America’s Coach

by Ross Bernstein, Bernstein Books 2006

This is the story of Herb Brooks, the great American hockey coach who masterminded the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid. Brooks’ amateur team, a collection of college kids, beat the unbeatable Soviet Union team, and ultimately won the gold medal. The lessons from this hockey tale are valid for Judo.


Because, really, when you are a coach you are just selling. You are selling team building, you are selling your systems of play, you are selling everything associated with making an individual better and collectively your team better I also think they have to be instinctive and be able to react on the turn of a dime, particularly under pressure. Coaching is really a battle for the hearts and minds of your athletes. It is as simple as that.

Being overseas and away from the States was good for the team’s morale. Some of the regional cliques were broken down over there and the players began to bond. The experience for the players was summed up well in the book “One Goal,” by John Powers and Arthur Kaminsky: “Europe would be an ideal place to start, to develop the camaraderie Brooks wanted to see. The food would be strange, the faces unfamiliar, the languages alien. Nobody would know a Gopher from a Badger in The Hague. They would merely be 26 kids in USA jerseys lugging their gear through a different hotel lobby every morning.”

I believe that we as managers, parents and coaches must say at times things that employees, children and athletes do not want to hear. Things such as “You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” That brings us to the hidden ingredients, the intangibles, the things you can’t see, can’t weigh, can’t buy, can’t sell, or can’t put a price tag on.

Let me start with issuing you a challenge: Be better than you are; set a goal that seems unattainable; and when you reach that goal, set another one even higher…For the cowards never started, and the weak died on the way. Because you are thus equipped, you have an obligation to your family, your school, yourself, your nation, and your god. An obligation that demands you take these lessons you have learned so dearly, and expand upon them. As William James once said, “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”

“Overall, there has been great progress in American hockey over the past 25 years or so,” said Brooks. “For us to keep on moving forward though, we really need to encourage the debate, the dialogue and the discussion for change. We should be respectful of one another, understand differing philosophies, and work together to make American hockey better. We have many great athletes in our country and I think that our future of our country is unbelievable. We just have to work on our developmental programs and keep it going. I do think there are too many AAA, showcase and elite camps, etc., for young kids today and as a result we are creating a bunch of robots.  We need to make it fun for our kids and let them learn to love this game the way we did.  Kids love to play and we need to give this game back to them. Our coaches need to make practices more fun by making drills that are both fun and competitive, that will challenge the kids to find the games within the game. We are doing a great job though. Our girls programs are continually getting better, we’re getting more and more kids onto the next levels and the rest will eventually take care of itself.”

“We have the infrastructure in place, we have a lot of wonderful volunteers and we have some very dedicated coaches out there. But I think we always have to remember, at least on the amateur side, what this is for. It is for our young people so that they have a real meaningful environment to play and learn the game.  There are a lot of positive things, but we have to watch out for the  ‘doing too much too soon for too few’ syndrome. Basically, we have to stop narrowing the base of our pyramid. We have to understand that when we have competition without preparation, then there is no real development.  Sure, we’ve got to take care of our elite players by challenging them and bringing them along, but at the same time we can’t let other kids, with latent development, fall through the cracks. And these triple A programs, showcase teams, and select programs do little for the real development of our players. That is a big concern.

Too often today success is attributed solely to talent. Talent is the obvious ingredient of greatness, but the hidden ingredients are determination and dedication. As legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Talent is a gift, but it is more than that. It is a trust which no man has a right to ignore or worse still, abuse. Each man, whatever the degree of talent bestowed upon him, has a moral obligation, not only to himself but to society, to develop that gift to its utmost.” I would agree.

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