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Although I had assumed that my extensive knowledge of sailing as a sport would allow me to fulfill my role as coach without much difficulty, I learned immediately that I was much more than an instructor: everything I did had an impact on the kids. J.M. Coetzee writes in his novel Disgrace, “Irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn, learn nothing,” and I found the first part of this statement to be true. I am sure that I learned as much about the critical function of a role model as my charges learned how to achieve excellence and act with maturity and sportsmanship in a competitive environment. When you first take a job as a coach, they tell you that it is important not to single out an individual for special treatment, nor disregard another whose obstacles to achievement seem insurmountable, but to impart one’s knowledge upon another is among life’s most rewarding experiences. While I tried to remain equitable in my coaching, it was through the private instruction of a mentally challenged ten-year-old named Patrick that I gained new perspective on the definition of success.
When I first met Patrick, I was quite surprised that he had been allowed to enter the sailing program, as sailing can be a risky undertaking, especially for a child whose autism renders him never fully aware of his surroundings. However, I realized quickly that this was less about becoming a great sailor than it was about finding a touch of normalcy and achievement in a complicated life filled with many medications, endless tests, and a general feeling of inferiority to his peers. I was up to the task, wasn’t I?
I figured that if anything, Patrick’s inherent inability to express defiance towards me would make my job simple. Instead, this made it nearly impossible to convey a basic point, as he is unable to fully comprehend emotion and instruction directed towards him. Also, my developed methods of teaching that had helped many other young sailors towards varying degrees of success proved nearly useless with Patrick. I was forced to step away from the experience I had before I could detect a noticeable response from him. I further simplified what was already basic, and realized that the only way to make an impression was through relentless repetition. I spent an hour post-practice with him twice a week to do one-on-one tutoring. We referred to this as “bringing him up to speed,” but it was actually the only time that I could effectively teach him.
It was through my own perseverance that Patrick began to respond, as his brain slowly adapted to the new skills he was, amazingly, learning. The sense of achievement he felt as he started to progress was intense. As he became more expressive towards me and confident in his abilities, I simultaneously had a similar feeling of accomplishment I had not experienced in any athletic competition or academic undertaking. I look forward to continuing with this experience as one that gave me new insight on a different kind of diversity and the importance of what each person brings to the table.
However, the non-monetary benefits of my job only strengthened my original resolve for becoming a sailing coach: to financially support my dream of ski racing at the highest level. I knew when I was hired that my job would provide me with the means I needed, but what I was about to learn was a revelation: like the many coaches who had taught, supported, and challenged me, and whose respect I had always sought, I could assume that role in the lives of others. Having been the studious and dedicated athlete of equally motivated coaches for all of my life, I swapped roles and became the coach and leader of many young sailors whose assortment of athletic, moral, and personal habits was readily subject to my influence.
Reluctantly, Patrick finally put his foot forward through the door of success I had worked so hard to open for him. My experience with him taught me to be more open-minded and made me more perseverant. Coaching him helped me understand that knowledge, alongside tolerance, is the best power to effect change in the world.
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