“When a Coach Had to Take a Stand"
C. Byron Buckley
Fourth Prize - $3,000
C. Byron Buckley, a 37-year, retired Indiana educator, has written 15 books and has received the 1985 National High School Tennis Coach of the Year Award, the Sagamore of the Wabash award, and The Open Door Christian Writers Award. Byron currently lives in North Vernon, Indiana and has been married to the former Elaine Joyce Gordon for 45 years and has served as her caregiver for the last 12 years.
I had to take a stand. His words ran down my spine like a student’s fingernails scraping a chalkboard.
I was edgy anyway. My concern was heat stroke. The brutal August sun had forced me to have two practice sessions – 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. I certainly did not want any of my tennis candidates to suffer heat exhaustion.
As an equal opportunity coach, it didn’t matter about race, religion, or socio-economic standing. My mantra was simple: “Let your racquet do the talking.”
My no-nonsense attitude could have also been contributed to the fact that our team’s challenge matches for varsity and reserve positions were not held on the North Central High School (Indianapolis) tennis courts due to repaving but instead were held on the five Eastwood Middle School courts five miles away.
Yesterday, a tennis mom shared her frustrations of transporting her son to double practice sessions. My answer was simple. “I understand your inconvenience, but heat stroke is a deadly business.”
Action. Reaction. Here’s how it happened. A candidate’s lob was ineffectively executed and fell much short of his expectations. Boom! His opponent’s overhead smash found the hot asphalt for a sizzling winner.
The frustrated player yelled out the Lord’s name in vain.
His teammates reacted as if they had been watching a gifted pianist suddenly hit a clunker note.
Some smirked. Most looked at me.
I had to take a stand.
Since early childhood, I had been taught Exodus 20:7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
As I walked to the tennis fence, I recalled what I had said to my government students: “Freedom is a two-edged sword. One edge is ‘rights. The other edge is ‘responsibilities.’ You have freedom of speech, but you do not have the right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
I also remembered that one of the magnificent qualities of North Central High School was the emphasis on diversity and tolerance – important values for any high school but especially for a school with a student population of over 3,500 students of all different races and faiths.
I motioned my angry tennis player over to the fence out of hearing range of my other players.
“Why did you yell out ‘Jesus Christ’?”
“I don’t know. I guess because I made a stupid lob.”
“Who do you think Jesus Christ is?”
“A rabbi. A teacher.”
“Who is your favorite teacher?”
“Mr. Cohen, my Hebrew teacher.”
“Would it upset you if I yelled, ‘Mr. Cohen!’ in disgrace of him?”
“I guess it would.”
“Do you think that your yelling on the court could actually help your opponent?”
“Yeah, it probably does.”
“One final thing. I’ll never get mad at you if you lose a match, but I’ll get angry if you let an opponent mentally break you down to the point where you lose your composure and start yelling out. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand, coach.”
That young man became a friend, one of my best tennis players, and contributed a great deal to my legacy of coaching 15 state championship teams and numerous state singles and doubles championships.
I cobbled these ruminations together after I recently read Psalm 141:3: Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips.”
Printed August 19, 2010; North Vernon Plain Dealer; North Vernon, IN
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