As he prowls the turf at practice, his deep voice booming like a cannon, Bill Broggy often finds reason for his coaching and teaching to intertwine. The lessons he delivers sometimes deal directly with how to complete the pass or score the goal, though, often enough, they won’t.
“He’ll say, for example, ‘Oh, Napoleon did this,'” said Keeley Connors, a recent graduate of Fox Lane High School who was an all-American on Broggy’s lacrosse team this spring. “Some of the younger girls will say, ‘What? We’re not even at Napoleon yet.'”
Dealing in the foreign or abstract has proven to be effective for Broggy who, in addition to coaching girls lacrosse at Fox Lane, teaches philosophy as well as AP courses in U.S. and European history. He is one of countless men and women on local sidelines continuing a well-worn tradition as old as sports: The coach as amateur philosopher.
Although the inspirations vary, coaches truly believe a quote or an aphorism can be the secret to a deeper understanding, especially as student-athletes’ attention spans continue to wane.
Broggy will lean on the knowledge of anyone from John Wooden to Friedrich Nietzsche, a fact less absurd than it sounds, he concedes.
“It’s not like I go out there and I’m Socrates,” Broggy said. “The premise is ‘know thyself;’ to get the students and my players to know themselves, to know their surroundings. I bring it onto the practice field. I talk to the kids about achieving everything you can. I know it sounds crazy, but there is an application to it.”
The approach is hardly unique, as a morning Twitter search of coaches — from local high schools to college and the pros — will prove.
Three of the area’s more notable boys basketball coaches, Mount Vernon’s Bob Cimmino, White Plains’ Spencer Mayfield and Mamaroneck’s Tyrone Carver, are league rivals who share this similar bond. All believe in teaching through the words of others, a truth evident nearly every morning as all three tweet and retweet inspirational messages to focus themselves and their players.
“It’s great with your cup of coffee to see some sayings that your colleagues have retweeted and saying, ‘Yeah, I have that kid on my team, too. Oh, you’re having that problem in California, you’re having that problem in Philly, yeah, I definitely have that kind of kid on my team,'” Cimmino said. “Plus, I figure Albert Einstein could probably say it better than I ever could.”
Cimmino, a six-time state champion, said his use of philosophy is so rampant he has taken to jotting notes and tacking them to his calendar, often months in advance. For instance, if he finds a message in August that could prove instructive during the midseason doldrums, he might write it on a Post-it note, flip to January and fasten it there.
“Young people, much like myself, can be motivated by simple words,” Cimmino said. “Not all the right words will hit all the right chords, but sometimes a sentence that I said in a certain situation will be thrown back at me 15 years later by a successful person.”
Carver had that experience this spring when Princeton-bound football star Alex Parkinson, who was also a key forward on Mamaroneck’s basketball team, quoted him in the yearbook.
“Listening is a sign of intelligence,” Parkinson said. “That’s something he’s been saying over and over again throughout all my four years in the program. I just thought it made sense and listened to it.”
It’s a line Carver adopted from Mayfield, his close friend, who heard it from the former Manhattan College coach Gordon Chiesa, who then spent 16 years as an assistant for the Utah Jazz.
Carver actually tends to rely on attitude or self-help passages. He includes one as the “Thought of the Day” atop each day’s practice schedule.
They are intended to inspire players and help them focus, but can often have the same effect on Carver and his coaches.
“I probably take losses harder than anybody but, by the same token, one thing I’ve learned in my years of coaching is that you have to show your players the face they need to see,” Carver said.
The need to distill a lesson or message into something today’s student-athletes understand has led Mayfield to tweak his own coaching philosophy.
To keep the attention of players whose minds wane, Mayfield has reduced film sessions into a series of 15 clips — five good things, five bad things and five ugly things. He believes a quick quote can have a similar impact.
“It has to be for the 140-character generation,” Mayfield said. “You have to go where they’re at, and that’s where they’re at right now.”
Of course, the philosophies of coaches at the highest levels have centered on both the simple and abstract, both squeezed into a brief thought. Just consider NFL legends like Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells (a Mayfield favorite), who were both champions of the analogy.
Lombardi, in particular, constantly preached the virtue found in teamwork, which has been the main message disseminated by Irvington’s Gina Maher, the area’s all-time winningest basketball coach.
About 15 years ago, Maher’s teams adopted the mantra “hold the rope.” Then and now, they have been known to read the story connected to it as a group prior to a season or even in the locker room before a big game, pushing one another, essentially, to trust their strength as a whole.
“Who do I trust to hold the rope? That’s a big part of it,” Maher said. “Who is going to save me if I really need saving?”
Maher, who has also coached track and tennis at Irvington, has watched the environment around her players change, but her coaching philosophy has remained consistent. She has even embraced visualization — the act of a person creating an image of success in his or her mind — in recent years, all of which are among her basketball program’s best.
“I believe the mental aspect and the philosophy of playing a sport is just as big as the physical aspect of the game,” she said. “I think if you don’t have all those together, you’re not going to be successful.”
Indeed, Broggy’s dabbling in philosophy often sparks more debate among players than snickering. Connors said they search for the meaning in his messages and how it applies to them and their team.
Broggy believes all marriages between philosophy and sport are aimed at attaining the same goal.
“It’s that whole idea of achievement. How do you improve? How do you get better?” Broggy said. “You have to overcome who you are. Every day you have to be a different athlete, a better athlete, to reach greatness.”
That may not reach every player instantly or equally, but even the indifferent can come around.
Cimmino, a devotee of the Book of Proverbs, among other texts, had that epiphany more than 10 years ago as he sat at kitchen table with the seemingly unaffected Chris Lowe, one of the best guards he ever coached, and then-UMass coach Travis Ford, who would eventually sign Lowe to play for the Minutemen.
“Coach Ford was asking and probing and Chris said, ‘Oh, coach Cimmino wouldn’t let this happen. Coach Cimmino said this then,'” Cimmino remembered. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, he was really listening.'”