Knock Down the Walls

Admin note: this is NSFW as it contains cursing in applicable parts but due to the impact of the wording, I choose to leave it in to reinforce the point Chris is making.

I remember it clear as day.

I remember the weather, it was overcast,slightly cloudy, and in the mid 50’s.

We were at one of the public fields where all the teams practiced.

I was playing offensive line, right guard to be exact, wore #79 in honor of Seahawks great and member of their Ring of Honor Jacob Green.

The play was designed to be a run off the tight end, just a basic dive play.  The defensive lineman was facing me in the 2-position which is off my right shoulder.  My job was to cross his face and drive him backwards.  We took the line and the quarterback sounded out the cadence, “set….GO!”

I hit the lineman but didn’t cross his face.  He didn’t make the play but I thought I did a good job by engaging him.  We get back in to the huddle and all of a sudden, the coach grabs my facemask and proceeded to yell:


Verbatim. I was 10 years old.

I will never forget that moment, I will never forget his face, never forget his son who played quarterback, and all the pain that man caused me.  It was my first time playing full contact football and this man had me in tears.

This was my first experience of putting up a wall, and that wall went up faster and bigger than any wall Roger Waters describes in Pink Floyd’s magnum opus by the same name as the object I am describing.

The phrase “putting up walls” has been around for as long as I can remember.  As adults, we understand what that means, but to our youth, they don’t quite comprehend the severity of the situation.

As someone who works a lot with youth athletes (roughly 40% of my business is athletes 18 and under), I see more and more kids coming in to the gym with not just walls but fortresses of impenetrable walls that seem almost too big and intense for parents to try and work through.

What exactly is a wall and how does a young athlete put one up is not the question that needs to be asked, rather WHY is this young aspiring athlete hiding himself behind a wall of sadness, frustration, hurt and anger?

According to author Oliver JR Cooper and his website Self Growth, “What walls do is create the feeling of being protected and through having these, one will feel safe. The problem with having walls is that not only do they keep everyone out; they also keep one locked in. One ends up creating their own prison.

This is an all too familiar feeling that seems to be exasperated with the exploding growth of cyber bullying and amongst our younger generations.  Gone are the days of sticking up for yourself and using your fist to settle a dispute.  Now a-days, kids post memes and use social media to demean their peers in a way that has never been seen before.

According to Cooper, “…even though one is trying to protect themselves from others by having walls, all that ends up happening is the creation of more pain.

When a new athlete comes in for his initial interview, I always ask the parents to leave.  While they are the guardian and can provide insight in to their child, they can also create fear of being honest with their child, especially if they are the stereotypical “sideline parent”.  I have seen kids not hardly say a word with their parent in the room, yet when the parents leave, there is a sense of relief that comes across the child’s face.

My job in that initial interview is to find the ‘Why’. What is the real reason the child is in my gym; is it his idea or is sideline parent of the year pushing his own agenda on their child?

Here are some of the steps I use to help the child start knocking down those walls that are locking them in:

  1. Relate to them. This is not as easy as it may seem.  Remember, I’m staring down the barrel of 40 years and I’m trying to relate to a 13 year old who is just starting puberty.  One thing I do before they even walk in the door is talk to the kids who I already train and ask them about the new athlete.  99% of my kids all know each other, all play with or against each other, and have grown up with each other.  I make sure they will fit the personality of the gym and find out what the kids likes or doesn’t like.  Once I sit down with the prospective athlete, I always start with basic questions; what sports do you play, what position, who are your favorite sports teams, and at this point I start building rapport with the athlete.  I do this by talking trash about their favorite team or player, I get them to respond to my trash talk, and get them to smile and laugh.  If I can make a kid smile within the first five minutes with me, we have a great match!
  2. Ask ‘why’…. a lot. This is a tip I learned from Precision Nutrition and it has changed the way kids act around me.  It goes something like this:  Why are you here?  Why is that important to you? Why do you want to do this?  Why should I work with you? Those questions don’t always come in that order because the route I go depends on the answers. If they give me an answer that I don’t think is 100% truthful or that they are holding back, I will start asking questions like “how do you think X will make you feel” or “how will this help you reach your goals”?  Then I will go back to the ‘why’ and keep digging.
  3. Show them it’s okay to fail. This may surprise you but once they sign up, I purposefully make them fail right after the warm-up.  Why? My warm-ups are hard if you have never moved before, which most of these young athletes haven’t.  They are competitive creatures of habit and I just threw all that out the door.  The look on their faces after the warm-up tells me all I need to know.  First thing we do on Day 1 is box jump. “Here [insert name of athlete], all I need you to do is stand right here, and jump as high as you can and land on this box; and by the way, you are going to fail.”  I say that EVERY SINGLE TIME.  I set the box at a height that looking at it from the eyes of a young athlete seems impossible.  Then I show them that the box is soft and won’t hurt to fall on, then I make them jump and FAIL on purpose on the first one.  That helps calm their nerves knowing that it’s okay to fail, because it is.  This does a couple things for them. It reinforces to them that falling won’t hurt and that the box really isn’t that high.  Their next jump, I do a little coaching and BAM, on the box they jump and smile from ear-to-ear.  Once they come down, I ask one simple question: what did you just learn about yourself?  The responses from these kids is the most empowering part of my job because they will all answer with roughly the same answer, “if I put my mind to it, I can do anything.

From that point on, the smiles flow, attitudes change, and I watch a child that may be hiding some pain open up to me and confide in me like they have never done before.  I have had kids talk to me and tell me things that they don’t tell their parents or their best friends.  They know that once they step foot in my gym, they are protected.  That they are loved and appreciated, but most importantly, that I will never put them in a position to truly fail, only learn.

This is not a simple process but it’s the way I’ve been able to be one of the goto trainers for youth athletic development in Santa Barbara, CA. My gym is Strength Inc. and it is filled with high school athletes of all types.  My athletes appreciate my honesty, they understand that I care for them, I do this because I have been in their shoes, and I share my struggles with them and let them know it’s going to be okay.

It was the second quarter and we had just scored a touchdown.

I was the team’s kicker because after years of playing soccer, nobody could kick a football further than I could.  As we set up for the kick, I stood there with my arm up in the air waiting for the ref to blow the whistle.  I looked to the opponent’s sideline and sure enough, the coach who years earlier berated me consistently was yelling at his team to get ready for a boot.  Rage took over my body in a way that I had never felt before.

I started shaking, just praying for the whistle.

Once I heard it, I launched in to that ball with a force I didn’t think was possible to generate.  I took the kick down left-hand side of the field and despite being the kicker and the last resort, I started sprinting faster than I had ever sprinted in my life.  I blew past everybody, untouched…I put my eyes on my target and took my line and WHAM!  I hit the kid so hard his feet went straight in the and flipped him over so he landed on his stomach out cold.  I remember the feeling of standing over him with my fists clenched as if I was going to get in to a fight; I wasn’t excited or happy, I was enraged.  As the coach comes running over I step right in front him, looked him square in the eyes and said “I’m not so fucking pathetic now am I” ….


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3 thoughts on “Knock Down the Walls”

  1. I was 100% down with this until the end. Have you read InSideOut Coaching by Joe Ehrmann? I’m assuming you are familiar with him and his story at least. He writes and speaks about the same “walls of masculinity” that you talk about here, and he talks a lot about the damaging effects of anger in young men, both to themselves and to others. Concluding the article with an act of anger and glorifying hurting another person just seems off-tone with the rest of the article, as though hurting someone else IS the answer to being seen as a man in a coach’s eyes. I understand that this is a legal hit and within the game of football, and maybe it’s just the way that it is written that makes it seem like you are prouder of this than you are, but I think it’s a letdown after how powerful the rest of the article was for encouraging a different view of masculinity and ability.

    1. Hey Will! Thanks for your answer, I really appreciate it. One thing I have noticed in working with young kids, is that they don’t have an outlet for their anger, so they let it fester and sometimes violence is the only way. I do not promote violence in my kids nor do I ask them to exact violence as way of retribution. I spent my whole life playing sports and getting bullied, hence my need for walls. Playing sports was my only outlet to letting my frustration and anger out. I played with a chip on my shoulder and that I very much encourage in my athletes. Writing this was very hard for me and I actually debated putting that ending in or not but writing it helped me heal in some way. If one of my athletes or a future athlete reads this, I can use it as a conversation piece to help them break down there wall in way that I was not able to, so it’s actually a good learning tool for them and for me.

      As for the book you mentioned, I have not heard of it but I have added it to the top of my list of books to read.

      Thank you again for your comment and for your book recommendation.

      1. Hi Chris, thanks for writing back. I think you’ll get a lot out of Ehrmann’s work. It sounds like you two have similar backgrounds and experiences, and are coming at coaching to try to break that cycle in other young men. Here is the TEDx talk I referred to in my previous post, which is kind of a very condensed version of his book. Gets into his story a bit, but he goes into much more detail in the book.

        I fully appreciate the challenge of writing such a personal piece, and I’m glad that it was helpful for you on a personal level. However, thinking of the possible impact on a vulnerable audience, I am uncomfortable sharing the article with other coaches or my players solely because of the ending and how it seems to glorify violent retaliation. I mentioned this on Twitter, but I really did like the rest of the article and your three main takeaways there in the middle. I’m not telling you what to do or how to write, just providing feedback from another coach who cares.

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