Holding Court: We Need More Men Like Coach Nichols!

Tonight I went to my son’s spring basketball banquet. It was mostly what you’d expect from a high school event like this.

Perfunctory speeches from coaches who are mostly reluctant public speakers, awkward teen-age boys wearing the same ties they’ve worn to each game day carefully removed so as not to have to retie a Windsor knot, all rapidly moving through the certificate line shaking hands without looking any coach in the eye, catered buffet-line Mexican food, and über sweet cookie cake for dessert.

Except for one thing. Coach Nichols. He was an anomaly. He cried. He got so choked up about 5 times during a 6-7 minute speech that he had to pause and gather himself so he could even continue. Half way through the season, he took a role as Assistant Principal and had to abandon his post as JV coach. And you could tell it clearly pained him to do so.

He is a white guy in his late 30’s to early 40’s, average build and average height, glasses and thinning hair and yet this man moved a whole room of otherwise bored adults and students as though he were Denzel Washington accepting an Oscar award. And he did it merely by being vulnerable. And it was obvious it was his truest emotion, nothing fabricated or rehearsed about his uncontrolled outpouring of sentiment.

I sat at a table with 6 other people, 5 other moms and one dad and we all had the same reaction. That guy is awesome! And the basketball boys absolutely adored him. I looked around the room and noticed every eye on him when he spoke, whereas before most kids were distracted, struggling to pay attention, giggling under their breaths and more than a few adults surreptitiously checking their smart phones in their laps.

But when Coach Nichols dared to share his heart so openly and unabashedly with a room full of men, women and teenage boys, he moved the room. Ears perked up, bodies leaned slightly forward, and I dare say, hearts expanded.

It was like a fresh breeze blew in. I noticed how I immediately wanted my freshman son, who is struggling like a sweaty person trying on jeans at the GAP to figure out what it means to be a man– he’s too cool to acknowledge me when he walks in the door, thwarts his little sister, hides his emotions and struggles to have a conversation if it’s not about sports–to hang out with this guy, spend time with him on and off the court and soak up some of his strength and vulnerability and realize how confident he truly is in himself to be able to bare his heart like that.

And I contrasted this vision of how Coach Nichols showed up as a man deeply respected by his colleagues, students and community alike with the definition of the “economic man” of today as well as the many reports and accounts of men behaving badly with the #metoo and #timesup movements.

I don’t want my son to become the type of man as described by Katrine Marcal in her latest book on economics. And I don’t want my daughter to date him either. “The economic man is rational, dominant, selfish, powerful, emotionally unavailable, independent and competitive. He knows what he wants, has an unlimited appetite, and you cannot change him.” In contrast, according to Marcal, society characterizes traits traditionally associated with femininity as economically irrelevant: emotion, the body and dependency.

And yet the guy who brought the most warmth, energy and, ultimately, power into the room, and who hugged every kid (and not the side ways hug or the hand-shake in between us chest bump hug but the full on chest to chest hug) was the opposite of this type of man.

As reported by his fellow coaches, he was collaborative, altruistic in action, emotionally available, interdependent (both giving and receiving) and all with a healthy dose of competitive spirit as he managed to maintain an even larger focus of developing good men who realize their potential as humans, and not just as athletes.

I have practiced therapy for 20 years and I give workshops and speeches for a living. Through my work I am privileged to see men and women share their most intimate thoughts and emotions and dive deeply into vulnerability, but rarely do any of us get to see men of character, strength and integrity do so in a room full of impressionable young men straining and struggling to figure out what it means to be a man in our culture today.

I tell my son all the time that he’s going to become a man regardless of anything I do. That bell has already been rung. But he gets to decide what type of man he wants to be.

So, thank you, Coach Nichols, for giving me one real, tangible and concrete example from which to draw when I encourage my son to consider becoming a good one. Maybe even one of the best.­