52: Coach Dad

52: Coach Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Coach Dad

Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you are right.

~Henry Ford

Thanks to my dad, I learned to intercept life’s fumbles and turn them into winning plays. Decades later, I still use his guidance when I overcome obstacles with my optimistic outlook.

“It’s how you respond that counts,” he coached. “Have a positive attitude. Do your best. Enjoy life. Do your part. Be resourceful. Believe in yourself. Believe in others.”

Dad lost his youthful dream to coach football when he couldn’t afford college. Yet he didn’t let disappointment bench him from a productive life. He held varied jobs until the end of the 1930s. Then he founded and ran Parks Sand and Gravel Company until he retired.

By the time of my birth in 1951, my parents had been married twenty years and my sister had celebrated her thirteenth birthday. We lived in Emporia, Kansas, where my dad had earned respect as a hardworking businessman who mentored others.

Dad boosted floundering souls and freed the daring spirit in those around him. He set reasonable expectations. He offered support and feedback. He created opportunities to build strengths and demonstrate competencies. I heard stories about his kindness from those who stopped to say, “Wes, thanks for believing in me and for giving me a chance.”

Dad had become a coach after all: a coach about life, a model of strength, courage, and integrity.

As his daughter who had hearing and voice impairments, I benefited from the same “believe in yourself” approach. Coach Dad taught me that we become stronger when we face our setbacks. We shape our strengths and sharpen our compassion. From his viewpoint, the disabilities and challenges I braved became scrimmages to train my coping muscles to manage the ups and downs of life.

I had the typical childhood tasks to master along with tough medical issues to tackle. My ear malformations and hearing loss in both ears required several surgeries. Lifesaving throat surgery at age twelve damaged my vocal cords and nerves and muscles to my face and tongue. I had countless sessions of speech therapy due to my hearing loss, and later for problems I had using my tongue and voice.

My parents encouraged me. They made a terrific team with my dad’s inventiveness and my mother’s faith that all things worked out in one way or another. Growing up under their “I can” philosophies, I gained the strategies I needed to face my challenges.

Dad focused on finding solutions, not whining. He didn’t let fear, failure, or worry immobilize him and rob him of innovative ways to solve problems. He expected no less from me when I grappled with frustrations during my younger years.

Sometimes I didn’t hear crucial information at school. When I tired, my face drooped. My weak voice gave out. I disrupted class with incessant coughing spells. I ate at a slow pace to avoid choking. Sometimes I got weary from studying hard to make up for missed information. Even though I practiced relentlessly to improve my speech and my voice, I often felt my progress was too slow.

With his head cocked to the side, Coach Dad listened. Then he’d ask, “Did you do your best?”

“Yes,” I’d say. “I tried.”

“Well then, that’s all you can ask of yourself.”

He’d pause then continue, “What did you learn?”

To him everything — good or bad — provided a learning opportunity. A chance for self-improvement. A clue to solve a problem. A way to help others.

Coach Dad didn’t cut me any slack. He held me accountable for making positive contributions. When the church high school youth group elected me president, I didn’t want the leadership role. I thought it would tax me with my hearing loss and voice limitations.

“I can’t do it!”

Coach Dad listened. “Sounds like others have faith in you.”

“That doesn’t matter!”

“I wonder — what would it take to make it work?” He nudged me to list ideas. Then he stepped back to allow me to take charge.

I learned resourcefulness by using my strengths to find solutions. I observed, listened attentively, carefully chose my words, and facilitated ways to help all feel included. I taught others to keep background noise to a minimum, to talk one at a time, and to look at me when they spoke.

Coach Dad followed up. “How did it go this time?”

“Great, Dad!”

“What did you learn?”

“I can do it!”

He smiled. Point made.

During an eventful year, Coach Dad stood by me as I graduated with my master’s degree in social work, moved to Iowa to start my career, and subsequently survived a medical emergency and two grueling surgeries. When I recovered and returned to my job, he knew his coaching had paid off. I bounced back despite the serious setbacks that had blocked my path. Most importantly, I had conveyed confidence in my ability to tackle tough times.

Before the end of that year more turmoil arrived when Coach Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He knew he couldn’t control the existence of the cancer, but he could control his response. As he faced life’s last game with dignity and grace, the core truth of his coaching became clear: He had taught me and many others the skills we needed to direct our own lives.

I was twenty-four when Coach Dad died. That was over thirty years ago. Every day since, I’ve been grateful for his legacy of values and lessons about resilience.

He taught me to believe in the irrepressible quality of the human spirit. He empowered me to learn from both the joys and challenges of life. He coached me to use my strengths to respond in positive ways to life’s fumbles. He instilled in me the kindness of sharing my hard-earned wisdom.

Today Coach Dad cheers from the grandstand of my heart. I continue to call upon his wisdom to tackle whatever life throws at me, an inspiring tribute to his lifelong influence and the relevance of his lessons.

~Ronda Armstrong

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