By the time you read this, I hope to have completed my first 44 hours, maybe more, toward a certificate as a Personal and Executive Coach.

What is that, you may wonder? It’s an emergent field of potential development that is evolving into a bona fide profession. The International Coaches Association describes it this way: “Coaching is an ongoing relationship between the professional coach and the client, which focuses on the client taking action toward the realization of their vision, goals or desires.  Coaching uses a process of inquiry and personal discovery to build the client’s level of awareness and responsibility and provides the client with structure, support and feedback.” So while it may share some intellectual space and even some techniques with therapeutic disciplines, its intent is not to render therapy and is in fact a conflict of interest. If you want to know more about this field, I’d recommend Jeffery E Auerbach’s book, “Personal and Executive Coaching” (Executive College Press).

A better question is, why I am pursuing this new area of learning and practice? Like many life decisions, there are many factors. Many of my coworkers have remarked that I am more of a coach to them than a leader. I have a crew that is intelligent, motivated and willing to learn. Many are early to mid-career and they want to be mentored and coached to perform better. I realized that the times that I have been most productive in my personal and professional life have been times when I got just that kind of guidance. It occurred to me that exactly the same thing could be said about when my teams have done best has been when I was coaching rather than leading. Yet, the two most important reasons are intensely personal and evolve out of my life journey.

The first reason is that, like many people, one particular coach had a profound impact on my life. Bob Matthews was his name and may God rest his soul. He came into my life in a curious sort of way when we moved in my junior year of high school. Up until that time, I loved football. What kid from rural Texas didn’t? It was a spectacle sport and it seemed the smaller the town the bigger the spectacle. It was a sport that could be played by a smaller guy if he was smart about it and had some talents, like running fast or throwing a ball quickly and with accuracy, or if his moves worked in a way that caused defenders to go one way when he went another – leading to a sack on defense or yardage on offense. It was an immediately satisfying sport; each play was a success or a failure, rarely were there mediocre outcomes.  I always appreciated that. In fact, football is very pragmatic and very impersonal in a personal sort of way. When each play was over, no matter what the outcome, there would be another. To be a real winner you just had to get up and play the next one. What made football challenging were the guys around you – the team.  So, like life, football is preparation for what it will be like to live. I tell you this so you will appreciate that when I got to my new school, I was ineligible to play and that was soul crushing for me.

Bob Matthews found me in that state of mind and he had the insight, if not the God-given talent, to do what every good coach does. He asked me what my goals were. Not quite that way, more like, “Well kiddo, what do you want to do? Feel sorry for yourself or do something important?”  I hadn’t really thought about that; I’d been feeling sorry for myself – go figure!  “Can you run?” he asked. I said, “Yes”.  “Fast?” he added. I considered that. I could run faster than big ole farm boys, but I wasn’t sure what he meant.  I remembered a kid named Freddy back home who was so fast he won the state track meet in our senior year. I wasn’t that fast. So I said, “I’m not sure – depends on what you mean by fast?” So Coach Matthews said, “Meet me across at the track after school today.”

I showed up as did he. Just the two of us. He met me in some old shorts. Gosh, he was so bowlegged that it was hard to believe he was the track coach. He tossed me some shorts about as old and a pair of the first track shoes I’d ever seen. Nothing like the wide heel, techno-designed things of today. These had a wide soul for the ball of the foot and almost no heel. They were the competition shoe of that age. They felt odd to walk in but proved great for running where there is very little heel strike. Coach Matthews had two other things that I noticed that day, a watch and a whistle.  “Follow me,” he said. I wanted to run, all right, but away was the place that felt safest at that moment. We walked out onto the cinder track and Coach Matthews gave me very clear instructions: “When you hear the whistle, start running as fast as you can. And when you hear it again, stop.” I got ready and looked over at him. Coach had a little grin that reminds me today of those instructions. It still motivates me today, over fifty years later.

It was a shrill whistle – loud and piercing – but I took off when I heard it and ran as fast as my legs would carry me.  I got around the first lap pretty well and expected to hear it again but it was nothing doing. I kept running and running and running! I lost tract of the number of times I went around that stadium.  By the time, I heard that whistle again, it was more like a stumbling trot than a run that I was doing.  Coach Matthews had sat down in the stands while I was running, but then he was back on the track. He began to talk, thankfully, because I had no wind left and was gasping for every breath. “Well kiddo, you got speed and you got distance, but the question is, do you have the heart to pick one?” He paused to let that sink in. Then he added, “You’ve gotta have the speed to go the distance!” Again he paused, “Because I can coach you to go faster or to go longer, but I can’t coach to go the distance. That, kiddo, is up to you.”

With that, he turned and walked under the bleachers and was gone.  He left me there standing exhausted and confused and wondering what had just happened. It was exactly the right thing to do for me. I thought about what he had said all night long. I didn’t get a wink of sleep, and the more I thought the more I wanted to run for that man. I knew one thing, whatever the distance he asked me to run, that I would do.  He had re-lit a fire, formed a challenge, set me a purpose and given me options.  Thinking about it today, he had helped me see one other thing, perhaps the most important: my chief obstacle was me. I knew one thing that next morning arriving at school, I was going to run! For sure it would be for the honor of my new school, certainly for my coach and inspiration, Bob Matthews, but most of all for me!

I could write a book about the tales of Coach Bob Matthews and the Muskogee Rougher Track Team. They were my team, and they elected me Captain my senior year. We all were Matthews’ Boys, and we were proud of it. Today I read the very definition of a coach like Bob Matthews: “A trusted role model, adviser, wise person, friend, Mensch, steward, or guide – a person who works with emerging human and organizational forces to tap new energy and purpose, to shape new visions and plans, and to generate desired results. A coach is someone trained and devoted to guiding others into increased competence, commitment, and confidence.” Those are the words of Fred Hudson, written in 1999, but lived 30 years earlier by Bob Matthews, my coach.

Here’s the second reason I am preparing to be a Professional Coach. One day, you wake up and realize you’re not a kid anymore and time is accelerating away from you. You might be like me and realize that you’ve felt this soul crushing feeling before, and one particular person in my case, Bob Matthews, came into my life in the way I have described. That day, my friends, you sense your calling again in a new way.  It’s exciting and it’s time. One thing for sure – “I can go the distance.”

I hope someday, someone who has found their way, their calling, and reformed their purpose can say those words and can look back and be glad.

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Billy U. Philips Jr.
Dr. Billy U. Philips Jr. is Publisher of Rural Health Quarterly and Director of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.