Best-selling author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, among several others) is dedicating the second season of his podcast, which takes “a searing look at what’s happened to fairness” and who is trying to level the playing field, to coaching. Episode 4 is called “Don’t Be Good – Be Great” and is about his high school baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald.
Lewis talks about the impact Coach Fitz had on him through two specific stories of his interactions with the coach.
The first story was as a sophomore baseball player. “As fate would have it”, Lewis gets put in a game against the only other team in the league that could compete with his. He is inserted to pitch in the last inning with one out and them up 2-1 and the other team with runners on first and third. Lewis recalls that the other team was “laughing and dancing with glee” as he walked to the mound. Lewis isn’t scared he recalls, because he has Fitz on his side – and there’s no one more scary in New Orleans than him. Fitz tells Lewis, “There is no one I’d rather have in this situation”. Lewis admits this is crazy talk, but says, “Such is the force of the man; that I believe him”. Lewis recalls he didn’t have the words for how he felt then, but he does now. “I’m about to show the world and myself what I can do”. He says, “The strength of this coach was inside me, like a superpower”. Lewis got the next two outs and the team won.
Can you imagine how it would feel to be described this way by a player you coached? With respect to motivation, can it get any better than to have the strength of a believer in you…strength like a superpower.
The other story revolves around the consequences of Lewis missing a practice as a senior during the Spring Break where he goes skiing with his family. Lewis struggles – he can’t find the strike zone. Fitz embarrasses him by asking loud enough for everyone to hear, “WHERE WAS MICHAEL LEWIS DURING MARDI GRAS?”, and other questions of the like. Fitz isn’t doing this to embarrass Lewis, though. It is intended as a teaching lesson. The lesson is that privilege corrupts. It’s like he’s telling Lewis 0 very publicly, YOU’RE ALWAYS SKIING. It teaches Lewis that, contrary to how he has felt thus far growing up, he does have something to suffer for: baseball. Lewis has internalized this lesson throughout his life.
Lewis says that, if he had never met Coach Fitz, he would never have become a writer. He would have felt it was too risky. The podcast characterizes why and how Coach Fitz was so good at motivating his players to be all that they could be.
- Fitz’s intensity was a motivator for many of his players. “We can do better than this”. That’s how one of Fitz’s players reacted to Fitz destroying a second place trophy after a basketball tournament championship game. This reminds me of something two-time Super Bowl champion coach Tom Coughlin says in his book, Earn the Right to Win:
“You can do better than that, spoken by someone you respect, is about as good a motivational tool as has ever been discovered”.
- Later, when there is a movement to have Fitz removed, Lewis describes his crime as being that “he held kids accountable” by suspending them for when they violated training rules, among other things. One of his former baseball players recounted how the players were required to sign training rules that said they wouldn’t drink alcohol. I appreciated the player’s reaction at how asinine it was for kids who were not legally allowed to drink anyway to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t drink. The player said Fitz held the players accountable for rules broken – which apparently didn’t sit well with some of the other players’ parents.
- One of his former players says the message was always consistent – “Don’t be good, be great”.
- In an interview with Coach Fitz, he tells Lewis that he believes that, in addition to teaching the players the game, he felt his responsibility was to teach them that they are going to fail in life and they have to learn to deal with failure and use it to become better and be eventually successful.
- At his retirement, Coach Fitz tells the audience
“I happen to believe coaching is teaching in its most perfect and rewarding form”.
There are some aspects of Coach Fitz’s style that I don’t believe translate to youth recreational sports. The episode recounts times the coach threw a trophy against the wall and broke it and that his intense pushing of the players often included some vulgarity. I’ve written about my thoughts on this type of coaching before. Generally speaking, I don’t see a place for this type of coaching at any level of youth sports, but then again, I’ve been called soft (stay tuned for an upcoming post on that subject). However, there is a distinction between coaching high school athletes and youth recreational athletes and, in Coach Fitz’s case, the good certainly outweighs the bad as portrayed in the podcast.
Finally, I think Lewis makes a profound statement describing coaching as being like a rubber suit:
“It takes on the shape of whoever’s in it. It hides nothing. It expands and contracts wtih the character of the person who wears it”.