| By Lonnie Mitchel

I have had one of those days recently. I was under the weather with the flu and my players were coming into my office needing my help to solve the world’s problems. I had reports due to the athletic director and we started practice for the spring season the same week at SUNY Oneonta. That is one hell of a week when you are just trying to keep your head above water with a fever of 101.

“What’s next?” I thought to myself.

“Does someone need me to solve the latest Middle East Crisis?”

I went home and got some rest, and while collecting my thoughts, I realized that young men and women, who have not yet experienced the real world, constantly need to be given the right messages. The truth is, the overwhelmingly majority of the time, they need guidance. In fact, they beg for guidance. Every pushback they give to well-intended advice comes from a place of non-experience. Although it should be considered with an open mind, ultimately you are a competent coach and confident that you are giving the very best advice to the betterment of these players on and off the court. That’s the point!

If you are a coach, you are also an educator. Whether you are teaching youngsters or adults, the responsibility to be totally ethical and moral is tantamount to the highest levels of integrity. When I say to a player that not doing your homework is a reason for me to not allow you to compete in your next match and the student/athlete looks at me and says: “Why? You are not my professor, the two issues are not related.” Who wins? What wins? I can tell you who loses though: we all do. A student and a future society contributor must know there is a level of accountability that’s related to another event … that’s the point.

I was at a symposium in Indianapolis several months ago and the former athletic director from USC spoke about taking a moral stand on certain issues. The pressure to win at a Division I institution is often so great that it shadows making good moral judgments and allowing players to compete when the privilege may not be warranted. This speaker said something to me that really resonated: “Eat the losses” was the lesson she learned after years at the helm of a prestigious institution.

Meanwhile, back in Upstate Oneonta, N.Y. at my Division III tennis program, that lesson has stayed with me. Eat the losses and you win in the very long run. We don’t get coverage on ESPN or any major network but that should never deter me or any coach to make decisions which you know is the right thing. That’s the point. We are not here just to teach tennis strokes and footwork, but to teach the right things. We are here to make them better competitors and better human beings. This comes with the territory of being a coach, and if you are an instructor/teacher reading this and you have one of those days where it’s just not going right, you must stay the course and continue with good moral ethics.

I certainly do not want to give an impression that I am the god of all coaches and get to pick and choose what is moral. As a member of the human race, I make mistakes and each and every coaching situation is an opportunity to be a better coach, even when a parent or a student-athlete advocate wants to challenge you. I think during those times that doing what’s right is a good start to guide me in the right direction. If a student-athlete lies or breaks a promise, these are things that could get you fired in the real world. The employer does not care that you have a mortgage to pay or children to feed, you will be going home that day with a pink slip. We have the responsibility to hold students accountable with very reasonable ethical ramifications, such as dismissal from the team, suspension or even having a student-athlete research what ethical standards are and try to raise the bar.

One of the guidelines I refer to is from the great collegiate basketball coach John Wooden, winner of an unprecedented 10 national championships with “The Pyramid of Success.”

You can look at this Pyramid and read the many qualities exhibited, and once you do, you can be sure that you have the best chance of success by adapting to as many of these qualities. I have had parents in my office make excuses as to why their son or daughter is not succeeding. I would refer to “The Pyramid of Success,” and in the overwhelmingly majority of cases, that student/athlete in question was lacking in many of those qualities. Many 18- to 22-year-old adults (and they are adults) can fool parents into believing the coach is wrong and they are right. The thing about The Pyramid of Success is that each student-athlete is totally empowered and can morph into greatness by adapting many of the excellent qualities … they just have to decide to do so.

As the coach, I again say, “That’s the point: To help each student/athlete go beyond and exceed expectations.”

For me, being a coach and making a mistake is an opportunity to become better. For a student-athlete, give yourself the opportunity to become better, allow yourself to be better, challenge yourself, accept criticism and become just a bit better than the day before…That’s the point!

Lonnie Mitchel

Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail lonniemitchel@yahoo.com.