The Difference between Impact and Influence

By Kevin Bryant

The Place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.Frederick Buechner

Most of us coach/athletic administrator types might not be able to explain totally our love affair with sport and student. We might fumble around a bit to share with others that we cannot not do what we are doing. Be you a person of faith or not I would say that in the end we each have experienced some type of “calling” to do what we do. We love sport, we are passionate about the lessons that can be taught by our involvement in it and we love the very essence of practice, preparation, relationships and reaching something for us a bit out of our reach goal wise. Some of us do this sport thing because we want to give back to those coming after us. We want to say thanks to those coaches and athletic administrator types who have connected with us and helped to change our lives. Some of us do this because we love students even more than the sport(s) we love. We love seeing what takes place though challenge, teamwork, sacrifice and commitment in the lives of those placed under our care. Whatever your motivation, it is my hope and prayer that you have sensed a “call” to do this critically important work in such a clear and unmistakable manner that despite the challenges presented by this work you cannot imagine doing anything else.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in their coaches education training states that mastering four ingredients are necessary for one to become a successful coach. The four area’s where expertise is needed include tactical expertise, technical expertise, relational expertise and organizational expertise. Most of us have an immediate reaction as we read these four qualities of a successful coach. We know which area we are most adept at and which one we are not. The others may fall somewhere in the middle. Our credibility as a coach often comes from our tactical and technical abilities. We might feel best about our coaching work because we are able to impact a game and skills of the participants. However in my 30 years of coaching and athletic administration work I have rarely observed lifelong change take place in the life of a student athlete coming from these two areas. Devoid of relational connection to these two important area’s the overall outcome we normally associate with that of athletic participation falls flat.

Impact in the life of a student athlete does not take place by accident or by osmosis. When a student athlete is struggling and is in a moment of crisis I have yet to see that person reflect upon that amazing out of bounds play drawn up by that coach so long ago and that will make everything OK now. In that moment of need, fear and struggle what will remain is what a coach or athletic administrator type did to impact that student athlete. Not by accident but on purpose and for a specific reason. To impact the lives of students in this purposeful way several things must be in place for this coach to have “lifelong” impact.

Lifelong impact takes place because it is part of the practice plan for the day, week, month, year of that sport. Are there “natural” lessons that a sport teaches? I am currently playing a ton of tennis. I love it. I play at 5:15 am three to four days a week. I love starting my day with a tennis racquet in my hand. One lesson that I am learning (it seems over and over again) is that I must recover at game speed. I don’t have time to mess around when I make a mistake the next tennis point is coming. My teammate (if doubles) does not have time to wait for my attitude to adjust I must maintain poise and focus. Do we ever need to help impact the lives of students so that in their moment of need later in life they will “recover at game speed” and deliver the poise and focus that they learned from us on purpose and with intent? It is the gift that keeps on giving. We train ourselves and our student athletes in these “life lessons” so that when they face them they are not surprised and can perform their best. Five years ago my wife, Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was like getting hit on the head with a mallet. We spent some days getting to know our new reality then set to overcome it. My wife’s training as an athlete and teacher and mine as coach and athletic administrator type were critical to our ability to “recover at game speed” and begin to mount an offense against this deadly opponent. I am thankful that five years later Sara is in great health and is back to teaching her elementary school students. Her attitude made a HUGE difference in her recovery and it started by not asking why me? Instead she went on the offensive and said why not me? Let’s get busy kicking cancers butt. Her attitude forged by her participation and lessons learned as an athlete and teacher made the difference. She is one of my hero’s.

Impact is messy. It is not a quote from a book, it is not shown through 100 practices or drills, it takes place as we leave our comfortable space and decide we will get through to a student. It can take place in any number of ways. But it starts with our heartfelt desire to have impact on the lives of our student athletes. Influence might look like a few “strong suggestions” that would work if the student is so motivated. Impact says I am not giving up on this student learning this life lesson because I can tell that it will make the difference in their life now and for the long haul. Easier and less costly to influence this person to try to some new behaviors on vs. demand that they do this. Influence says we don’t have any rules, just as few strong suggestions. Impact says do this or else. To say this to a student challenges each of us to know our athletes in such a way that we know what they need. This happens as we spend time, observe, care and jump in with them to make life the best it can be. Once impacted these young charges will be different forever, this is an effort worth our very best.

Impact is not an individual but a team effort. Influence says please don’t go out and drink this weekend. Impact says to our captains and other influential parents and coaches, hey we are having a monopoly (ping pong, bowling, battleship, etc) tourney this Saturday night at my house. As we give others permission and actively seek their partnership we impact lives well beyond our original scope. We are teaching our team how to become good teammates, looking beyond themselves to help others with altruistic motives. They might be initially put off by trying to help a teammate they feel is on the wrong track, this will give them a practical way to care for their teammates that involve everyone on the team.

One of the toughest lessons for those of us who want to impact our athletes vs. influence them comes from the question asked in the movie “Untouchables” from Sean Connery as he lay dying on the floor of his home…looking into the eyes of Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness he says “What are you willing to do” to get the job done? In this case the job was to arrest mafia figure Al Capone. So I pose the question to you dear reader. You have been called to this amazing opportunity to impact the lives of student athletes through sport. It will not be easy, it will be costly and if your impact is to be lifelong it will come from your own willingness to be vulnerable, teachable and changed yourself. Are you so willing? An immutable principle of leadership is “you first”. Influence says, here student athlete take your medicine it will be good for you! Impact says I know why this is so important for you because I went through something similar to you and overcoming it has made all the difference in my life, it will be the same with you! And oh by the way I am here to help you work this through. I won’t be walking away from you, I am committed to see the job through. Are you in?

I am lucky that my college basketball coach Chuck Randall, head coach at Western Washington University was committed to me and my teammates in the ways I describe above. He was the rare individual who would say the hard thing as well as the encouraging thing. He was not afraid to share his own struggles and challenges. He was a man of faith that was not intimidated to share what had happened in his life. He believed in his athletes and did whatever he could to support them and help them to be their best. He was unafraid to share his care for me as a person as well as an athlete. I learned much about basketball from him but learned even more about life. His life spoke of IMPACT. I think of him constantly, now 54 years old and 33 years removed from the experience of his direct coaching, care and friendship. He has imprinted his life on my life. When I began to coach I wanted to impact the lives of those I coached like he had impacted my life.

Choosing to impact the lives of others must be a deliberate decision. Influence is a maybe, impact is a for sure. Influence is suggestive, impact is demanding. Influence is somewhat impersonal, impact is my life on your life. Impact is rock solid. Impact is practical. Impact is purposeful. Impact is sharing what you know and how you came to know it. Impact is difficult. Impact is costly. Impact will make you your very best.

To every person there comes in their lifetime that special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing. Unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for the work which would have been their finest hour.Winston Churchill

Are you called to impact or influence?