Good Sports

John McPhee s coaching philosophy boils down to a simple dictum: let them play.

July/August 2006

Reading time min

Good Sports

Photo: Steve Hambuchen

A crisp, crystalline afternoon in Oregon—so rare an event in spring that everyone in the park is humming. A lovely sound, like a thousand bees. There are three baseball games going at once on the sweet ragged fields. One game features children slightly taller than puppies. They run to the wrong base, burst into tears, doze in the outfield. A second game is unorganized—a shaggy pickup game. The pitcher, a girl, is firing serious heat past disgruntled male batters, who snarl and moan and mumble.

The third game is boys, 12 years old. At bat, Alex McPhee. A long boy, lean, getting taller by the hour. Fastball. Alex uncoils. Strike. The pitcher considers the scythe of Alex’s swing and retires to the cave of his curve. Ball. Ball. Ball. Fastball again, waaay too high, but Alex cannot ignore such a morsel and he swings. Strike two. The pitcher contemplates the mournful inaccuracy of his curve. The fielders crouch and bounce. The stands and benches rustle and burble. For an instant there is that exquisite jeweled stillness at the very heart of baseball, a moment on tiptoe, pregnant with delight or dismay . . . and then the pitcher slings his fastball and Alex slashes at it and snap there’s the delicious ringing bite of bat on ball. Deep deep deep the center fielder backpedals and almost falls down! but he recovers and staggers and throws up his glove and misses it! and there goes Alex sprinting past first legging for second! the outfielder whirls and fires! as Alex roars right past second gunning for third! oh no no no here comes the throw, a dart, an arrow, and Alex launches his long legs and slides . . . safe! wow! Dust, hubbub, Alex flapping the dirt off his pants, a smile of relief, the umpire trotting back down the baseline, the next batter sauntering out.

I remark all this lovely theater to the tall man next to me, the sheer geometry and electricity of it, the infinitesimal gestures and customs, and also how totally cool it was to see Alex shift into fifth gear and crazily try for a triple, and he grins and says in the inimitable sunny accent of Australia, Aw, well done, Ali, for he is John McPhee, Alex’s dad. And for the next hour, as the game seethes and unfurls before us, he discourses on children and joy, teaching and teamwork, the channeled grace and gift of our bodies, the subtle education and epiphany that sport offers for the young of our peculiar species.

Born in Melbourne, educated at the Eton of Australia (Melbourne Grammar), McPhee, MA ’89, MBA ’89, stubbornly set sail at age 18 for maybe the hardest physical labor there is: mining. Iron, silver, lead, zinc, manganese, copper, gold, coal, he sweated for them all, in the Outback, in Queensland and the Northern Territory—“three thousand feet underground, $20 a day to get in the cage, then getting paid by the foot,” as he says. He became absorbed by the logistics and engineering of mining, and as he rose into administration he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, in mining engineering. At 29 he aced the GMAT, in a sweltering room in the Outback, and soon thereafter found himself, a little startled, in the MBA program at Stanford. Wanting to milk the most from his minutes, McPhee decided to embark on a master’s in economics simultaneously, which led to deep research in romance; he fell in love with his teaching assistant, Cynthia Spiekerman, ’88. John and Cindy, a pediatrician, now have three children—Michael, Hailey and the lanky boy standing on third base.

Today McPhee is Nike’s U.S. apparel logistics development director—essentially quarterback of supply—and while he’s lived all over the world, and held all sorts of jobs, it’s children and sports on which he is remarkably passionate and opinionated and articulate. Over the course of three games (two Alex, one Hailey, no Michael) he delivered a monologue that, distilled, goes something like this:

“I was mad for sports as a boy, cricket and Australian football, which is like basketball on grass, or rugby sped up and stripped of the violence, and I still am absorbed by sport, as is Cindy—I run marathons, she’s a terrific soccer player. And we really wanted to have our children be fascinated by sport, to have sport be a language they spoke easily and happily, you know? I’ve coached their teams in baseball, basketball and American football, and I’ve seen a lot of coaching, good and bad, and I conclude that there are some basic and crucial principles in coaching:

“First, no shouting, no embarrassment, no humiliation. Be the same to every kid. Respect them. No berating, no browbeating. Don’t treat the star any different than the kid just learning the game. Be a model, be an example. Kids are enormously, exquisitely sensitive, and you never know what slight, or what quiet compliment, will linger in their souls.

“Second: don’t talk too much. Give them the rules and tools and let them learn the game themselves. Kids learn by seeing and doing, not by listening. Scrimmages teach more than sermons.

“Third: scores don’t matter. You’re not coaching to win games. They’re not playing to win games. You’re all in it, at that level, to learn the language, the rules, the discipline, the fun of it.

“Fourth: everyone gets equal playing time. Period. No exceptions. One thing I hate about bad coaching is seeing kids who never get off the bench. That’s insulting. That’s terrible coaching when kids are young.

“Finally, most important of all, the whole point of coaching, the whole point of kids in organized sport: teach them to love the game, to love to play. The only measure of success for a coach is if the kids come back to play the next year. If they don’t return for a second season, you weren’t a good enough coach, period.

“Under all the blather about sports building character and discipline is the truth that sports does help kids immensely in remarkable ways. Sports presents all sorts of chances for a kid—to push yourself, to do what seems too hard, to learn how your body can move with grace and power, how to make your mates better, how to plan and apply strategy, how to fail with grace, how to succeed with grace, how to fail and succeed with a smile. It’s the one place when you’re a kid that you get the undivided attention of an adult. And it’s the foundation of a lifetime of exercise, better diet, attention to physical effort and joy, rather than drugs or sitting on the couch staring at a screen all day.

“I think about this a lot as a Nike employee. We take the essentially moral aspect of sports very seriously indeed. Children in America spend increasing time staring at screens, not exercising, eating bad food. The best way to fight all those things is sports. Cindy and I made it a rule in our house that our kids have to play sports year round. That sounds authoritarian but to us it’s necessary nutrition and education, a basic building block for maturity. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t care about getting his or her child interested in sport. It seems irresponsible and negligent to me. It’s like reading—if you are not introduced to it young it will never become a crucial part of your life. Your life opens in wonderful ways with sport and reading and conversation, you know? So to not bring your kids to that, to not coach if you can, that seems crazy to me.”

By this time John and I are standing behind the backstop at his daughter Hailey’s softball game. As kids of various sizes run past and say hey coach! I ask how many kids he’s coached over the years. He ponders, and as we try to do the math (11 teams in four sports), Hailey triples! and goes steaming into third standing up! and we grin at the symmetry of McPhee progeny tripling all over town. I ask John one last question: what’s the bone of sport, the koan, the holy of it? And out of his mouth pops a single word to carry like a talisman, a prayer, a lodestar: joy.

BRIAN DOYLE is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of The Grail, about a year in the life of a vineyard in Oregon.

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