Stress can take heavy toll on a coach’s health

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about the impact of stress on coaches.

By John E. Sacco

For the Observer-Reporter

John Luckhardt was not sure what was fading faster, his team’s performance or his health.

After several successful seasons that ended with Presidents’ Athletic Conference football championships and two appearances in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, NCAA Division III football’s championship game (1992 and 1994), Luckhardt and his Washington & Jefferson College Presidents were struggling in 1997.

The team was ranked fourth in the country but suffered a lopsided loss to Emory & Henry and simply could not perform up to expectations.

It took a toll on the head coach. Luckhardt ended up dehydrating, blacking out and losing 30 pounds.

The loss to Emory & Henry was particularly difficult to deal with.

“I didn’t sleep much that night,” Luckhardt said. “I can accept losing. But we didn’t play well. It bothered me and I allowed it to impact my health. My system was messed up. When I was dehydrated, I was scared.”

Luckhardt spent four days in the hospital. His heart rate was inconsistent.

(The doctors) were doing everything they could to correct the problem,” Luckhardt said. “We couldn’t get it under control. The pressure and stress I put on myself combined with a terrible diet caught up with me. I was doing all the wrong things.

“All the while, we were working hard to fix the problems of what was supposed to be a real good football team. We just didn’t have a very good team.”

Luckhardt succumbed to the stress of trying to maintain a level of excellence within the W&J program.

He wasn’t facing pressure from anyone but himself.

Unfortunately, any number of coaches in any number of sports, place so much pressure upon themselves that it sometimes leads to stress-related health issues. The pressure to win, poor eating habits, the inability to find relaxing moments during the day or control everything related to the team can lead to stress or worse.

Stress in coaching is obvious.

This NFL season, John Fox, coach of the Denver Broncos, had to take a leave of absence to have surgery to correct a heart problem.

While coaching the Houston Texans, Gary Kubiak collapsed on his way to the locker room at halftime of a game. It happened on national television. Kubiak suffered a stroke. He was placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital.

Kubiak recovered. But a few weeks later, he was fired.

As rewarding as coaching can be, the pressures can be even more unforgiving and relentless.

“My general observation is that most who coach become obsessed with it and the situations,” said Paul Holzshu, the athletic director at Shaler High School and former men’s basketball coach at West Liberty University and at several high WPIAL schools.

“There are some who cannot let one second go by that might enhance the capability of giving the team or program an edge. Most of us aspire to be the best, and that notion increases by the level. As you climb the coaching ladder, the expectations are greater. That can lead to more stress and more consumption. That starts the entire process.”

Recently retired major-league manager Jim Leyland said what really ignites pressure is the coach’s desire to win.

“That can be a good pressure,” said Leyland, who retired as manager of the Detroit Tigers in October. “Two on, two out and you are trying to get that last out. Your heart is pumping. That is fun. It is exciting.

“I think if there is stress – and in some ways I think that can be overrated – it comes from the length of seasons and the fatigue that can set in. … These are not jobs for the faint of heart. There is a desire to compete and win. There are going to be tense situations.

“Really, I think if a coach feels stress, it comes from the entirety of the season and the hours put in. The pressure doesn’t come from the general manager, the media or the fans. Every day is a grind. In baseball, after 30 spring-training games, 162 regular-season games, and if you are fortunate enough, more postseason games, everybody is going to be tired. At that point, if you show me someone who is not tired, I will show you someone who probably didn’t do a good job.”

Have fun, trust others

Jim Rue has coached soccer at every level except professional.

He currently is the head coach for the Charleroi High School girls team. He coaches younger girls and previously coached the Waynesburg University women’s team.

He understands the importance of victory. He also acknowledges that player development is just as important. And there is something else of particular essence.

“We all need to remember, it is a game,” Rue said. “As a coach, it is important to stress hard work. But you have to make it fun.

“I understand that everything that happens within a program or a team is a reflection of the coach, good or bad. You accept that. You have to try to keep things in perspective. Part of this is learning from your mistakes, both players and coaches. There are conflicts. That can be stressful. Everyone handles that differently.”

Danny Bradley has led the Sto-Rox Vikings to three consecutive WPIAL Class A football championship games, each a loss. In addition to being Sto-Rox’s football coach, he’s the head boys basketball coach at Avonworth.

He would not be able to keep both programs organized and viable without help.

Bradley said the secret to keeping things in order and minimizing stress is a solid support system.

“The kids are understanding of my situation,” said the Washington native. “I have good assistants and an understanding family.

“Competitive stress is healthy. If everyone pulls in the same direction, the pressure is less and the stress is minimized.”

Dr. Aimee Kimball, a mental training consultant from Pittsburgh, thinks coaches can alleviate some of the pressure and stress by keeping a proper perspective.

“You need to trust the people around you,” she said. “Trust they can do their jobs. Most coaching personality types are Type A, control everything. You can’t control everything.

“The other thing that can help is to realize the coaching should be fun. Almost all coaches are coaching because they love it. It should be fun.”

Gary Tranquill was the head football coach at the Naval Academy from 1982 to 1986. He coached at a number of other Division I schools as an assistant and in the NFL as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns.

He said he never was overly stressed as a coach.

“I spent a long time in the game,” the Avella native explained. “I rolled through it pretty well with the good and the bad. … The game has changed. Recruiting is difficult, yu have many things written online, there is Twitter. There is such a focus on every move or circumstance.

“I worked for some pretty good coaches. I don’t think any one of them was totally stressed out. Most were able to keep a perspective and keep their eyes on the objective. I’m not sure you can react properly to anything if you are stressed out.”

Jina DeRubbo has been involved in coaching women’s basketball for 17 years. She has coached Washington & Jefferson for the past 10 seasons. She has three kids and a strong desire to have an excellent, championship team and program.

Balance is the key.

“I decided a long time ago, if I was going to do this and have a family that I would give full attention to both,” she said. “I don’t miss a lot of the family things. My team and our women in the program have been great about it. They are and have been understanding. I might miss a practice to watch my kids play a game or go see a performance. They have never complained.

“Of course there is stress. You want your (players) to have a great experience. You want to win championships.”

While you were sleeping

Holzshu said coaching can be like walking a tightrope.

“You’re out there,” he said. “Everything is scrutinized. You hope you have covered everything.

He recalled an instance – instances, really – where he literally came out of a sleep to sit up in bed and break into a cold sweat.

“I can’t tell you how many times it happened, two, three, four in the morning,” Holzshu said. “One time, I was asking myself why we didn’t stagger our screens.”

Luckhardt spent an entire week leading up to a game against Ithaca worrying about the weather.

The forecast was for rain.

“I kept checking the weather and forecast,” Luckhardt said. “Our quarterback had small hands and I became concerned – no, obsessed – that he would have trouble holding onto the ball because of the water and weather. I had a knot in my belly.

“I found myself up at 2 o’clock in the morning fussing over a young man’s small hands and the weather. Those kinds of things used to drive me nuts. Coaches are a curious bunch.”

Dave Cook is a retired Hall of Fame wrestling coach, who started a program at Ringgold and later had great success at Chartiers-Houston and Canon-McMillan. He enjoyed thrilling victories and championships.

But he recalls a loss against Trinity at W&J’s Henry Memorial Center in 1986 that caused him undue stress.

“I think you always wake up after a loss thinking about what you could have done better,” Cook said. “What moves could I have made? I made some moves in that match that afterward left me wondering: ‘Why did I do that?’ If I’d have just let things alone, we would probably have won.”

A few months ago, with the Tigers’ offense struggling in the American League Championship Series, Leyland decided overnight to revamp his lineup. He moved his leadoff hitter down in the order. He moved Torii Hunter to leadoff and MVP Miguel Cabrera from the three spot to No. 2.

He texted hitting coach Lloyd McClendon his intentions. McClendon, now manager of the Seattle Mariners, joked that the text came “very early” in the morning.

“That’s all part of it,” Leyland said. “You try and think of ways to be better.

“The game part is fun stress. I call it excitement. The best part of my day was when the umpire said: ‘Play Ball.’ ”

For the moment

Former Marquette men’s basketball coach Al McGuire lived for the big stage. He had such trust in his assistant coaches that he would leave practice at times, jump on his motorcycle and take a ride.

McGuire was a character. He believed that talent trumped all.

He was rewarded in 1977 when his team stunned the nation to defeat North Carolina and win the NCAA title in his final game as coach.

Not every coach experiences those kind of moments. But it is those times that make all the pressure, stress, strife and the challenges seem insignificant.

After 24 years of coaching high school wrestling, Chris Mary retired this year after leading Canon-McMillan to four consecutive WPIAL Class AAA championships and five PIAA titles.

“We were blessed with great kids,” Mary said. “We were always confident that what we practiced and how we worked in the room prepared us to achieve.

“You surround yourself with good people and good things will happen. The kids knew my compassion for them and passion for wrestling. They realized how much we wanted it for them. We wanted them to have that kind of experience and to build that special bond. That made everything worthwhile.”

Cook said when he took his “leap of faith” to coach at Canon-McMillan, he realized there would be stress.

“Every move you make could be stressful and scrutinized,” he said. “People were watching.”

The Big Macs won big under Cook. When he built the program at Ringgold, it was stress-free job. But the chance for the ultimate victory was not realistic.

Cook said coaches coach to be in the big moment.

“It was exhilarating at times,” Cook said. “It was a great time in my life. There was pressure. It was competition at a higher level. You live for those moments. You want to be good. You want your people to be good. You want that moment. You deal with everything else involved to have that moment.”

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