Mentoring through sports: Area coaches filling 'father figure' void
Garrett Chisolm had most of the St. John's High School football players in tears. He told the team how he persevered through his 2010 senior year as an offensive lineman for the South Carolina Gamecocks, breaking into the starting lineup, surviving the cancer deaths of both of his parents a few months apart and eventually carrying head coach Steve Spurrier off the field to celebrate the school's first Southeastern Conference East Division championship.
Johnny Burch wanted more.
“It really got to me,” Burch, a senior at St. John's, told Chisolm. “It motivated me.”
Chisolm, lineman to lineman, offered Burch some football pointers. More importantly, he sold life lessons.
This is the first in a two-part series on sports and mentoring.
“What if my parents died? What would I do?” Burch said. “Am I strong like this man? Or am I a coward? I'd want to fight like Garrett Chisolm and be successful.”
Burch, 18, is a good student mulling college options and says he has benefited from a sports-heavy mentor/speaker program that St. John's guidance counselor Mark Epstein has presented over the last two years.
“It has helped me become a better leader,” Burch said, “not just at school, but in the community.”
Experts agree that mentoring is increasingly important as the percentage of U.S. children living apart from biological fathers has grown steadily, up from 11 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2010. A mentoring boom — both official and informal, and often including involvement in sports — has tried to fill the “father figure” gap, particularly among at-risk children statistically susceptible to jail and drug use.
Studies and anecdotal evidence show quality mentoring helps kids avoid trouble, but those involved in the Lowcountry and elsewhere agree more focus is necessary.
“To be a coach these days at any level of sports, you definitely have to be a mentor,” said Gus Holt, a veteran Charleston area teacher, coach and community activist. “Mentoring must go with the territory, especially with African-American kids. With the increased mobilization in our society after integration, you had more leaders leaving communities to live elsewhere, and that has created a void. We need mentors to fill in.”
Mentoring is working within the Goose Creek High School football program. The undefeated Gators are defending state champions and aiming for another title.
Holt worked in mentoring programs with some of the Goose Creek players at Sedgefield Middle School. Goose Creek head coach Chuck Reedy also stresses mentoring beyond football Xs and Os.
“It certainly needs to be an emphasis,” Reedy said. “We are well aware of our community here. To be perfectly blunt, this is a middle-income and low-income school. We have a lot of kids without a father at home, or just one parent.”
A 'vital' role
More than 35 million children between the ages of 8 and 19 participate in some form of youth sports, according to the National Council on Youth Sports. That makes coaches and athletic administrators prime mentor candidates. Unfortunately, according to a Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring report, “many coaches remain unaware of their potential role as mentors and role models and rarely receive training.”
The Summerville Family YMCA has been proactive.
“Mentoring is vital in a child's upbringing,” said Gary Lukridge, CEO of the Summerville Family YMCA. “The old adage, 'It takes a village' is applicable now more than ever.”
For its wide range of athletic and non-athletic programs, the Summerville YMCA brings in 60-70 high school seniors and college students to supervise and mentor young kids.
“Kids really look up to older kids and listen,” Lukridge said. “Sports have a common theme that lends to mentoring: kids want to be involved in something where they can say, 'I am part of that.' Then if you can get them to belong to something where they're doing the right things, they are more likely to get or stay on the right track.”
Lukridge said the Summerville YMCA has moved toward on-line training tools to show busy volunteer coaches how to serve as better mentors.
“Just don't say, 'Here's a basketball' or 'Here's a soccer ball,'” Lukridge said. “Give them the tools to be successful.”
That's a start. Julia Pryce, an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Loyola University of Chicago, notes in her recent study that successful mentoring “requires an exceptional level of effort and commitment.”
Which is why the long-term nature of many player-coach relationships can lead to the best mentoring.
Antoine Saunders embraces the mentoring opportunities that come with his role as a travel basketball coach with the Trademark Properties AAU program. Saunders has an ideal coach/mentor resume: bank vice president, former Wofford College basketball player, former head basketball coach at St. John's High School.
“When you first get into coaching, you are naïve and think it's just about the sport. Then you get to know the players,” Saunders said. “We live in a great community but a lot of these kids go through things I never went through.”
For too many at-risk kids, a mentoring alternative is the road to jail or extended probation.
“I'm for all kinds of mentoring,” said nationally respected former juvenile court judge Gail Garinger, The Child Advocate for the Massachusetts state Office of the Child Advocate. “Pre-emptive mentoring to post-incarceration mentoring, it all has a meaningful impact. A caring adult can make a world of difference in a young person's life.”
John Wooden was an iconic mentor. As UCLA basketball coach in the 1960s and '70s, he made his Pyramid of Success famous. Among the building blocks that transcend sports are poise, industriousness, friendship, confidence, loyalty and self-control. Epstein gives St. John's students a copy.
Tim Orvin, athletic director at St. Andrews Parks and Playground in West Ashley, also believes in old-school mentor values.
“I try to convey to our coaches what a powerful thing they have,” Orvin said. “We remind them that two or three kids on a given team will grow up and want to coach kids because of what you did as a coach.”
Saunders is 46 but still considers his former St. Andrews High School basketball, football and baseball coaches as mentors.
“I am forever grateful to them,” Saunders said.
One is Dave Spurlock, now the physical education and athletics coordinator for the Charleston County School District. Told about Saunders' comments, Spurlock was appreciative but not stunned.
“I know coaches can make lasting impacts,” Spurlock said, “and I certainly hope that our high school principals consider intrinsic things beyond Xs and Os when they are hiring coaches.”
Spurlock loves the mentor/speaker program at St. John's, where speakers have included Bryce Florie, Bobby Cremins, Langston Moore, Xavier McDaniel, Mike Veeck, Les Robinson, Jim Stuckey and Travis Jervey.
Like Johnny Burch, St. John's senior lineman Shawn Singleton says Chisolm was his favorite.
“A rock-solid guy,” Singleton said. “He gave me some great advice: 'Say a prayer every day.'”
Gene Sapakoff participated in a fellowship study at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York) and The Tow Foundation before writing this story. Reach Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.