and so on indicates the difference in the relationship. Students are forever asking about curves and how they are evaluated. Athletes do not ask this kind of question of coaches, even though the coach judges them, and makes decisions about them (who is on the starting lineup etc.). The coach is “on their side”. There was a noticeable shift in linguistic use, first by the wrestlers, and later by the other athletes as word spread that I was now the wrestling coach. Student athletes who had been in my class and always called me "professor" switched to "coach" outside the classroom. In the classroom they used no term of address. Athletes perceive the coach as being in a more complex and infinitely closer relationship than the professor and as a result, the term takes precedence.
An interesting correlation with the switch from "professor" to "coach" was the number of student athletes who appeared up during my office hours. I often sat, unvisited, in my office working during "office hours". After I started coaching, a number of student athletes came up to my office to ask for clarification about materials discussed in class, while the number of students who were not athletes didn't change. The material became clearer and their grades went up. Some athletes held they felt uncomfortable talking to the faculty, but I was “coach” first, and “faculty member” later.
Many of the staff and faculty at the university felt that coaching was a step down. Athletics was something of an irrelevant event. It seems odd, in some ways, that the faculty who pontificates these values in academic circles winds up denigrating them in actuality and maybe worse: looking down on the coaches who are the people who are left with inculcating these values into the students.