Coach's Biggest Lesson

I'd been a quitter all my life—until he gave me something to run for.

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Posted in , Sep 1, 2005

Track Relay

I would be the big man on campus,  the greatest running back in the history of Stony Brook football. I'd strut across the school lawn with a giant varsity letter plastered on my sweater, a gaggle of girls trailing after me. That's what I imagined, anyway, at age 14, gazing out the Greyhound bus window on the long journey from my home in Denver, Colorado, to my new prep school in Stony Brook, New York.

I escaped Denver hoping to start over. I was a somber, awkward pastor's kid who'd never achieved much of anything out west. Here in the east, I would reinvent myself. I'd be a winner, not a quitter.

But not as a football star. My toothpick frame was too fragile for a contact sport. I was traded to the Stony Brook School's cross-country and track team. I reported for practice in a bathing suit and high-top sneakers. My new teammates snickered. Coach Goldberg was a disappointment too: a short, bespectacled man who spoke in a formal drone. He had me run some grueling time trials, after which he gave detailed critiques of my technique. I'd done by best, I thought, and it wasn't good enough. Yet again.

That big varsity S will never be mine, I thought. Neither will the girlfriend. Maybe I should just wear an L, for loser.

Coach Goldberg wasn't having it, though. One day he called me over just as I finished a set of sprints. He was standing by the bulletin board near the dirt track. "Gordie, I want to show you something."

Gordie. No one had ever called me that. I'd always felt Gordon was an old man's name, not right for me at all. But Gordie... now that had possibilities!

"Gordie, I think you have potential," Coach said. "But you'll have to discipline yourself. You have to trust me and follow my instructions. Every day you must complete the workouts listed on this board. Don't commit to this if you are not willing to give it everything you have."

Each weekday Coach stapled up on that board individual training programs for every member of his team, signed MWG, his shorthand for Marvin W. Goldberg.

"Gordie, are you willing to pay the price it takes to become a Stony Brook trackman?" he asked.

I agreed, but I soon regretted it. Every day it seemed Coach invented some new form of physical torture. I begged him to cut down my workouts. "Sir, is there any chance your pen slipped when it wrote five miles for stamina?" "Sir, I think I'm dying."

I'd always been a quitter. Whether it was homework, mowing the lawn, cleaning my room or reading a book, the minute I faltered, I would abandon it. Better to quit than to fail.

But MWG was no quitter. He had plans for his runners. Big plans.

I learned that one night when he invited me over for dinner. Afterwards, he drew a notebook off a shelf. I was shocked to see my name in large black letters on the cover. "I have something to show you," he said and turned to the back page.

There he'd written "June, 1957"—three years in the future—with a list of races and the times (down to tenths of a second) he expected me to run.

"Sir, those times are impossible!"

"Watch," Coach said, flipping to the front. I saw that he'd planned each day of my prep-school running career. If I followed every step, I could accomplish the goals he set for me, goals that I'd never dreamed were possible.

"Now, Gordie. The keys to this plan are simple: trust in your coach, and your willingness to discipline yourself and work hard."

No one had ever talked to me about the big picture. My only plans had to do with a date next Friday, cramming for an exam, Christmas vacation. This was different. Someone had believed in me enough to minutely plan 40 months of athletic development, to show me a way of growing. It was a challenge I would have reflexively shrunk from. But sitting in Coach's living room, seeing that notebook in his hands and the look of determination in his eyes, how could I refuse?

I learned many lessons over those 40 months. Part of our routine was 25 minutes of baton handoffs, done at top speed. "This is exhausting!" I complained one day. "You'll be a part of relay teams all your life," Coach said. "With your family or job, there will be moments where you'll have to hand off an important message or assignment. Learn to do handoffs now, and you'll be ready for more important handoffs later on." How right he was!

Another day, he told us, "When you near the finish line, I want you to sprint, even if no one is near you, and continue running for another quarter mile." I was incredulous. Wasn't the finish line where you stopped?

Only after our race did I understand. The exercise showed me that I had far more stamina than I believed. MWB was teaching us to exceed expectations—to finish any kind of race in life with vigor and resolve.

Still, that didn't stop me from wanting more time for fun. After all, by then, I'd earned my varsity letter. The summer before my senior year, I decided to quit the team, and I wrote MWG.

Coach wrote right back. "By not running, you will have disappointed your teammates and turned your back on the team's supporters. But most of all you will reinforce a dangerous character trait. Whenever you are faced with a challenge you don't like, or that seems too difficult, you will find it easier and easier to walk away."

Even I could see he was thinking about things beyond my running. I changed my mind and helped lead my team to a league championship. When I walked across campus that spring, it was with pride in myself, not in some letter sewn onto my sweater.

Today, at 66, I am a coach myself, a leadership coach. I'm also a pastor, author, husband, father, grandfather and yes, a runner—still listening to the voice of my mentor, Coach Marvin W. Goldberg, urging me to go faster, stronger, longer. And to never give up, least of all on myself.

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