“Go piss in your boots” sounds like a popular idiom, and most likely, an insult delivered with clenched jaw. A quick internet search fails to enlighten, although many similar expressions do exist. “To pour piss out of a boot,” is a wonderful reference to stupidity, even though it matches in neither form nor substance the usage I so nostalgically recall from adolescent sports. It has been close to forty years, and still the exhortation triggers fond memories. I don’t recall how Coach Adam Streitel found his way from Germany to Grand Rapids, Michigan (did I ever ask?), but in the late seventies and early eighties, he brought his great passion and love for football (soccer) to a group of provincial and impressionable teenagers. We believed he once played goalie for the German National Team, around the time of the Korean War, but none of us really knew the details, nor could a recent web search confirm. Nonetheless, we respected his expertise, and we hung on his every word, even when those words and his brand of coaching frustrated us. Frequently, practices found us never touching a ball; his approach to conditioning, like so many of his other coaching strategies, were way ahead of his (or our) time. We all liked winning, though, and together we put up a very favorable won-loss record; but still, a whole practice without scrimmaging? When we did touch the ball, we learnt that a potent offense starts with a formidable defense, that the ball is quicker than the player, and that distributing the ball amongst teammates is much more effective than dribbling.
Conditioning and strategy were just two of the best-in-class coaching techniques Coach Streitel employed. Whenever my parents attended a game or picked me up from practice, he would implore them to feed me steak. I was undersized, and if I were to be competitive, I would need to be bigger, and tougher. I believe the Atkins Diet represented the limit of Coach Streitel’s understanding of nutrition, but it also resulted in my love of flank steak – especially the way my father prepared it (on the Weber with Worcestershire and garlic salt). Coach Streitel was also a psychologist, as demonstrated by his recommendation for me to piss in my boots. At the end of one particularly exhausting practice, I complained to Coach that my new cleats had given me blisters. Without missing a beat and without so much as a smirk, he said that if I peed in my shoes, I would not thereafter get blisters. I quietly questioned the sincerity of his proposition and opted not to urinate in my new and very dear shoes. Needless to say, it was the last time I complained to Coach. Problem solved.
One evening, our side was playing a tight match, and blister-free, I found myself running the midfield alongside the team bench and the modest bleachers. At the far end of the pitch, the opposing forward broke through our defense, generating a one-on-one break on our goalkeeper. The enemy striker rifled a perfect shot toward the upper right corner of the goal, a near certain score. Our keeper leapt to attempt an impossible save, seeming to pause in midair. At the very last fractional second, his arms shot out and he made a highlight-reel grab. As he came down with the ball, our bench and the dozen or so fans let loose, occasioning Coach Strietel to turn his back to the field and to tell our largely parental fans most succinctly to “Shut up. That is his (the goalkeeper’s) job.” And, he didn’t say “please.” It seems almost silly so many years later, that when one of our team does something truly exceptional, the memory of Coach Adam Strietel and that one particular play replays in my mind.
Reflecting on my training with Coach Streitel, I understand why competitive athletes so often succeed in many fields, most notably in finance positions with objective win-lose accounting metrics. Great satisfaction, not to mention remuneration, is attained by winning through preparation and dedication, especially when based on the teachings of an exceptional coach. How might these lessons and priorities apply to a collaborative process when encouragement is as necessary as iron-fisted direction? Day by day, we seek a balance between ‘That’s just our job,’ and ‘Yes, and…,’ and as we grow older and gentler, our scale usually tilts towards affirmation. What inspires on the ball field comes up short when more complex challenges necessitate greater elasticity and nuance. Coach Strietel would probably be appalled by the report cards we keep and by the affirmative support we provide, in spite of the many lessons from his coaching.
Balance, I think, is the key. Some of my most vivid memories are of goals scored and others narrowly missed, and perhaps even more so, the camaraderie of never-ending practices. The many lessons I learned through competitive sports, especially team sports, have set me up well in life. To this day, I abhor grade inflation and participation awards, and am convinced keeping score and report cards are important and valuable tools. The balance I seek comes from not lowering expectations, or tolerating poor performance, but rather by inspiring excellence through a combination of sports-like discipline and steadfast nurturing encouragement. With no lack of affection for, or appreciation of, Coach Adam Streitel, I have come to learn that leadership comes from more than repetition, eating steak, and a recommendation to piss in our boots.