Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One coach's ongoing journey toward self-betterment

If you've not heard about Northern State coach Don Meyer's recent challenges, here's a short article that will bring you up to speed.

Coach Meyer, who is 63, is a coaching legend. In fact, during the two weeks since his car accident, I've received literally dozens of emails from other coaches who've been touched by him during his long career.

What's most interesting is that everyone I've traded emails, texts, and phone calls with about Coach Meyer had less to say about his achievements on the court -- which are many and remarkable -- and more to say about how he influenced them away from basketball.

And I'm certain that's how Coach Meyer would want it.

There was a good feature story about Coach Meyer last year in an Aberdeen, S.D., magazine that really captured what he's all about. Here's an excerpt from that article:

Coach Meyer’s coaching philosophy emphasizes the development of discipline, loyalty to teammates, and a fierce work ethic. There’s also a unique approach to being a player-leader that Meyer calls servant-leadership. Servant-leaders, Meyer says, are ready to work hard alongside everybody else, including the people they lead.

"A real leader," he explains, "serves others rather than having others serving him. With that in mind, we work on the important things that make you a better person, teammate and leader as well as a better basketball player. The wins take care of themselves."

Meyer’s demeanor during practices and games ranges from fiery to contemplative. He’s icy serious as he stalks the sideline, staring, gesturing, talking and shouting at his charges. In his hand is the ever-present micro-cassette recorder, a device of choice for taking notes.

Always the teacher, he encourages, instructs and motivates.

And after years of experience, teaching comes to him easily, intuitively. He knows how to correct mistakes without belittling a player, or how to compliment an athlete without swelling his ego. He can be intimidating to a young man unaccustomed to his silent pondering in the midst of conversation.

This is a man whose distinct, rough voice when directed at his players can be heard above the din at feverish Wachs Arena. In the locker room after a difficult loss he has openly wept, feeling lousy for his players who worked hard only to fall short on the scoreboard.

That sort of emotional display rallies his players and inspires loyalty. The man knows basketball, but his big heart becomes apparent, and for many players it is a part of him that overshadows even his considerable coaching skills.

What sort of young man does Coach Meyer recruit?

“I want kids we’ll enjoy coaching,” he says. “I look for toughness, intelligence, and a willingness to be part of a team. We also want kids who will be a good fit at our school and in our community.”

“He’s a unique guy, that’s for sure,” [one former player who is now an assistant on his staff] says of Meyer. “He’s smart and tough, but you figure out in a hurry that he really cares for his players. On the court, in practice or in games, he knows how to push the competitive buttons in you. He becomes like a father-figure for his players, and that tough-love personality changes once you know him off the basketball court.”

[The player] described frequent visits by the team to Meyer’s home for team dinners or gatherings where players saw the more relaxed side of their coach. “He’s quite hilarious, really funny, and I’ve gotten to know that side of him even more as an assistant coach. He knows that there must be a boundary between himself and the players, but as an assistant coach I’ve gotten to know how fun-loving he is.”

This year’s team is young and inexperienced. It opened strong but has suffered inconsistencies after the holiday break. Meyer hates losing, but is philosophical about it.

“We’re playing hard. And it’s rewarding to see how a team handles tough times,” he says. “One of the best lessons as an athlete is learning how to lose. Being a gracious winner is also a big lesson. But think about what Rudyard Kipling said. If you learn how to deal with winning and losing and treat those two imposters the same, than you’ll be a better person, a richer man.”

In Meyer’s cramped Barnett Center office are stacks of brochures, leaflets and loose papers brimming with inspirational quotes and stories. He snatches several and hands them to me, suggesting they are useful. A religious man, Meyer has included many biblical quotations on these sheets.

Despite focusing so much of his life on college basketball, Meyer acknowledges the supportive role of competitive athletics in our lives.

“There is too much emphasis on sports, particularly gamblers trying to make money from sports,” Meyer says. “The aspects of sports that are most important aren’t monetarily inclined. There is great value by being part of a team, from learning how to work with a team. There’s nothing like sharing the good times and the bad times with teammates. I’ve coached a lot of games, but it’s the personal relationships I remember most. Sports, like other activities such as drama, music, and the arts can lead to great team experiences.”

College athletes, according to Meyer, enjoy special advantages. “They learn discipline, commitment and how to budget their time. These things make you a better student. They also learn to compete in the classroom, and not against their classmates, but to get the best grades they can get.”

Basketball happens to be Don Meyer’s occupation. He coaches the game, sells his own line of videotapes to help players and coaches, and promotes his own camps for coaches and players.

But if you pull the ball from his hands and lift the whistle from around his neck you can put Meyer’s life into clearer perspective.

Don Meyer invests a good deal of personal energy into self-discipline and an ongoing journey toward self-betterment. You can appreciate how those characteristics cannot help but become fused with his coaching style. Ultimately, he expects a great deal from his players, just as he expects a great deal from himself.

It has nothing to do with basketball. And it has everything to do with basketball.