“I can trace so much of what I do every day, when I’m writing, to what I was taught back then by my teachers at Syracuse.”
Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)
“I didn’t have a lot of talent, so I tried to make up for it with spit and vinegar. I spent more time arguing with umpires than I spent on the bases,”
Yesterday, I learned that the great baseball coach Sparky Anderson died and that brought back a flood of memories. And it light of the recent controversy regarding the teaching of screenwriting it seemed like a fitting time to look at what makes a teacher (or coach) good at what they do.
The first major league baseball game I ever saw was in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. In fact, on the drive over from Dayton we passed the old Crosley Field. A sacred time for a nine-year old. I grew up a fan of The Big Red Machine in which Sparky Anderson was the coach. I named first dog Sparky—and my second one, too. It’s safe to say I was a Spark Anderson fan.
Long before Anderson found his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame he was born and spent his early youth in Bridgewater, South Dakota. Years ago I remember driving through the small town of Bridgewater on one of my trips and I saw a sign that said something like, “birthplace of Sparky Anderson.” People really do come from unusual places and go on to accomplish amazing things. (I should add that catcher Johnny Bench, who played for Anderson and who many consider the greatest catcher to ever play the game, was from Binger, Oklahoma (pop. 500 when he was growing up).
Anderson was born during the Great Depression, and according to a USA Today article he was,”one of five children who lived in a house without an indoor toilet or sufficient heat. In the winter, Anderson’s father put cardboard over the windows to block the cold.” When he was ten his family moved to Los Angeles and he would become a good enough ball player to make it to the major league—for one season. The reason he lasted just one year was his batting average was only .218.
So at the age of 30 he became a minor league coach and worked his way up until he was named the manager of the Cincinnati Reds where he lead the team into the World Series in his first year (1970). Then in 1975 and 1976 he and the Reds won back to back World Series. (The ’75 series against Boston is the one Matt Damon and Robin Williams discuss in the film Good Will Hunting.)
Anderson would go on to win another World Series in 1984, managing the Detroit Tigers to become the first manager to win the World Series in both the National and American Leagues. We was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
So while he got to live his dream and play in the major leagues, he did not have a successful career as a player. But as a coach? Forgetabouit. He knocked it out the park. But they say he never forgot his humble background, and as a manager he knew it was standing on a rocky ground. He kept a sign Detroit office that read; “Every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.” That’s good for us all to remember.
“Being nice to people is the only thing in life that will never cost you a dime. Treat them nice and they’ll treat you the same.”
The whole idea of most of the great coaches not being great players at the highest levels interests me. Recently I came across some quotes from Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy on what makes a good coach. (Dungy had a brief career as an NFL player, but like Anderson made his mark as a coach) :
“A mark of a good coach is being able to energize others by showing them their potential.”
“A good coach usually believes in the players more than they believe in themselves.”
“A good coach understands the personality of individuals in order to know how to help them.”
And Gordie Gillespie may not be a household name, but he is the all-time winningest coach in college baseball. Here’s part of his list of what makes a good coach.
You have to like young people
“Your primary reason for coaching should be to watch young people grow, mature and develop. Sure, everybody likes to win, but if winning is the only thing that counts, you’ll never get that deep feeling of pride and satisfaction that comes from watching your kids succeed at life.”
“You won’t accomplish half of what you set out to do without a concrete, workable plan.”
“It would be a complete contradiction if you were not enthusiastic about teaching them the game.”
“One of the greatest joys of coaching is to see the least talented suddenly blossom, and all because you never gave up on him or her.”
“The beautiful aspect about defeat is that it is a powerful learning experience.”
Sincerity and concern
“Being truly concerned, to listen as well as teach, is not an easy virtue to acquire.”
I think those qualities translate well for coaches of all sports and any kind of teacher. And those are qualities that not everyone possess. Which explains why great players don’t usually make great coaches. So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement like, “Those who can’t do, teach” know that there is some truth in that, just as there is, “Those who can do, can’t teach.”
A great athlete who recounts great moments in his or her career, and tells anecdote after anecdote, may make for an engaging after dinner speech—but it does not make one a good teacher.
And just to bring to tie this back to screenwriting, every once in a while someone who has taught screenwriting for years breaks though and gets a feature script produced. And at least once in the history of mankind a teacher/writer has won an Oscar after they were a teacher. Don’t believe me? Check out the post First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious, and read about the journey of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher who taught screenwriting at Columbia University.
“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious)
I think Fletcher was 39 when he won the Academy Award for his first produced feature script. Other than film school, his sole credit was one short film that played at Sundance.