How Many Coaches?

September, 11, 2008
9/11/08
5:01
PM ET

I just learned from reading the D.C. Sports Bog that Jay-Z considers himself to be a coach, of sorts, of LeBron James.

The Bog's Dan Steinberg quotes Jay-Z talking about LeBron James from Vibe magazine:

I hit him on the BlackBerry all the way through the playoffs. There's a big trail of e-mails that we have where I'm almost like a coach on the sidelines for him 'cause...that's my little brother! I'm giving him advice, even outside of "Take the ball to the elbow and shoot." The psychology of what's going on: That's my role in his life." 

That makes me think of something. Hmm ...

Big Self-Referential Side Story
A couple of decades ago I was in an indoor soccer league, about to take a penalty kick with no time left on the clock. It was a big moment.

My team was basically the best players from the varsity soccer team, plus some other great players from other schools. Everybody was two years older than me, at least. In the 16-18 range. I was pre-growth spurt 14. And I didn't even really play soccer. I was younger and smaller and inferior.

But I had a lot of spirit, I guess, and I didn't quit. I also showed up on time. So the coach played me at striker. I couldn't hurt the team as much there -- my defense didn't have to be good and we scored plenty anyway. (Indoor soccer is a short-field game where everyone gets close to the goal.)

It was the last game of the season, and in the closing moments, our goalie got to play the field a little, as a treat. And just his luck, he was taken down in the box trying to score, as time expired. 

It's a terrible thing that I literally have no idea what the score was, or if the game was on the line or not.

But I do know that I had been playing striker all season and somehow had yet to score a goal.

This was the big chance to right that wrong.

Our heroic goalie was benched, against his wishes, in honor of ... me. He's still a little miffed about that, I think, although he has always been gracious about it.

I was going to get that goal, with no time left on the clock, in the final game of the season. 

My coach was a former professional player. British. No bulls--- kind of guy. Acted like it was war even when it wasn't, but in this moment it actually kind of was. He knew how to handle me. He put his face in mine. And ever so calmly he said: "Just pick a corner. Any corner. And put it there."

That's good advice. That's solid. That got me focused. That let me stop worrying about trying something cute. There would be no psych jobs. There would be no outside of the foot silliness. No approaching from a strange angle.

There would be a target, and there would be a laser.

I stood from the bench, ready to walk over, address the ball, and put it in a corner. 

And then, insanity.

A face full of hair and jewelry and HENRY! and FOCUS! and YOU GET THAT GOAL! on and on. A family friend. Someone I love, who has a heart of gold. And a tough cookie: A woman who knows about moments like these, and whose counsel would normally be handy. 

But she had run over from the spectators' section, to the bench, and appointed herself coach for a minute. The biggest coaching minute of the season. And she was talking really fast, making things big and exciting. Getting me the opposite of focused.

Boy did that piss off my actual coach.

I peeled myself away, walked onto the field. I took a deep breath or three. I watched the referee put the ball down.

I sized up the keeper -- a kid with brown hair, who did not look athletic at all. There were some excellent soccer players in that game, but this crowning moment would be decided by the other kids.

I went to that ball. I heard my teammates. I heard that family friend.

I may or may not have picked my corner. But I took a few steps back, sized it up. A few running steps before I kicked hard. The ball was off the ground, traveling straight. A laser of sorts, just inside the left goal post ... perfect, but for one thing.

It was neither high nor low. Not in a corner.

Instead, about hip high on a pudgy teenaged goalie, who had guessed I'd go left.

Indoor goals are far smaller than outdoor goals. The keeper -- that lightly regarded keeper -- he got two hands on my shot without even diving. He may have even caught it.

Game over. Season over. No goals for me. 

Now Back to LeBron James
So, I had a family friend get in my head at a key minute, and muddle the message from my coach. Did it make a difference? Maybe, but probably not. I didn't feel all that rattled. I was fine. I just didn't kick the ball very accurately that time.

I can tell you this: Coaches hate the woman in that story. They think she made a difference. They didn't want a cacophony of coaching. She undermined that whole profession.

Then imagine you are LeBron James. He has parents who probably want to give him advice about big games. Maybe his children and girlfriend want a word. He has actual coaches. Many NBA players have several coaches in their lives: Head coaches, assistant coaches, former coaches. Then there are veterans. And trainers both personal and from the team. And retired legends of the game. Not to mention your inner circle of William Wesley, Maverick Carter and the like. And what about owners, and fans, and the people from Nike?

Now we learn even your rapper friends will appoint themselves to the task.

I can only imagine what life is like for LeBron James during the playoffs. 

Doubtless everyone means it with nothing but love. And everyone probably really does have valuable lessons to impart. And I know that James has long looked up to Jay-Z, and has no doubt sought his counsel, which may well be sage.

Yet at some point you have to wonder: Does it hurt? Can too many coaches, official or unofficial, confuse a superstar when he most needs clarity? Can he hear more advice than he can even process?

Eventually you get to that old superstar question: What does a guy have to do get some peace and quiet, to merely focus?

(I think about that weird and rambling, but thoroughly honest interview Brad Miller gave this summer, in which he explains the burden of celebrity and he seems to question the notion that one can even handle such a thing day in and day out without some kind of super-vitamin, or drugs.)

If you're close to a superstar athlete, wouldn't it be a nice gift to them to just not talk about work? Wouldn't it be nice to keep the input to a manageable conversation, instead of a thousand screams? Wouldn't it be nice to let the coach do his job? Wouldn't it be nice to not offer advice?

I suspect the answer to all of those things is "yes."

But just in case I was wrong all along, and the answer was really "no," let me be one more person sharing lessons from my own life with LeBron James:

Just pick a corner. Any corner. And put it there.

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