During the past three years, since I began doing volunteer work coaching budding inner-city athletes, I sometimes have questioned my motives. While there's no question it's fulfilling and one of the focal points of my life, it is, at the same time, frustrating and extremely demanding because the boys I coach often have misplaced values. In the course of my work with the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club, I've experienced some moments of soul-searching.
I have found that it takes a special type of person to cope with the problems and needs of urban youth. Often, through no fault of their own, their values have become distroted. They don't have a wide range of role models with whom they can identify, and therefore their tendency to equate athletic success with manhood -- and lack of athletic success with total failure -- sets them up for shattering disappointments. I see all too clearly that for many of them, the dreams they're chasing never will be fulfilled.
Another factor that affects many of these youngsters -- perhaps a majority -- is that they come from single-parent homes where the mother usually has to play a dual role.
I realize that in these cases my own role goes beyond coaching and becomes that of a surrogate father. Having three sons of my own, and eagerly expecting a fourth child this week, I have plenty of experience as a father. But playing the role of substitute is diffrent. As every parent knows, children take a lot of time. If you don't have a lot of it to give, you share what we've come to call quality time with them.
Consequently, I feel that I not only must have a great deal of patience and understanding with the young people I coach, but I also must establish a rapport with parents -- usually this means their mothers -- to learn their individual needs and how to help them better identify with realistic expectations. For example, I call their parents and ask about problems at school, so that I can talk to the kids about their academic performance as well as their athletic performance. But when you're volunteering time to work with youngsters who need so much more than athletic coaching, you realize what precious little time you have to give each one.
As in most of society, the male figure is vital in the black community. But since he is absent from many of theri homes, many youths identify woth black male athletes as role models. They see athletics as a way out of their conditions, a means to an end. They see Dave Winfield signing a contract for several millon dollars, and they think, "Oh wow, I want to be like that. I can do something I like doing, unlike my parents."
So it often happens that athletics are taken more seriously than other facets of life, and if a boy fails to become a superstar, he feels that all is lost.
As a coach, my main objective is to make participation in sports an educational as well as a fulfilling experience. But the "winning is the ultimate" docrtine distorts the sense of sportsmanship and competitive spirit. Exposure to philosophies like "Winning is not everything -- it's the only thing" and "Losing like dying" does more harm than good.
Black youths see so many around them suffer defeat that anything less than winning is equated with failure. They begin to equate winning with manhood. Superstar athletes are winners, and there for are men worth emulating. As far as the kids are concerned, anyone who didn't make it in life is less than a man.
It's an illusion. Fewer than one percent of aspiring athletes will make it to the big time, but that figure is meaningless to inner-city kids -- they can't fathom those who try to make it and don't. These kids don't believe that they might become one of that group.
I began to search for ways to deal with this dilemma. When I discussed the importance of sacrificing petty differences and burgeoning egos for the sake of team unity, their looks seemed to ask, "If we do, will it guarantee us a championship?"
It got to the point where I began to question whether or not it was worthwhile for me to continue. Even my wife, who has been very understanding and supportive, began to ask why I didn't let somone else work with the kids or why I should put myself through it all.
Then an incident occured that changed my thinking. A woman who has single-handledly raised five boys and two girls to be outstanding young men and women offered me some advice and consolation. I had gotten to know her well as I coached the children, and respected her a great deal.
"Continue to give them good values in life," she encouraged. "Don't become discouraged. Some will gain from your efforts and some won't. The rewards will come. But don't give up on them. Besides, if you don't help these poor young kids, who will?"
I pondered that for several days, and worked up a strong sense of guilt for having felt my previous frustration. I recalled what someone said to me in my earlier years: "If one is granted a certain gift and does not utilize that gift, it will ultimately be taken away."
I then began to think about all the sgrong black men in the Washington community who have dedicated their lives to the development of young men and women. Men like Jabbo Kenner, Bill Butler, Tom Jones, Julius Wyatt, Jimmy Bethea and others who have spent untold hours and resources to help young people. Suppose those them had decided to let someone else take on the responsibility?
Then it all came into focus I understand what my mission is. I can now say that I am at peace with myself. I consider myself fortunate for having an opportunity to influence young people's lives, and I have vowed that I will be giving even more of myself in the future.