Joe Ehrmann is a former National Football League star, playing most of his career with the Baltimore Colts. After his playing career, he became an ordained minister and social justice activist in Baltimore’s inner city. He serves as a volunteer assistant for the Gilman (Maryland) High School football team. His unconventional coaching style is chronicled in the inspirational book Season of Life by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Marx. The book chronicles a season with the Gilman Greyhounds and highlights Ehrmann’s philosophy on life and sports.
Ehrmann and his wife, Paula, are cofounders of Coach for America, whose mission is to inform, inspire, and initiate individual, community, and societal change through sports and coaching. His recent book is InsideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives. He has been called, “The most important coach in America,” by Parade magazine.
Ehrmann was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.
Ken Reed: In both Season of Life and InsideOut Coaching, you described yourself as the stereotypical macho, hard-partying, football player whose identity was tied primarily to your sense of power and dominance. Coaches loved your “mean streak.” How did you change your life direction?
Joe Ehrmann: My younger brother died from cancer during my 6th year in the NFL. He was 19 years old. Shortly after that, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. One thing he wrote really stuck with me. He said the greatest of all human freedoms is the ability to choose how we respond to life circumstances. I spent time thinking about how I could add meaning and value to the death of a 19-year-old boy. With the help of a lot of people, we built the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. The thousands of families that have walked through those doors have seen a plaque that reads: “In memory of Billy Ehrmann, whose life brought together those who built this House.”
From that point, I learned I could take all of the different parts of my life, everything, including the things I was angry about and fearful about, and find ways to add meaning and value to them.
KR: How did you get into your current career, working to change the way sports coaches go about coaching in this country?
JE: I backed into it. Most of the early part of my post-football work was on social justice issues. I spent a lot of time on housing and economic development issues in the battered neighborhoods of Baltimore. After a time, I realized we had a foundational crisis in this country, a crisis of masculinity. The basic question is what values does a boy give his life to?
To prove their masculinity, too often boys engage in alcohol, drugs, sports and sex. They value dominance, power, and money. I saw it wasn’t just young men in ghettos but men in boardrooms who were defined by their power and conquests.
Then we discovered that there was a crisis of femininity right behind that. Society tells girls to value “pretty,” “sexy,” and “skinny” and then gives them unrealistic standards of beauty, as portrayed in the media. Girls go through the same socialization process. They get the wrong definition of what it means to be a woman. Too often the result is body image and eating disorders.
The ways our culture defines masculinity and femininity are broken. Our societal definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman are wrong.
I then realized that there’s not a better venue for the healthy development of boys and girls than through sports – if we redefine what sports should be about.
KR: What should sports be about?
JE: Sports should be about the social, moral and ethical development of young people. It’s about character if done the right way. However, one of the great myths is that sports build character. That’s certainly not true in the win-at-all-costs world of sports in our culture.
Life is a team sport. Nobody goes through this world alone. It’s about a commitment to relationships and treating people with respect and dignity as you work on a cause. That’s what team sports can teach at their best. Team sports are about a set of relationships working on a cause.
Sports should be about creating good citizens and change agents. Sports should be a means to an end. Today, sports have become an end in themselves.
I also believe sports should be co-curricular, not extra-curricular. Every coach has the last classroom of the day. Coaches should be teachers and act like teachers. In a math class, we would never tolerate a teacher swearing, yelling at kids, or shaming a kid because they got a math equation wrong. Why do we allow that in sports?
We also need to look at athletic competition differently. It shouldn’t be about winning-at-all-costs. It should be viewed as a mutual quest for excellence.
Finally, sports should be about the health and well-being of every participant. We need to get more kids involved and create more alternatives so every kid can participate in team sports.
KR: What do you think of the state of coaching today?
JE: We have too many transactional coaches, coaches who use athletes for their own gain and purposes. They use players as tools to meet their personal needs for validation, status, and identity. Transactional coaches are stuck with the old concept of masculinity and believe you need to break kids down and then rebuild them. Their approach is coach first, team second, and players’ growth and needs last, if at all.
We need more transformational coaches. Transformational coaches are other-centered. They use their coaching platform to nurture and transform players and impart life-changing messages. Their approach is players first, team second, and coach’s needs met by meeting the needs of players.
KR: How can coaches transition from being transactional coaches to transformational coaches?
JE: You have to do the internal work first. Most coaches fail to do the internal work. That’s what InsideOut coaching is all about. All lasting and meaningful change starts on the inside. To be a better coach you have to first be a better you.
The single best predictor of coaching success is when coaches have made sense of their own lives first. Look at the highs and lows in your life and work to make sense of them.
Then examine the role sports have played in your life. Coaches have to make sense of the coaching they’ve received in their lives. Give the coaches you’ve had in your life grades. How positive was the experience? How negative? What did I learn and what could I have learned?
Once coaches have done the internal work and developed their coherent life story, integrating the good, the bad, and the ugly, then they can make a clear, conscious choice about whether they want to be a transactional coach or transformational coach.
KR: What do you think of what’s become of college sports?
JE: College sports are supposed to be about education. Instead, they’ve become about revenue generation.
I thought all this conference realignment this past year was very sad. Here we had presidents of universities, who are supposed to be protecting and promoting the mission of education, approving the pulling of their schools out of conferences solely to chase the TV money in two sports, football and men’s basketball.
KR: Can coaches in college and pro sports be transformational coaches?
JE: Sure. Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts was a transformational coach. I did a lot of work with him. He changed the lives of his players.
It’s tough in pro sports because it’s the entertainment business. It’s a transactional business, quid pro quo. But it’s certainly possible to be a transformational coach within that environment.
John Gagliardi (the all-time winningest college football coach at Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota) is certainly a transformational coach. He should be a household name in this country for what he’s done and how he’s done it.
It doesn’t matter if its sports, business or politics, you can be a transformational, other-centered leader. Unfortunately, they’re too few and far between – in sports and other areas of life.
KR: How do you define success?
JE: The scoreboard doesn’t define true success. There are all kinds of “wins” during a season — for the team and individual players. How well did you do overcoming obstacles, for example.
Ultimately, success isn’t about wins and losses, or how much money you make, or how much power and status you have. It’s about relationships and a cause bigger than yourself. It’s about being relationally successful in life and is measured by the impact you make on other people’s lives. It’s about focusing on something transcendent, a purpose beyond your personal goals and longings.
That’s why team sports can be so powerful. At its best, a team is a set of relationships working on a cause bigger than individual desires.
Coaches below the professional level should be focused on developing change agents; leaders who will go out and change the world for the better, not just winning championships.
A great team has great relational connectivity among the players. Some call it team chemistry. That’s spirituality. It’s individuals holding the highest value for the greatest common good. It’s a group totally committed to the cause of the team. If a culture like that is cultivated, performance on the field automatically goes up.
Winning’s important. We teach to play to win, prepare to win, and plan to win. But winning’s a by-product of focusing on developing young men and women of character.
KR: Are the issues the same if you’re coaching girls and young women as opposed to boys and young men?
JE: Definitely. It’s the same challenge. Society’s just given girls different socialization issues to deal with. We still need to teach them about the process of becoming healthy and thriving women.
KR: How do you start the process of becoming an InsideOut coach?
JE: You need to ask and answer four key questions:
1) Why do I coach?
2) Why do I coach the way I do?
3) What does it feel like to be coached by me?
4) How do I define success?
Most coaches don’t ask those types of questions.
KR: Can you briefly describe what transformational coaching looks like over the course of a season?
JE: Well, given a 12-week season, we take one life topic a week and look at in depth throughout that particular week. Our topics have included racism, gender violence, dating, what it means to be a teammate, etc. For that week, we spend the first 10 minutes of every practice talking about that topic with the team. And on game day we spend a half-hour on the topic before the game.
The focus is on character and what character traits the players are developing.
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- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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