Beyond knowing that Muhammad Ali “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” and having watched most of the Rocky films (life is just to short to spend two hours on Rocky V), I don’t know a lot about boxing. Even so, there’s something about the idea of the boxing trainer as someone who’s always in your corner that just rings true to me as a success coach. Today was one of those days where it rang out loud and clear.
The day, however, didn’t begin with a revelation; it began with a trio of soccer players and Death of a Salesman. You see, Ian, my first student of the day and a member of the soccer team, hadn’t read it. Which isn’t necessarily a big deal. Lots of people haven’t read Death of a Salesman. In fact, I predict that the majority of humans on the planet haven’t read Death of a Salesman, and the world keeps on spinning on its axis. Reading Death of a Salesman is not necessary for living a successful and happy life unless, of course, you register, of your own volition, for a course in which you are required to read…you guessed it…Death of A Salesman. And it turns out that Ian had registered for just such a course! What are the odds!
When Ian revealed to me that he still hadn’t read the play, weeks after it was assigned, I played the athletic coach card. “Okay, so do you want to head to the library right now to read or do you want me to call Max to tell him that you can’t go to practice today?” I asked. Ian knows that Max and I are a united front when it comes to academics AND that no practice today basically means no playing time this weekend. Ian headed to the library. The next student to walk in my door was another soccer player named Kenny who, as it turns out, also needed a verbal refresher on the Riot Act of 2013. As Kenny left and my third soccer player, Deke, walked in the door, Kenny gave him a look that said, “man, I wouldn’t want to be you right now.”
It was not even lunchtime, and already I was feeling exhausted, frustrated, and annoyed. “Why can’t these guys just get their acts together?!” I wondered. “Are these meetings with me even useful for them?”
In other words, I was not in the zen-like, open-hearted mindset in which I’d like to have been, even after a walk across campus to the music building where, in addition to success coaching I also teach piano lessons, when my mid-day piano student arrived ten minutes late. This wasn’t the first time that Calista was late, and just as I heard the door open and was preparing my, “this isn’t gonna fly anymore,” speech, Calista entered in the middle of an apology. But before she got very far, she halted in mid-syllable and burst into tears. Calista comes to me for piano, but she also works with another one of our success coaches for academic purposes, and after a conversation about feeling overwhelmed and underwater, I asked her if she felt her success coach was helping. “Oh yes!” she said. “Since I’ve been working with him, I’ve been doing much better but…” “But?” I asked. “But…he always seems so busy,” she said. I asked her to elaborate. Other students were constantly knocking on his door during their meetings, she said. (Her coach works part time in student affairs.) She felt like he was doing five other things in his head while he was talking to her. She wasn’t resentful, but she clearly didn’t feel like her success coach’s focus was completely on her during their sessions. In response, she had instinctively backed off, loosened the bond of trust that connected them. She simply no longer felt that, after an exhausting round of boxing her way through a day or week of college life, she could count on her success coach to be there, in her corner, with a bottle of water and her best interest at heart.
I spoke with her coach, a new addition to our team who was very glad to get the feedback. She had been doing so much better, he had reasoned, that she didn’t need as much help from him anymore. Furthermore, he realized that his current office set-up was not as conducive to success coaching as he would have liked, and he decided to move his meetings with Calista to a quieter area of campus.
But the thing that struck me most of all while speaking to Calista was how much those 30 minutes twice a week meant to her. Recently, she has been dealing with multiple deaths in her family and financial as well as academic concerns. Sure, she is doing better academically, but that is partially because the time with her success coach has been so valuable. Sometimes, at success coach meetings, we have thrown around the idea of meeting only once a week with our students who are getting As and Bs at midterm, but this conversation with Calista made me realize that the feeling of missing that 30 minutes twice a week -where someone was completely focused on her- made her anxious, made her more likely to fall back into the old habits that got her on academic probation, made her more likely to go back to thinking, “nobody cares about me, so it doesn’t matter if I fail or not.”
I thought again about Ian, Kenny, and Deke. I remembered a conversation Ian and I had had on a previous occasion about why he was here and what he really wanted. “That’s the first time anybody has asked me that,” he remarked thoughtfully. I remembered how Kenny and Deke had joked about how I must be psychic, since I’d texted them both for results of a test literally a minute after the professor had returned the tests. I could tell by the way they told the story that they liked knowing that I would ask. They liked being accountable to someone and knowing that that someone was always going to be in their corner. Ian, Kenny, and Deke will eventually get it and be able take the ball and run with it themselves, but right now they need someone to help them see the long game. They need someone to be accountable to. But mostly, they need to know that, after an exhausting round of boxing their way through a day or week of college life, they can count on their success coaches to be there, in their corner, with a bottle of water and their best interests at heart.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.