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How to build a tribe!

31 Oct

Smart coaches produce wins. Great coaches produce programs that win.

The question is what do you want to do; just win games or build a program to last. The latter is far more significant and far more difficult.

Social scientists tell us that, as a species, we have a strong instinct to organize ourselves into tribes. They tell us that tribes are everywhere and that they can form for many reasons including, resources, philosophy, geography and to defend against a common enemy (war)….the latter being the most relevant for our discussions here.

Teams are tribes. In fact, teams are actually tribes of tribes…but we’ll get more into that later.

I believe that sports serve the important role as civilized surrogates to war. Competition clarifies and galvanizes us into teams (tribes) much in the same way war does a society.  In my opinion sports, by-in-large, is a form of civilized warfare.

Can we agree?

But many sports are so violent. Violence is civilized?


Come on…even boxing, mixed martial arts and the other combat sports?”


Think about it? You have two or more contestants who voluntarily agree to compete against one another in a chosen competition. These contestants agree to compete under a specific set of rules and any violation of those rules will result in a penalty and even disqualification or forfeit.  They agree to meet on a specific day at a specific time and location and on a specific type of battlefield. They agree to a time limit and there is typically a beginning, middle and end to each contest. They agree to have the competition refereed and to abide by the referee’s decisions no matter how much they may disagree. Often they agree to have the competition judged by others to determine the outcome and, here again, agree to abide by the judge’s ruling regardless of any of the contestant’s personal feelings on the matter. They agree to a specific set of tools (weapons/equipment) and they agree that in the end there will be a winner and a loser.  This is civilized, albeit violent at times, it’s still civilized nonetheless….don’t you agree?

Each of us is born with certain talents and traits. Some are born warriors and as a matter of course these men and women crave competition and tend to organize themselves into tribes in order to compete/do battle. Every tribe needs a leader…a chief.

The reason this is important is because most all great sports “programs” are organized like great warrior tribes. There is a method and structure to these tribes and if you simply step back and observe you will begin to see and understand their true nature. Great teams closely resemble great tribal societies more than they do anything else.

Some coaches know how to build tribes instinctively while others learn from their mentors. Whichever the case, once you learn the secrets of how to build a tribe you can begin to better understand and coach/lead any team/tribe you are a part of.

Over the coming months I will be sharing these concepts with you in this blog.  I hope you will be amazed at what you learn. My hope is that once you see how deep, powerful and profound these concept are you will immediately begin to reorganize yourself and your programs in the way you feel best utilizes this new knowledge and construct.

While sports as war is not a particularly new concept and the study of tribalism has been around for a few years, what is new is the manner in which I tie the two concepts together in regard to coaching sports. Also new is the methodology and roadmap I provide.

I’ve have spent years studying and developing these concepts. My goal is to share what I know with the hope you will take the information and use it to build your own tribe and coaching/leadership legacy.

I encourage you to stay tuned…


Haunted by van Gogh

17 Oct

Vincent van Gogh is considered by most historians and art experts one of the greatest artists to have ever lived.  His paintings hang in the halls of the world’s great museums and are considered to be among the most valuable art works in history.  While rarely for sale, when one of van Gogh’s paintings does go to auction the winning bid is typically counted in the tens of millions of dollars.

During his lifetime Van Gogh painstakingly created more than 900 works of art, some taking months to complete… and yet, you may be surprised to learn that Van Gogh sold just “ONE” painting while he was alive…. and that was to his younger brother?

Yes, despite his obvious brilliance, van Gogh spent his entire life in near total anonymity. In fact, van Gogh considered himself an abject failure as an artist and on his death bed remarked to his brother that he hoped he could die with more dignity than that in which he had lived.

Hearing this story had a profound effect on me. It made me question myself and my dedication to my profession of coaching.  It made me understand the sometimes brutal price one must pay for greatness.

It spoke directly to one of my own deepest personal fears; never realizing my potential and dying having questioned the way I spent my life. The story also serves to remind me that greatness often requires an unyielding dedication to a personal faith in one’s own abilities and calling. The story reminded me that solitude and loneliness often walk hand-in-hand with greatness and that an almost obsessive view of the world and a monocular focus on your work is sometimes necessary to achieve great things.

Yet, above all of this, the one thing that most impacted me about the story was van Gogh’s willingness to persevere despite no apparent positive feedback or reward for his efforts.  Day-after-day, month-after- month, year-after-year he went to work never relenting or giving up. He died never knowing his own greatness.

I am haunted by van Gogh.


Most respectfully,

Coach Bruce

My teams on the floor! (Part III)

5 Jul

This is Part III and the last part of our story.  Parts I and II precede this in the tow earlier posts. If you have not read Part I and II then in strongly encourage you to scroll down and do it before continuing.  The message will be far more powerful if you read the story in it complete form. With that said I now present Part II of our story!

And now the conclusion to our story…

Part III

As the second half began it was clear little had changed and the team started drifting even further behind, nearly to the point where the opponents lead would be insurmountable. Each time the boys would bring the ball down the court the towns folk would yell for them to take the open shot but each time the boys would pass the ball trying to meet the coaches four pass rule. Often the ball got stolen and other times the boys passed up easy shots only to lose the ball or take a less attractive shot just trying to meet with the coache’s requirement.  It all seemed a little bizarre and by the end of the third quarter the crowd was in afrenzy.

At the opening of the fourth (last quarter) one of the boys got the ball and had an open shot.  The crowd yelled loudly for him to shoot the ball but the team had not passed it four times as the coach required. Hearing the crowd and seeing they had fallen way behind the boy decided to disregard the coaches rule and take the open shot. S-W-I-S-H went the ball through the net and the crowd went crazy. The next time down, the same boy took a shot before the four pass rule and again it went S-W-I-S-H…it was clear he had “the hot hand” and over the next few trips down the court the team began to creep back into the game.

At the next break in the action the coach called time out and called the team over to the bench. As the boys made their way to the bench the crowd went crazy with applause cheering the boy how had started the team’s comeback. When the team arrived at the bench the coach told the lone boy sitting on the bench that he was going in to replace the player who had made all those points that had brought the team back into contention. After a few words from the coach he again reiterated his rule and held up his hands and said, “how many times are we going to pass the ball before we shoot?” “4” said the boys…”how many?” he asked again, “4” said the boys again…and onto the court they ran.  As the boys took the court, the player the coach had taken out of the game sat down and the two locked eyes but the coach said nothing.

By now the game was close and nearing the final minutes. The boys were flying all over the court trying to steal the ball back in the hopes they’d get one more shot at regaining the lead. At one point, one of the boys was able to knock the ball loose from the opponents hand and just as the team broke for the basket the referee blew his whistle and called out “foul”. Time was running out. The game was close. There would only be a few more chances if they were to retake the lead.  Immediately after the foul was called, the official at the scorer’s table called the referee over from the court to speak to him and, after conferring for a few seconds, the referee on the court blew his whistle again and informed the boy who had been charged with the foul that he had exceeded the maximum number of allowed fouls and had “fouled out” of the game.  Disappointed, the boy headed towards the bench and the crowd rose to their feet to give him a hand for his efforts.  Now there were just five players left. As the boy made his way to the bench the other boy sitting on the bench (the boy the coach had taken out earlier and who had taken the shots before meeting the four-pass rule) immediately rose to his feet and began to take off his warm-up to reenter the game.

As the boy removed his warm up to reenter the game the coach walked over to him and said “where do you think you are going…sit down?” Upon seeing this, the crowd went  silent and the coaches words seemed to echo thru the gym. Confused by the coaches demand the boy looked around and then said “we need five players coach” and again began to take to the court. This time, in a louder more forceful voice, the coach point toward the bench and said  “SIT DOWN”…his words ringing clear throughout the entire gym.  By now the crowd was on its feet leaning over the railing and looking down on the bench in stunned silence…and  disbelief. Everyone in the gym was confused and it wasn’t long before the referee came running over to the bench. “Coach,” the referee said, “we need a one more.” Slowly the coach retook his seat leaned back…pointed towards the court and said “my team is on the floor.” It was shocking and immediately, the crowd erupted in anger, chaos reigned and boos filled the entire gym.

And, so it went. On that day the team lost and finished the game with just four players on the court at the end. After, as the team arrived in the locker room, they were angry, humiliated and confused. They didn’t quite know what to make of their new coach or what had happened on the court just a few minutes earlier. Soon the coach arrived in locker room and he sat the team down. “For those of you who were on the court at the end of the game I’m proud of you” he said. “For the rest of you I want you to go home this weekend and decide whether you want to play on this team or not. If you come back on Monday then you will do exactly what I say…no questions…my word is the law. Now I want each of you to take the weekend and I’ll see you at practice Monday.”  After the coach had issued his order the team sat in silence.

On Monday all six boys showed up for practice.

That year they won the only state title in the school’s history.

At this point, I stopped telling the story and looked at the young coach. “Coach” I said …”are you willing to do that?” Unsure exactly what I meant he asked “do what?” “Would you be willing to play with four players” I said…“I don’t know” he said, to which I responded “then that’s the problem”…as soon as I said it a slight smile came to his face and I knew he got it.

After I had finished, the coach sat silent. As we sat there I looked deep into his eyes and I could see his mind was ablaze and that I had ignited his coaching fire within him and I could feel his excitement and anticipation to get back on the field with his team.

We chatted a bit longer and then the young coach said he had to go. As he stood up to leave he grabbed my hand and said “thank you Coach Bruce…I wont forget it…can I call you some time if I need to chat again? “Of course”, I said and he headed out the door.  Soon it was time for my old friend and I  to say goodbye as well and when we neared the door he reached out his hand and said “thank you coach”.  “My pleasure” I said… “I hope I helped”. ”You did” he said with a smile and we hugged and then it was done.


Winning is everything to me. The question is not whether winning  is important but rather how do you build a program that will produce consistent winning results.  Coaches who rely too much on the talent of their players’ lose control of their program and become spectators to their own fate…much like the young coach I met with in the story above.  You cannot be transactional with your team. Set the rules, and make everyone follow them or it will eventually unravel. If any of them break the rules, no matter how important, then set the punishment and apply it…make no exceptions. The great coaches build programs that produce consistent winning results. This is how it all starts.

To do this you may need to take a step back early on as you iron out the process. Never turn your program over to your players…make them surrender to the program. Over time your program will build and as it does so to will your wins. Winning cures many things!

To be a great leader in sports or in business you need to build a program. To build a great program you need the following simple things. These are: 1) A philosophy about coaching you believe in. 2) A system you know deeply and believe in. 3) The fortitude to step back before stepping forward…patience… and 4) the faith that things will turn out the way they are suppose to…in other words the conviction to tell them … “my teams on the floor!”

When you can to that you’ll be on your way!

Most respectfully,

Coach Bruce

My teams on the floor! (Part II of III)

2 Jul

This is Part II of a III-part blog post.  Part I precedes this. if you have not read Part I in strongly encourage you to scroll down and read part I before continuing.  The message will be far more powerful if you read the story in it complete form. With that said I now present Part II of our story!

PART II -“My teams on the floor!”

So there we sat, the three of us, sipping our diet Cokes and talking about Coach Phillip and his team. I began to offer some advice….

“Coach,” I said, “what if I told you that the problem was not the kids but, rather, the problem is with you…would that upset or surprise you”? No”, he said, I may be the problem… but either way I still don’t know how to fix it”. No worries, I said,…”I can help you but before I go on let me tell you a story I think will illustrate things in a way that will be very enlightening…do you mind?” I asked. “Not at all…please do,” he said…so I went on.

“Coach, years back I heard a story about a basketball coach that changed my life. In fact, the story was the bases for a movie called Hoosiers starring Gene Hackman that came out about twenty-five years ago…have you seen it?” I asked.  No”, he said, “I’ve heard of it but I’ve never seen it…should I”, he asked? “Right away” I said…“In fact, when we’re done here today I recommend you go right out and rent it and watch it tonight….I think you’ll be amazed. In the meantime, let me tell you about one specific moment in the movie that I believe will reach you in the same manner it did me”.  He perked up in his chair “I’m ready….go ahead,” he said with a slight smile…”tell me…..

The story goes like this:

Basketball in Indiana is king. In the small towns, like the one where the story takes place, basketball is everything. Sports bind these towns together and everyone is involved one way or another. The players themselves are superstars and winning the State title is the most coveted award possible. Some years back, in the 1950’s, there was a small town that had a basketball team with only seven players on it. One of the boys was exceptionally talented but, by-in-large, the rest of the boys were good kids but average basketball players, at best, and as a team they had little real prospect of ever winning the title against the bigger schools in the State.  Nonetheless, every year the entire town got behind the team and in years past the team was competitive and did well. The coach was beloved by everyone in the town. He was the coach for more than twenty-five years but, unfortunately, he’d fallen ill that spring and unexpectedly passed away just before the start of the new season, leaving the team without a coach. When the coach passed everyone mourned the loss and also wondered who would replace him. Rumors were rampant and word spread that the principal had hired an old friend to take the job… but no one knew who he was, where he was from or what he had done in the past. Needless to say, the town was on edge and the entire place was abuzz …and worried…about what a new coach might mean and bring to the school. Small towns do not like change…that’s why people live there.

So, on the first day of the season as the new coach arrived at the gym for practice one of the previous coaching assistants had started practice, running it the way they had for some twenty-plus years. Seeing this, the new coach instantly stopped practice and told the assistant coach that “his services would no longer be needed”.  Stunned, the assistant didn’t know what to say and again the coach asked him to leave the gym. It was clear that the new coach was not there to make friends and that he was nothing like the beloved old coach.  After the assistant left the coach gathered the boys and began to introduce himself. As he did, two of the boys started chatting just out of ear-shot under their breaths. Immediately the coach stopped and ordered the two boys off the court and told them not to return until they could be quiet when he was talking. By this time the remaining boys were stone silent…and in shock. In less than three minutes the new coach had fired the only assistant and kicked two of the boys off the team, leaving just five. It all seemed crazy and it was most certainly not the start anyone had hoped for.

With the five remaining boys the coach put them through drills and began preaching his philosophy to them. Order, discipline and “TEAM” were the order of every practice.  The coach was ridged, hard and demanding and as practices went on the boys discovered that among the coaches “unique” philosophies about basketball was his absolute insistence that no shot EVER be taken unless the ball had been passed at least four times before taking ANY shot.  Four passes before any shot…there were no expectations…it was the law and no one seemed to understand exactly why.

So day-after-day and week-after-week the coach drilled them on the fundamentals and order, discipline, TEAM. Practice was grueling and tedious. Day-after-day they repeated the same drills over and over while the coach continually demanded they pass the ball four times before any shot was taken. They practiced it so much they could count to four in their sleep.

On the night of the first game it seemed like everyone in town was there. The gym was packed and there was an air of excitement and anticipation in the room.  What would the new coach be like? How would the team do? Who was this man and are the rumors true about his crazy philosophies and this “four pass rule” they’d all been hearing about? By this time one of the boys who the coach had originally kicked off the team that first day of practice had apologized and returned leaving them with six players. After the coach spoke to them in the locker room one last time, the team headed down the hallway leading to the gym. With each step the crowd noise grew louder and louder and when the boys broke through the double-doors and entered the gym the crowd rose to its feet and the entire place went wild. The pressure was on!

Interestingly, one of the unique things about the gym and what made the atmosphere feel so intense was that the gym was constructed in such a way that the stands were very close to the floor but elevated above the gym court so as to almost allow onlookers to look down on the court. This gave the feeling the crowd was bearing down right on top of the players giving a very loud and intimidating feeling to the place….if you know what I mean. It felt very intimate.

Right from the get-go it was clear that the boys were struggling. A new coach, a new system and, especially, his strange four pass rule. The boys fell behind from the first tip-off and as the game wore on it wasn’t getting any better.

By halftime, the team had fallen behind by a large margin. As the buzzer for halftime sounded and the boys ran off the court towards the locker room, the towns folk booed and it was clear the new coach and his philosophies were not sitting well with them. In the locker room the players were confused and losing faith in their new coach and his ideas. Yet, the coach implored them, “stick to the fundamentals, remember what we’ve practiced” and then holding up his fingers he said, “how many times will we pass the ball before we shoot…”4” said the boys. “How many” said the coach “4” said the boys? Then let’s do it and the boys headed back out for the second half.

Part III tomorrow

My teams on the floor! (PART 1 of III)

1 Jul

A few months back I received a call from an old friend of nearly 40 years. He called to ask me if I would be willing to meet with him and the coach of his son’s local high school lacrosse team.  He said the coach was young and very good but he was having difficulties with a few of the seniors on the team. I asked my friend to be more specific and he told me that a number of the seniors were being difficult and lacked discipline and the proper respect for the coach and his authority.  He said the coach was struggling with disciplining these boys and was losing control. He went on to say these same players also happened to be the most talented members of the team and the coach needed to find some way to get them back in line or the season could be lost. He finished by saying that this coming season the team had a real shot at winning the championship and that the coach and the parents were worried the current situation was going to affect their chances. My friend asked me if I would meet with the young coach and give him any help and/or advice I might have. I agreed and we arranged to met at a local restaurant a few days later. To tell you the truth I was a bit apprehensive about it… I just didn’t want to let my old friend down. I was honored to be asked all the same.

So I arrived at the agreed upon location and walked in to to see my friend and the young coach standing there waiting my arrival. The coach looked to about thirty-five, was in good shape and had a nice strong presence about him.

As I arrived we all greeted one another and my friend said “Bruce let me introduce you to coach Phillips” …and as he did the young coach stuck out his hand to shake. We made shook hands and made small talk for a few minutes when my friend turned to the young coach and said, “Coach…Bruce and I go waaaayback and I asked him to come meet us today because of the conversation you and I had a few weeks ago. I hope you don’t mind but I shared some of that conversation with Bruce when I called him because I really feel like he might be able to help.  I  respect Bruce a great deal and I wanted the two of you to meet with the hopes he may be able to give you some advice to help you deal with the challenges you’re having with the team…I hope you’re not offended?”  “Not at all” said coach Phillips “I’m happy for any help I can get.” Right then I knew this young man had potential to be a great coach!

I started the conversation by telling the young coach a little about myself, and my background. I mentioned that coaching is a fraternity of which we are both a part.  I told him I felt it was my responsibility to help other coaches the same way I had been helped over the years“I’d be nothing if not for the coaches that helped me along the way”, I said.  I went on… “I’ve made nearly every mistake a coach can make over the years so I’m especially qualified to help you I think …whatever the situation”.

We both laughed and I wanted him to know I was not there to lecture him but only to help. I was unassuming, humble and respectful and I think I connected with him.

“So tell me the situation and let’s talk about it some”, I said. “We’ll”, he said “we have the most talented group of kids to come to the school in decades. They’re smart, fast and have great instincts for the game. On the other hand, they’re lazy and lack focus and seriousness…especially the seniors.” “What have you done to get them under control”, I asked. “Everything”, he said “the real question is what haven’t I done.” He went on, “I’ve yelled, threatened, motivated, punished them and tried everything I can think of and it just doesn’t stick…truth is they don’t respect me and I feel as though I’m losing control of them. These are my best players and the team leaders. The younger players follow their lead and it’s now become a big  problem. I’m losing them, coach” he said…”I’m losing them.” After he finished, he shrugged his shoulders and let out a big sigh. It was plain to see he was really frustrated and running out of ideas fast.

As I listened, I nodded my head in sympathy and solidarity. When he had finished I said, “just to be clear, what I’m hearing you say is that your seniors and most talented kids are undermining your authority. You feel hamstrung by this because you need these same players if you are to have a successful season and you are concerned that if you discipline them too much they will up and quit and that will hurt the entire team’s chances at winning the title…is that right?” “Exactly,” he said…I just don’t know what to do. The season opens in a few weeks and we’re not ready.”

“Would this be your first championship” I asked?  “Yes,” he said. “I know how important the first one can be,” I said. “Are you expected to win the title this year” I asked? “Yes,” he said. “If you didn’t win the title would it cost you your job,” I asked. “Maybe,” he said, but then he paused and added “probably not, but that’s not what’s bothering me…what’s pissing me off is that I just want to win the damn thing one time and these kids have the potential but they just don’t seem to get it.” Well then, the stakes are pretty high for you aren’t they, I said.  ”You bet,” he said. 

I then asked him to detail and describe some specific instances to illustrate the point more clearly. He said, “it’s not really any one thing or one player that sets it off but more like a prevailing attitude and laxness I feel from them. Let me give you an example,” he said.  “When they are not actually on the field engaged in a drill or practice in some way they tend to stand around in a big group joking with their hands in their pants like their at a party or something.  I’ve lectured them on the importance of attitude; I’ve yelled at them, threatened and even negotiated with them…but none of it seems to stick. Every time I look over they’re standing around joking and having fun and its affecting the concentration level of the entire team….coaches included.  When I correct them they seem to listen for a few minutes but it’s not long before they’re right back at it again. It’s turned into a sort of game we play where they do it right when I’m looking but as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere they go right back to the same behavior”. The coach then raised his voice “It’s really pissing me off” he said, as his frustrations for the situation bubbled over.  “I tell them not to come crying to me if they blow it this year but it doesn’t seem to matter.  It’s just a handful of them but they’re screwing it up for everybody and it’s really getting to me. We can win this thing”, he said, “but they don’t get it…maybe they don’t have what it takes to win a championship…or maybe I don’t…I don’t know, but something has to give”. 

I then asked him a few more questions but by then I understood exactly what his problem was. I also know that he and my friend were hoping I had some quick fix, a few well-crafted words, a certain look or speech, a few tricks-of-the-trade that would suddenly change the course of events but I had no such words…no one ever really does. “Coach,” I said “first let me start off by telling you that almost every great coach I have known has experienced this exact same thing at some point. I’ve experienced this myself …so I feel your pain…on top of that, and this will make you feel better, I know how to help. On the other hand, I don’t have a quick fix and it may get worse before it gets better,” I said. “Are you still interested in learning what it will take” I asked?  “Of course,” he said….and so we began.

Please read PART II tomorrow….

I am rich!

31 Jan

I received a letter this morning. It was from a young man I coached a number of years back. He was a great kid. His letter was unexpected and as I read it I was overcome with emotion. For a coach there is no higher honor. I am rich!

Received today, January 31, 2012.  Printed verbatim and without alternation. He asked me to leave his name out due to the  intimate nature of his letter.


This has been a long-time coming — something I’ve been meaning to put in writing since I graduated. We’ve talked briefly about how much it meant to me to be a part of the Georgetown Boxing team, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully explained it to you. So, as we’ve now just passed the two-year anniversary of my sole amateur fight at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond — perhaps the single defining moment of my life — I just want to say quite simply: thank you.

That first day when I showed up to KNOX gym at the beginning of my senior year, you sat us down and told us the score. You said if you put yourself through this, you’ll be different. You’ll carry yourself different. You said anyone can get drunk and start a fight in a bar — it takes a man to set a date and be there in the ring waiting when the time comes. You said you were going to push us, but you were going to keep us safe. From that point on, I was in.

 Getting up at 5:30am to run up and down the Exorcist steps 20 times or do interval training up at the field in Burleith, going out to KNOX or Balance to train and learn from you and Steve and Lawrence and Al, watching pro fights and having a few beers with Rob, Evan, Collin, Rocky, Amado, Andrew, and the rest of the guys — those are some of the best memories of my life. Looking back on my college experience, that last year was the defining one — that time I spent with the Georgetown Boxing team the most memorable by far. There is no close second. Do I have regrets? Sure. I wish I hadn’t second-guessed myself for my first three years and had instead gone out for the team earlier. I wish I hadn’t skipped practice that one week to write that paper. I wish I’d gotten that medal down in Richmond.

But that’s not important. Here’s what is. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have a number of great male role models who raised me to be a man and taught me how to be a man. But I was always scared. I always have been. It’s just the way I was born, I suppose. So about a week or so before the fight in Richmond, I hung back after practice to talk to you. I didn’t tell you I was scared, because I didn’t want to admit that as a boxer — I asked you something about the right amount of preparation. But you knew I was scared. So you sat me down and put your arm around my shoulder and you said something I will never forget for as long as I live. You said, “Dan, here’s what you’re gonna do, son. You’re gonna be brave. You’re going to get in there and you’re going to fight, and you’re gonna be brave.”

I can’t quite explain how powerful an effect those words had on me, and continue to have on me. I think about them all the time. Whenever I have the instinct to shrink back out of fear, or when given the choice to flee or confront, I always think of that night in the gym after practice, when everyone else had left, and it was just you there telling me to be brave. That night in Richmond, I hobbled back to the corner after the second round, having taken a hook to the right temple that sent the light bulb flashing off, and I told you I was dizzy. You wouldn’t let me quit. You wouldn’t even entertain the idea. You told me — as straightforwardly as you told me that I was going to be brave — that I was going to advance on your cue, and that when you said “Go forward” I was going to fight, and that I wasn’t going to stop fighting until it was over. With my head swimming in the cigar smoke that filled the room, with all the men in their tuxedos shouting, and the Maryland kid across from me seeming not like a person but something coming out of the smog and pelting me with punches — the last thing I wanted to do was go forward into it. But in all the confusion and exhaustion, I heard you yell “Go forward”….and so I did.

Thank you, Coach, for believing in me, and for giving me a confidence and a sense of accomplishment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Just as you predicted on that first day in KNOX gym, I do carry myself differently now. I will always look back at my year as a member of the Georgetown Boxing team as the proudest and most fun and memorable of my life. Thank you for giving me that gift, and for showing me how to be brave.

I don’t know how, but I hope someday I can repay the favor. If there is ever anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask. In the meantime, give my best to all the guys. You must be having the time of your life coaching Adan Gonzalez — I heard he beat the European collegiate champ. Unbelievable. Looking forward to seeing that kid rise to the top in whatever he decides to do in life.

God bless, Bruce. Hope to see you again soon.


I will tell you a secret. The only thing more powerful than an athlete wanting the love and admiration of his coach is the coach wanting and love and respect of his athlete.  Coaching can be a lonely business where you often wonder if you’re making the difference you hope to.  Letters like this are what all coaches live for.

FYI- Dan got the knick-name Dan “Ba-Bam” when the announcer at his fight came up with it in the spot. The boys loved it… so naturally it stuck.

I told you I was rich!

Love Coach

A simple act of kindness

30 Sep

About three years ago I was standing in the front of the gym where I trained my fighters in Adams Morgan in Washington, DC. I was waiting for them to arrive for an early Saturday morning training session when I noticed a young man in his middle-late teens standing at the front of the gym by the windows that looked out onto the street. He was a tall skinny kid and he had on black shorts, black socks and old tennis shoes that looked as though they were barely hanging on.  He had on a white cotton undershirt, tank top, with a hole under the left arm and a backpack with a broken zipper stuffed with something… but I wasn’t sure with what. 

He seemed nervous and a little out of place and he was just standing in front of the gym nervously shifting his weight from one foot-to-the-other as if he were waiting for someone.  Once in a while I would notice that he was looking up at me, however, for the most part he just kept his head down. I assumed he was waiting for someone he knew to arrive so I said nothing. Soon, my fighters began to arrive at the gym and as they did we immediately went to work. Every once in a while I would look over at this young man and I would notice that he was still standing at the front in the same place…just rocking back-and -forth ever so slightly and watching me with his eyes.  It was a weekend morning and practice only lasted about an hour-and -a-half. After practice had ended and after I said goodbye to my athletes, I noticed this young man still standing in front of the gym and by now I was curious… so I went to the front of the gym to talk to him.

Hey man”, I said “are you waiting for someone”? The boy looked up and immediately I noticed he had a strange… almost disappointed look on his face…as if his heart was broken. “You don’t remember me” he said. The second he said it I realized there was more to this than met the eye and the tone of his voice was one of disappointment. Instantly, I searched my memory for any sign of who this young man might be but I just could not place him. The truth is I have coached hundreds…no….thousands of kids over the years and often times I just can’t remember them all.

Yet I could see that I needed to remember this kid somehow and if I didn’t I would be affirming every doubt and insecurity he ever had in himself. I was fryin bigger fish here than just hello..if you know what I mean? For a second I did not know what to do and was lost …but then it came to me.

Give me a hint” I said with a big smile. He said “I was in here about a year ago and you helped me…do you remember?” He went on “I left for the Army right after you worked with me and you told me to come back and see you when I got my first break…and, well, here I am.”

“How come you didn’t just say hello earlier”  I said….“why didn’t you just come over and say hello?” Well sir,” he said “I remembered how you used to yell at the kids for interrupting you so I thought I would just wait ’till you came over. You’re ugly when you’re mad, Coach”  he said.  I smiled and as he spoke I searched and searched my memory but I still did not remember him. But even so his comments gave me the opening I needed. I immediately walked over to him, smiled and grabbed his hand….that’s right, I grabbed his hand. You’d be amazed what a little kind human contact can do for some people. Anyway, I grabbed his hand and as I did, I pulled him down to sit next to me on the couch that was at the front by the windows.  He sat down with me slowly in a sort of ridged way, at the very front-edge of the seat looking straight ahead, sometimes looking out of the corner of his eye but still unable to make eye contact with me…he said nothing.

Thank you,” I said…”thank you, thank you, thank you” and I gave him a hug…when I reached over to hug him he did not hug back at first, and, in fact, he pulled away slightly…but not all the way. He slowly turned his head towards me and with a puzzled look on his face said, “why are you thanking me Coach?”

I said “what’s your name son?” “Jamal” he said. I said “Ah, Jamal, of course, I remember now.” …I went on, “You see Jamal, you’re  one of the only kids to ever come back here to say hello. Yep…very few of the kids ever seem to remember Ole Coach Bruce” I said. “Do you know I’ve coached thousands of boys over the years just like you and I can remmebr only a handful that ever have come back the way you did today…to say thanks or hello….did you know that?” I said. “Truth is, I feel forgotten here sometimes and I wonder why I do it…you’d think some of these kids might remember a little…but I guess they just don’t…makes me sad sometimes.”  Now I turned to him and as I did he turned to face me and there we sat face-to-face talking on the couch. As I continued, I placed both my hands on his shoulders and looked him squarely in his eyes. “Man that really hurts sometimes…do you know what I mean?”

Jamal smiled and we both knew exactly what I meant. You see, I had made that all up. Truth is, that I remain in close contact with many of the kids I’ve coached over the years. Their my children…so to speak. I have God children all over the place and I often tell folks if all you guys ever died on the same plane I’d have enough kids (my God children) to dress out an entire football team…LOL. I have kids in nearly every profession in life and in every branch of service in the military who write me from time-to-time to keep in touch. It’s the light in my life. And I love them all. But Jamal was the kind of kid I loved most. He was the forgotten one and I knew, in that moment, that I needed him to feel as if he were saving me rather than feeling I had forgotten him. So I lied…not something I do often as an adult.

As we sat there chatting we talked about what his plans were and how he was doing in the Army. He was a mechanic and working on transportation systems and really loved it, he said. Every once in a while I would say “Thank you, Jamal…I will never forget you for being so kind to me.” 

As we talked, I was able to gather more information about when he was here and our time together and it enabled me to build a picture of our relationship….even if I didn’t really remember it. At one point, he told me that I was the ONLY person in his entire life that had ever made him feel important and that he had capabilities beyond those he had placed on himself. He told me that when he decided to join the Army I was the only person he mentioned it to and that I told him I really admired people in the military so that helped him to join. As he spoke I realized that, despite the fact I could not remember him, I had had an influence on him beyond measure. My heart was full and as I sat there I realized I was as close to a father figure as this kid ever had before going to the Army.  I was overwhelmed. We talked a little while longer and then he said he had to go in order to catch his bus that would be coming by soon. We stood up and I gave him a hug and I said “thank you, Jamal…thank you for making me feel so good…I will never forget you son.” Jamal leaned in and hugged me back and as he left he turned to say something but the words did not come out…but I knew what it was. “I’ll see you soon son” I said…”don’t forget your old coach now,” and away he went.

I think about Jamal from time-to-time and hope he’s doing well. I worry about him being in the Army and all that…but I’m sure he’s fine…I could not bear to hear otherwise. I have not seen nor spoken to Jamal since that day and the gym actually closed not long after our interaction.

A simple kind gesture. A few minutes of my time in the gym and this kid remembers me. It also makes me mindful of the other side of that coin and what a few harmful words can mean to a kid in the same situation.

Honestly, sometimes I do my best coaching outside the ring!

Pay if forward, please.

Love. Coach

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