Coaches in the sports world have justifiably received a nasty reputation. Men, and women, too, in Olympics training, tennis, football, soccer and other professional and amateur sports have been accused and often found guilty of assault, bullying, and worse. The Boy Scouts of America had to declare bankruptcy because for decades, it had ignored the pleas of adolescents and their families and allowed sexual predators to act as caring guides for their troops. These diverse and tragic embarrassments have left an indelible scar on these organizations, not to mention the child victims. The role and integrity of the coach have been called into question.
During my last two years of night law school, I worked as a Trial Preparation Assistant for six Assistant District Attorneys in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, finding witnesses, marshaling evidence, researching cases and defendants’ backgrounds. Witnesses varied from actual victims to intrepid or scared observers, to medical and scientific experts, police officers and character and alibi witnesses. In one case, almost all of these personages played key roles.
Harold Tonick, a Physical Education teacher in the New York City Board of Education, was indicted for attempting to rape and beating a female tourist whom he met in the former “Adam’s Apple” bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a freezing Saturday night in winter. She had been skiing upstate earlier that day and hurt her back. Tonick was tall and broad, and his nickname was “Hawk”, but he claimed that he was physically unable to do what he was accused of and that he had been misidentified. (I personally observed him before court one day in Chock Full O’ Nuts, and his typical pained, hunched-over posture that he displayed daily in court was nowhere to be seen; he walked upright, with no sign of any infirmity.) He produced two witnesses, upstanding members of the community, who testified that he never left the bar, as the complainant claimed. Of course, he had, and he plied her with drinks and persuaded her to leave when he told her that he was a chiropractor (we introduced his college transcript which included courses in kinesiology) and would drive her to his office and give her a free adjustment. Instead, he took her to a parking spot off the East River Drive, forced her into the back seat and committed his crimes. He then turned her out, on a desolate parking area off the East River Drive, naked. He was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to the minimum, 0-three years in prison, which generally meant about 1+ years. As far as I know, he never showed any remorse, certainly not at sentencing.
Why am I sharing this horrid tale? Mr. Tonick left prison and was promptly hired by Brooklyn College, of the City University of New York, as a basketball coach. The selection of coaches has always been a too-often-overlooked topic, but an athletic coach is thought to be a role model. This was the choice to be the coach? Clearly, Tonick, and other malefactors who groom, bully, or attack innocent children, or adults, cannot qualify. But my point is that coaches in general have gotten a bad rap.
A good coach can make all the difference in the world in the workplace. That function is rarely thought to be a supervisor’s or manager’s responsibility, but increasingly, it is. In fact, research shows that a good coach adds significantly to employee engagement, job performance, willingness to voice one’s opinion, and increases individual and team learning. Too few managers learn how to coach employees, but I was lucky. I worked for Alan Marrus, Bureau Chief, Appeals, in the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, and he evidently had studied the craft. He never told me, or us, what to do. Instead, he allowed us to figure out the arguments and case law on our own and gently led us to the most persuasive arguments; he made me feel as if I had come up with them on my own. He initiated a weekly Moot Court, so that every oral argument on appeal was preceded by a live simulation with “judges” who tested all your theories; I was asked to run it after its first year. Alan achieved employee buy-in through a years-long series of innovative training sessions that were designed to develop our analytical, rhetorical and presentation skills, given by prominent guest speakers. Employee development par excellent. He asked probing questions rather than barking directives at us. Alan arranged for a unique opportunity for 16 appellate attorneys to learn to investigate and try cases, which I was eventually privileged to manage, and we kept one courtroom busy all year-round while still handling our appellate caseloads – another stroke of genius employee development. If an employee had a personal problem, he handled it with sensitivity and confidentiality. Alan taught me a lot about how to lead people. Finally, he was instrumental in helping me find my next two positions; he in fact initiated both of them with my would-be employers. This was a coach for all seasons.
I did not begin this blog intending to write about Judge Marrus (he was appointed, elected and is now retired), but after describing the maleficent Tonick, I felt that this essay needed a counterweight.
How is a coach different from a mere supervisor or manager? A coach inspires you to achieve more than you ever thought you could. That charge conveys two key principles of Carpe Diem leadership: Treating employees with dignity as valued partners and actively demonstrating that you have their best interests in mind. When I argued my first appeal in an ornate Appellate Division, First Department, in Manhattan, Alan appeared. I thought that I had nailed my argument, but Alan gently and graciously informed me that I had let an opportunity slip by when the Presiding Judge asked me a question. I was being critiqued, but I did not for a moment feel that I was being criticized. Coaches motivate us by permitting learning, and failing, without remorse.