The Coach in YA Literature: Mentor or Dementor
It's not unusual for English teachers to appear as minor characters in young adult literature. Sometimes they're cast in negative roles -- victims like Mr. Griffin in Killing Mr. Griffin or villains, like Brother Leon in The Chocolate War -- and sometimes in positive roles -- objects of respect like Mr. Chips in Good Bye, Mr. Chips or objects of infatuation, like Sylvia Barret in Up the Down Staircase. Their appearances aren't surprising; it's logical that English teachers, in their various incarnations, should appear about as frequently and as prominently in YA novels as they do in real-life secondary schools.
But coaches are a different matter. In most high schools, they're enthroned in positions of power and prominence, often governing students' extracurricular lives with an omnipotence and impudence that even a Democratic president with a majority Congress would envy. Their roles in YA novels, however, don't reflect the magnitude of their influence -- for good and for bad -- in the schools and lives of young people. Coaches appear less frequently in YA novels than do English teachers and are typically narrowly-drawn, flat characters who fall into one of two categories: the villainous, demented sadist or the nurturing mentor. It's natural that these two types appear in YA novels because they reflect society's irreconcilable dual view of coaches and their roles.
We expect our amateur sports coaches to do two things: win games and develop character. Coaches who fail at one or the other -- or both -- aren't tolerated for long; and, in their desperation to succeed, some become what I call "dementors." Television, newspapers, and sports magazines regularly report examples of these fanatical coaches who, in their efforts to produce a winner, commit crimes against their players and/or society.
These losers and their unethical activities have found their way into the background of many YA novels. Some, like the nameless football coach in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, look and act the part.
The coach looked like an old gangster: broken nose, a scar on his cheek like a stitched shoestring. He needed a shave, his stubble like slivers of ice. He growled and swore and was merciless. But a helluva coach, they said. The coach stared at him now, the dark eyes probing, pondering. Jerry hung in there, trying not to sway, trying not to faint. (p. 9)
This coach is as evil as he looks, giving Jerry false hope that he'll make the team and openly allowing other players, members of the school's secret society, to torment and brutalize Jerry on and off the practice field.
There are many more like him. In David Guy's Football Dreams, Coach Grupp is the stupid and obsessed varsity football coach. The protagonist/narrator describes him this way:
He was a short round man, and stood with his arms behind his back, his belly rested before him like a great boulder. He had a bushy mustache, and a large upperlip that he characteristically pushed up and out in contemplation . regularly -- I had already heard -- he exploded into violent fits of temper. (p. 81)
Grupp belittles and discourages Dan, cheats him of a starting position, and eventually drives him to quit the team.
The racist basketball coach in Bruce Brooks' The Moves Make the Man is bad in a different way. Jerome Foxworthy wants to try out for the all-white team but is denied permission by the coach. Hoping to impress the coach and win a tryout, Jerome throws a trick shot; it drops in from 25 feet out, but the coach is not impressed. Instead, he insults and criticizes Jerome: "Typical jig shot . Fancy, one-handed, big jump. Harlem Globetrotter stuff. You like the Globetrotters, boy?" (p. 71). Jerome, knowing he's better than any other boy in the gym, challenges them to a two-on-one game. If he wins, he gets a uniform; if he loses, he gives up. The coach accepts the challenge and selects his two best players to face Jerome, but Jerome's experience still gives him the edge. His talent and determination, however, can't overcome the coach's consistently unfair calls that negate every basket Jerome makes. He leaves the gym defeated and cheated.
Few would condone this coach's behavior, even fewer -- only the most rabid fanatics -- would recommend it for their own children or their schools. In general, society expects coaches to make sure sports provide opportunities for growth and development for young people. Coaches should, according to Tutko and Bruns, protect an athlete's "right to freedom from physical and emotional punishment . . . by the coach . . . [because] the purpose of sports should be to help a child grow, feel expansion, and realize his or her potential" (quoted in Higgs, p. 156). Yet we also expect them to win, and, because winning is more public and more easily measured, "most coaches go by the Vince Lombardi dictum that `winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing' " (Ogilvie and Tutko, p. 63).
The pressure to win often turns a coach into a "dementor," someone like Coach Lednecky in Chris Crutcher's Running Loose. Louie Banks, the novel's protagonist, describes him:
And one reason I didn't make it big in football before this year was that I wouldn't cream the little guys in practice. Lednecky always wanted everybody to go all out against everybody, and that meant if you came up against a 95-pounder in the meat grinder, you took his head off. (p. 15)
Hoping to guarantee victory in a crucial game, Lednecky orders his players to injure the star of an opposing team. The team wins the game but loses Louie who quits in protest of the coach's unethical actions.
Because of Louie's insubordination, Lednecky and the principal suspend him from all sports. An assistant coach pleads for him to be allowed to turn out for track, but the coach and principal refuse. Lednecky, citing one of the oldest and most popular justifications for sports, explains:
"You seem to have missed the point, Coach," he said. "We're not just producing athletes here; we're building young men. Young men we can turn out into the community or send off to college and be proud of. Somewhere along the way we obviously failed in this case, and I don't want it to spread. One person with an attitude like Banks's can destroy a whole team."
[Louie describes this reasoning as] The Domino Theory of Rotten Apples. (p. 155)
Many coaches, especially the dementors, don't see the irony in their rationalization of unethical behavior that produces winning teams. The sacred myth that sports builds character (often epitomized by the Duke of Wellington's statement, "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton") is attacked by Ogilvie and Tutko. Their study of sports' effect on character found no empirical support for the tradition that sport builds character (p. 61). But coaches like Lednecky still defend sports in general and their coaching methods in particular by using the old character argument.
Some dementors victimize young adults because of their lack of ability. What scrawny or obese students haven't been picked on by a P.E. coach? These teacher/coaches wield considerable authority and are often too willing to abuse it. The P.E. coach in the Yorgasons' Chester, I Love You humiliates Travis Tilby in front of his classmates because he could not complete the rope climb. Despite the coach's meanness, no one, not even Travis' brother Jason, dares to stand up to him. The title of "Coach" insulates him from criticism, gives him omnipotence over the boys in his charge, a power Jason knows better than to challenge.
Jason lifted his eyes and stared into the face of Coach, a bull of a man who thought much of himself and who was not actually a coach at all but simply a one-time substitute PE teacher who had somehow taken root and flourished. Still, he liked to be called Coach, and so everyone did it. No one, no one ever, argued with Coach. (p. 4)
Similarly, no one argues with a Bobby Knight, a Bo Schembechler, or a Lou Holtz. Our society reveres coaches, especially the successful ones, often granting them carte blanche in locker rooms and on playing fields.
Other characters suffer more subtly than Travis did. Coaches do nothing directly to harm them, but their fear of coaches and athletics drives them to great extremes of avoidance. In our schools, students forge excuses from parents, "forget" their workout clothes, or ditch P.E. class. Characters in YA novels do many of the same things. Marcy Lewis in The Cat Ate My Gymsuit spends much of her time dreaming up excuses to avoid dressing out for P.E. The protagonist in Brock Cole's novel, Celine, also avoids her P.E. coach. As she explains to her counselor who reminds her that she really ought to be in P.E. class:
"Yes, but I'm excused. I'm in swimming this semester, and well, you know " I hold my breath and tighten my stomach muscles in an attempt to blow the top of my head off. I hope that this will make me turn bright red. It may not be much of an expression, but it makes Miss Summers, my swimming coach, turn the color of a tomato herself and scribble on her clipboard. (p. 65)
These coaches, and their counterparts in real life, the very ones who inspire YA authors to create demen-tors, damage and confuse youth more than they help them to "grow, feel expansion, and realize his or her potential" (quoted in Higgs, p. 156). YA authors who have finished high school and now skim the sports page occasionally don't have to search very far for coaching types to inhabit their novels.
Even parents-turned-coaches can become dementors. After Willie Weaver, the protagonist in The Crazy Horse Electric Game, is crippled in a skiing accident, his ex-jock father tries to rehabilitate him by teaching him to play racquetball. It's too much too soon for Willie and the lesson/game overwhelms him. His father, however, won't let him quit. As Willie's play degenerates, his father hits the ball faster and harder, finally calling him a girl and ending the game in anger and disgust (pp. 82-85).
This type of treatment is, unfortunately, not restricted to the pages of YA fiction. Robert Lipsyte in Sports World: An American Dreamland describes the negative effects of coaches, often parent-coaches, this way:
A million Little Leaguers stand for hours while a criminally obese "coach" drills the joy of sports out of their souls, makes them self-conscious and fearful, teaches them technique over movement, emphasizes dedication, sacrifice, and obedience instead of accomplishment and fun. (quoted in Higgs, p. 153).
Coaches like these and like those described in Martin Ralbovsky's Lords of the Locker Room: The American Way of Coaching and Its Effect on Youth clearly provide the negative models of coaches used in many YA novels.
Writing about the verbal abuse that last season cost several college basketball coaches -- including the head coach at Berkeley -- their jobs, Ron Fimrite explains the rationalization frequently used by these coach/educators:
Paradoxically, the tyrant-coach cloaks himself in the robes of the educator. After all, it is he, the coach insists, who spends more time in the company of the student-athlete than any professor. And it is he who actually prepares his charges for the nasty challenges of the Real World by toughening them to the point where anything less than a bellow sounds sotto voce and anything short of a personal insult seems a kindness. (p. 66)
Coaches, especially the dementors, often excuse their excesses by citing the multiple roles -- "salesman, public relations man, counselor and psychologist" (Singer, p. 2) -- placed on them by society. Expanding their role from coach to coach/educator gives them more power, power justified by society's expectations of them, power the Ledneckys, Grupps, and other demen-tor coaches in YA fiction readily abuse.
Of course, in real life not all coaches are bad. Of the many coaches I played for from elementary school to college, only a handful were dementors. While the tyrant coaches are hard to forget, the coaches who made a difference in my life, the true mentors, are, for very different reasons, just as memorable. YA literature has its share of athletic mentors, coach characters who, at crucial moments in characters' lives, provide support, advice, or wisdom.
Coach Wiggins is the understanding and wise junior varsity coach in Football Dreams, who serves as Dan Keith's mentor. Wiggins recognizes Dan's talent and provides instruction and encouragement to help him earn a varsity position. Later, when Dan confronts Coach Grupp, Wiggins smooths things over to allow Dan to stay on the team. As a foil for Grupp, Wiggins provides a benevolent coaching act for every one of Grupp's bad ones.
Dan's father recognizes his son's admiration for Wiggins and commends it:
No, it's good. One man can mean so much. More than all the rest of your education put together. It doesn't matter if it's on the football field, or where it is. It doesn't matter if it's at school. He sounds like an authentic man. (Guy, p. 117)
As a father, Dr. Keith knows the positive influence a coach, especially a concerned, nurturing coach like Wiggins, can have in the life of his son. At critical points in the later half of the novel, Wiggins is there to provide support and direction. This is an example of the ideal coach, the kind society hopes will take charge of its sports programs.
Max Il Song, the P.E. teacher and swimming coach in Stotan!, is a model mentor coach. Says Walker, the narrator in the novel: "He's one of those guys you only know by what they do. You have to guess how they are" (p. 3). Walker's parents are old and relatively uninvolved in his life, but Max fills the void: "I don't think I've suffered much, though," says Walker, "because, even though Max is a little removed, in a lot of ways he's been as good a parent as I could ask for" (p. 15). It's right that Max fill Walker's need this way because, as Singer points out, coaches must also be both counselor and psychologist (p. 2). Coaches like Wiggins and Max, who provide much more than athletic instruction, represent society's best hope for the positive effect coaches can have in the lives of young people.
Manuel [Michael and Jesse's coach] was middle-aged, patient, and fatherly. He bent down on his haunches to talk to the kids, spoke softly and listened to what they had to say. He cooed "good" when they made catches, even routine ones. The kids knew he was good to them because most of them didn't have fathers, or had fathers who were so beaten from hard work that they came home and fell asleep in front of the TV set. (p. 23)
Manuel provided a baseball season and opportunities for growth for Chicano boys who otherwise would have had neither. Another of the same mold is Mr. Galanter, the softball coach in Potok's The Chosen, a benign, passionate coach who shows kindness and concern to Reuven after his accident in the softball game with a rival yeshiva. In Running Loose, Lednecky's foil is Coach Madison, the man who provides a voice of reason and stability in a year where Louie quits the football team, loses his girlfriend in a car accident, and offends the entire community at her funeral. "I owe him a lot," says Louie (p. 28). The girls' basketball coach in Crutcher's Chinese Handcuffs is understanding, tough, and fair. Says Dillon, the male protagonist:
The one coach in school I'd put myself on the line for -- anytime, no questions asked -- is Coach Sherman . In my mind that lady knows what athletics is about better t\han anyone in the business. Her teams win and lose with grace and dignity, and her players never walk away empty-handed, never walk away without a lesson. (p. 17)
Coach Sherman's patience and wisdom help Dillon save the life and mind of his girlfriend, Jennifer.
Lisa, the P.E. coach and therapist in The Crazy Horse Electric Game, helps Willie regain his confidence and proper use of his body after his crippling accident. Using a kind of tough love, she also helps him accept the cause of his accident:
God didn't cripple you, Willie. You did. You stretched the rules till they broke; had to go a little faster than you could, push out there at the edge because you thought nothing would hurt you . The rules don't slack off for naivete . Physics doesn't work on a sliding scale. You broke the rules, you got hurt. (p. 149)
In A. E. Cannon's Shadow Brothers, the track coach encourages Henry and Marcus to befriend Frank, a new Indian student at the school. He also helps Marcus recognize his potential. In Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee, Early Grayson, an old ex-minor-league pitcher, becomes a kind of life coach for Maniac, providing food, shelter, affection, and lessons about life and baseball for the homeless boy.
These coach/mentors, these positive forces in the lives of various young adults, are both ideal and real. Their presence in selected YA novels reflects society's hope of what coaches should be. Such positive adult role models are valuable because many YA novels tend, as Donelson and Nilsen point out, to cast parents and other adults in negative roles (p. 94). For young adult readers, coach/mentor characters provide hope, and perhaps reminders, that worthwhile, trustworthy adults still exist in today's increasingly unstable society.
Neither the mentors nor the dementors play a major role in any of these YA novels, but in the novels as in real life, each of these coaches in some way shapes the lives of the characters they interact with. It's tempting to dismiss coaches in YA literature as mere stereotypes, but they are more than that. As mentors and dementors, they reflect the real-life good and bad coaches that exist in society today, driven by the mixed values society places on coaches and sports. While their presence is not as prominent as it is in real life, it is a factor to be considered in YA literature.
A faculty member in the English Department at Brigham Young University, Chris Crowe presented this article at the 1993 ALAN Workshop.
______. The Crazy Horse Electric Game. Dell, 1987.
______. Running Loose. Dell, 1983.
______. Stotan! Greenwillow, 1986.