A decade of two point starts and glute ham raises; almost 4000 days observing bretzel stretches and hang cleans. Ten years may seem surmounting and a bit like forever to some. However, to a few that’s just the blink of an eye.
Five years ago, I listened to Dan Pfaff speak on 44 years in the coaching trenches. He had served for nearly twice as long as I’d been alive. I’m always nourished by Dan’s sentiments and left that day in Phoenix believing he had forgotten more than I will ever know. I was inspired nonetheless. The right humble pie recipe will always leave you licking your plate and asking for seconds. The right coach will give you a lesson to digest that may fuel you forever.
As I begin to highlight my last ten years, I want to forewarn you using Joshua Medcalf's closing sentiments from his best selling novel Chop Wood Carry Water, “My fear is that you would leave this story on the high of starting the process, but give up when the reality of the challenge sinks in. This can happen anywhere from day 2, to month 119. The process is simple, the journey is not.” Medcalf's words resonated with me and birthed connection to my journey all throughout his book. His story captures the path to mastery. Together we will explore the story of a young Samurai and his Sensei...and seeminlgy find ourselves somewhere along this path.
Whether you're a first month intern or twenty years deep, "TODAY" is equally important for all. “The only thing that is truly significant about today, or any other day, is WHO YOU BECOME IN THE PROCESS" (6). Learning and providing value to the lives of others is an unwavering part of who I want to be day after day. The path of a worthy coach can be simplified: Learn. Teach. Reflect. Repeat.
“Every little thing we do, no matter how mundane, matters greatly when it is multiplied by the number of times we do it” (8). I was raised by a goody-two-shoes mom who admired Mother Teresa. Her patron Saint legacy was paved through small actions as she once explained, “Be faithful in small things for it is in them where your strength lies.” I’ve always believed a coach's desire to be great is reflected in the way they coach the warm up. Discipline in details dictates your destiny. It’s always your decision every day to coach up the simple, small and monotonous specifics. Observing intently is essential.
It’s also your choice to genuinely connect with everyone in your community. Mother Teresa said, “I believe in person to person. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment.” Could you imagine how great your sporting community would be if you coached every athlete like they were the next J.J. Watt? Think of the details you’d highlight, the standard you’d set and the enthusiasm you’d show. You'd likely analyze metrics of effectiveness after the session was finished and look back on each workout as if it were the Superbowl.
"Discipline in details dictates your destiny. It's always your decision everyday to coach up the simple, small and monotonous specifics."
“You can get pretty confident by reading everything you can get your hands on about a certain subject, it's called ‘artificial maturity.’ But knowing about how to do something and having practical experience actually doing something are radically different" (13). From politics, to our parents, to periodization and programming, we are all guilty of analyzing superiors and believing we could “do it better.” The Dunning-Kruger effect has held merit in every life at some point. Some of us will never grow out of this ego led mindset which I believe arouses from a fear of inadequacy. Pop culture echoes this pheomena as Morpheus in "The Matrix" confidently explains, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Furthermore, I love the words of Telamon of Arcadia from The War of Art, “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”
Sadly, our ignorance can affect everyone we lead. Let me explore coaching context...The French-Contrast method seems so cutting edge until your two hundred forty pound high school freshman tears his ACL upon landing from a hurdle hop. How about six weeks into your elite speed combine prep program and your potential NFL’r yanks his hamstring 35 yards into his 40 because your failed programming was overzealous? Or worse yet, lets watch the kid on twitter barbell ½ squatting five hundred pounds all the while not having the mobiity to tie his shoes. His feat of “strength” draws further imagery as we imagine his scrawny teammates fist pumping and cheering him on. Who will be clapping for him when he gets cut one week into his first college camp? These real life scenarios are all likely reflections of EGO and “artificial maturity.”
Copy and paste coaching...If only optimizing performance were that easy. Coaching is both a science and an art. We can all run a pre-scripted lab experiment but how many could take a couple of days to recreate the Sistine Chapel ceiling? The effort, sacrifice, trial and error, and sometimes the loneliness that accompanies a great artist's journey are all essential qualities that one cannot experience second hand.
“Practice is good, but too much practice is not" (23). Burnout seems inevitable for many of us. Desolate feelings have sustained themselves twice in my career. Luckily, detachment and rest have served me well when desperately needed. Too many accumulated coaching hours not only can be harmful physically and mentally for obvious reasons, it can also wrestle with your identity. “When your identity gets wrapped up in what you do, it clouds every decision you make...Find your identity in something that cannot simply be stripped away in a moment, but instead do the hard work of reminding yourself that your value comes from who you are" (25). “Coach Giff” and “Matt” are often inseparable. Coaching bleeds into my ethos.
Two summers ago, I began training a young talented hockey athlete named Anders. Anders had tasted professional success; signifying the realization of childhood dreams. Dreams shared by family and friends alike. This can prove equally motivating and daunting. When Anders and I first connected, he was amidst a battle with the physical and mental setbacks of injury. The possibility of retirement loomed all too early for this twenty one year old phenom and clearly carried with it negative thought traps. He was grappling with issues of “identity.”
We all seem to battle with associations, labels and titles linking ourselves to self worth. Medcalf warns, “Whatever you do though, please don't find your identity in something that can be gone in a moment’s notice" (25). With COVID-19 currently snapping its fingers to remove many reliance's and comforts from our lives, this message is as perfect now as it was for the many conversations Anders and I had that summer. We both found out a lot about ourselves.
Anders wasn’t just an athlete. He was a product of all the characterisitics that made him a great on the ice: “Confident, committed, competitive, consistent, determined, cool under pressure, risk taker, and an enthusiastic teammate.” Likewise, I'm not soley “Coach Giff.” I am: affectionate, aware, commited, disciplined, exuberant, curious, a learner, a teacher, a lover of sprints and health...you get the point...You are more than a title. More than a position. More than a job. More than a partner...Always remember, it’s not what you do, it’s WHO YOU ARE that defines you.
Coaching is a journey in which we may never really fully “arrive.” Success carries a different meaning for all. Some say “success is a journey and not a destination.” Some feel it is highly subjective and a “feeling.” A majority may have objectives and look to attain criteria such as: knowledge (PHD, Accumulated Certifications, “Know It All Status”), experience (years, organizations, pro and collegiate), population influence (i.e. # of social media followers), finances ($100k or $1,000,000), and titles or power (Head S&C Coach, Owner). I sometimes like the notion of "freedom of time." Many find satisfaction in having the time and freedom to do what they want; when they want. Whatever contributes to your definition of success, it is very clear that we all have unique markers, thoughts and combinations to its specific personal meaning.
A long coaching journey requires patience and effort. “People who get world class results have trained themselves to become comfortable when it's painful and uncomfortable” (28). I often quote Drake when I reflect on my path, “Started from the bottom, now We here.” Twelve bucks an hour and resting my head at night on a couch in mom's basement was far from "baller" status when I began. However, I could've cared less knowing my size 13 Nike was in the door. I remember being so jacked up for my first paid coaching session with a fourteen year old quarterback from Watertown named Tarek. The 2009 Coach Giff was probably way too animated all the time. My aggressive eyebrows may have had more of a “Rasputin affect" back than too. I likely yelled too much to mimic my superiors and can guarantee I constantly over cued. My enthusiasm and passion, however, would catalyze my first few months and years. Upon reflection, I wouldn't change much and I defintely wouldn't dimmer the level of exuberance I had. Late nights, long weekends and not making as much money as my buddies in the “Biznass” fields were an easy sacrifice for the opportunity to COACH. After all, the essence of coaching is about the give not the get.
What do you desire most as a coach? Is there a title your'e chasing? A caliber or level of athlete you'd wish to lead? Notoriety? Wealth? Do you think the attainment of your dreams can lead to a greater level of happiness or fufilment? “Every day, people everywhere live their lives believing that everything will be different if they can just achieve more, win more or make more money. But if achievement hasn’t filled that void to date, How is achieving more going to fill it in the future?” (30).
There have been many awesome moments in my career thus far. I can without a doubt say the cool things: UFC Championship Belt, T.V. cameos, magazine articles, clinic talks, online world love, and NFL/MLB/UFC athletes trained have been equally fleeting as they are fun. Some of those peaks came early and some took a decent amount of patience and grit. Regardless of whether they were chased or sometimes effortlessly caught, big accomplishments may pat the ego but have never truly carried substance to nourish my soul. Those highlights may provide the opportunity to check the “experience box” or bolster a resume but they don’t make me more valuable to God and my close friends and family.
In 2016, I applied for the Head Football Strength Coach position at the University of Buffalo. I thought this may be my big break to help me harness all those possible desires I confessed earlier. I sent my resume out and drafted a winning cover letter. Realistically I may have been a dark horse, athough having a few inside references and connections gave me confidence. I researched the city, pondered houses, thought about the facility and programming changes I ‘d create with the team. I waited for a call...and I waited..and waited and waited...And SNUBBED! Silver Lining Alert: The silence provided an opportunity for scripture to envelop me.
God chooses to occasionally bear hug me and speak through The Word. His timing is impecable. I’ll never forget my eyes and fingers finding “Ecclesiastes.” As the story goes, there once was a wise man who had EVERYTHING under the sun. None of his possessions brought him fulfillment. The pursuit of riches and worldly desires became an act in “chasing the wind.” Have you ever tried catching the wind? You'll always come up empty. The wise man had all the riches, experiences and acclaim and yet realized it was all meaningless. All that mattered was God and the relationships he had with people...
...We are a few years into my journey and have now began to really dig into the carry overs Chop Wood Carry Water has to coaching. I am going to hit pause and let you digest as I give my fingers and head some rest. I will keep “chopping wood and carrying water” and finish Part 2 next week. Be good.