By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
December 13, 2016
We’re entering the heart of the holiday season. If you’re like me, you still have a lot of names on your shopping list.
When in doubt, I turn to books. I love books and I love to give good books as gifts. On that point, I think I have a book that the sports fans in your life will love.
But this book is different. It’s not just about sports. It’s really a story about relationships, love, mentoring young people and being an effective leader.
It’s called Season of Life and it’s written by Jeffrey Marx and focuses on the coaching style of former NFL star Joe Ehrmann and his coaching colleague Biff Poggi.
As a kid, I picked my sports idols based on how far and how dramatically they hit home runs (Reggie Jackson), how cool-sounding their names were (Roman Gabriel, Bob McAdoo), how sweet their uniforms looked (Roger Staubach), and how many championships they won (Bill Russell).
Yes, those are pretty shallow reasons for idolizing athletes but hey, I was a kid. As I grew into adulthood, I stopped idolizing athletes but there were still many athletes and coaches I greatly admired due to their strong character and the things they stood for – on and off the field. For example, John Wooden, Jackie Robinson, Cal Ripken, Dean Smith, Harmon Killebrew, Billie Jean King and Julie Foudy.
But today, there’s a former athlete I truly idolize. This guy is a champion human being. As good as it gets. His name is Joe Ehrmann and he’s a former All-Pro lineman with the Baltimore Colts — but that’s the least of his accomplishments in life.
Ehrmann once was the stereotypical pro jock. He partied hard and defined himself by his athletic accomplishments, sexual conquests and the amount of money in his bank account. His turning point was the premature death of his younger brother. At that point, Ehrmann began a quest for the true meaning of life. He gradually transitioned from self-centered hedonist to other-centered humanitarian. Eventually, he would start a foundation called Building Men for Others and become the defensive coordinator for the Gilman School in Baltimore. Since Season of Life came out, he has written a book about transformational coaching, called InsideOut Coaching, and he leads an InsideOut Initiative designed to combat the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) culture in sports.
I discovered his remarkable story by picking up Marx’s book. I’m very thankful I did. It’s simply one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I was only up to p.33 when I realized this wasn’t going to be your typical book about a macho football coach.
At this point in the story, Ehrmann was about to speak to a football clinic filled with about two hundred high school coaches when one coach asked him, “You gonna be talking about offense, or defense?” Ehrmann responded, “Philosophy. I’ll be talking about how to help boys become men within the context of sports.” The other coach, expecting a lecture on football X’s and O’s, looked at him inquisitively before slowly walking away.
Ehrmann got up to give his presentation and quickly got to his main point: the most critical issue facing our society is the distorted concept of what it means to be a man. “If we don’t fix our understanding, and get some proper definition of masculinity and manhood, I don’t think we can address other issues,” said Ehrmann.
He then began to rip what he calls the “false masculinity” pervading our culture; the three components of which he described as: athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success. After discounting that model, he described his paradigm for being a man.
First and foremost, true masculinity is about developing and maintaining relationships, according to Ehrmann. Greatness is measured by the impact you make on other people’s lives. His contention is that the problem with males is that we compare and compete but we don’t really connect.
Here’s Coach Joe Ehrmann in a nutshell:
“[Masculinity] ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved. It’s gonna come down to this: What kind of father were you? What kind of husband were you? What kind of coach or teammate were you? What kind of son were you? What kind of brother were you? What kind of friend were you?
Success comes in terms of relationships. And I think the second criterion – the only other criterion for masculinity – is that all of us ought to have some kind of
cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires. Life’s about relationships and having a cause bigger than yourself. Simple as that.”
Wow! I would’ve loved to have been sitting in that clinic, looking at the faces of all those football coaches, when Ehrmann was laying that on them!
How does that philosophy translate into a coaching style? Listen to Coach Ehrmann send his players on the field before a game:
“What is our job as coaches?” he asked.
“To love us,” the boys yelled back in unison.
“What is your job?” Ehrmann fired back.
“To love each other,” replied the team.
What would Vince Lombardi think of that? Didn’t Lombardi always believe you had to treat players like dogs to reach the pinnacle of success?
Speaking of success, this team can’t possibly win football games, right? Well, the Gilman School football program won and won big under defensive coordinator Ehrmann and head coach Poggi. They had undefeated seasons and numerous league crowns. (Note: Ehrmann left the program several years ago to pursue his other projects and Poggi resigned after the 2015 season, a season in which Gilman finished ranked 13th nationally. Poggi is now an associate head coach at the University of Michigan. He plans to return to high school coaching in the future.)
At Gilman, they taught the Game of Life, not just football. Nobody got cut. Everybody played – and played in the first half when the game was still in doubt. Ehrmann and the rest of the Gilman staff focused more on building character and teaching sportsmanship than the proverbial X’s and O’s. They wanted to foster relationships, build a football family and maximize each player’s talent.
“God gives each person X amount of talents,” explained Ehrmann. “The question isn’t really how many talents you’ve been given. That’s the sovereignty of God. The real question is what you do with the ones you have. Some of us get paralyzed when we feel we don’t have ‘as much as’ or [aren’t] ‘as good as’ someone else. But the person we really want to honor is the one who maximizes whatever it is he has.”
Toward the end of one practice, Ehrman told the boys:
“You’re practicing like you really love each other. You’re pushing each other, helping each other get better … finally practicing like you really love each other. It makes all the difference in the world. And it makes me really proud of you.”
Imagine. A coaching philosophy based on love. Powerful stuff. The world of sports – and the world at large – certainly needs more of this.
Before the last game of each season, Ehrmann and Poggi had each senior stand before his teammates and read an essay titled, “How I Want to Be Remembered When I Die.”
Nope, not your typical coaching style, but powerful indeed.
Pick up the book for yourself. And give one as a gift.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
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.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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