Like many of us in this field, I’ve had lots of therapy over the years, but never a coach. That changed last year when, inspired by our May/June issue on “Achieving Excellence,” I hired Andrew, a 26-year-old basketball coach, to school me in the fine art of the crossover dribble and how to slide my feet on defense. At no extra charge, he’s also provided me with some of the best therapy I’ve ever received.

We all know what good shrinks are supposed to do—gently probe their clients’ psyches with empathic regard for their need to feel safe, understood, and appreciated. But Andrew’s focus is on instruction and challenge, and he’s quite willing to raise his voice if he thinks it’ll get his point across. Yet working with him has given me a greater sense of my own possibilities (on court and off) than just about any professional relationship I’ve ever had.

A small example. One day a few months ago, at his suggestion, I challenged a guy 30 years younger than I am to some one-on-one. At first, to my delight, I was unstoppable, hitting everything I threw up, showing off like a proud 12-year-old in front of my coach. But then my opponent began to wise up to my fancy new moves and my aging body began to run out of steam. With a six-inch height advantage, he started grinding me down, and I soon reverted to my old offensive repertoire of jerky head fakes and off-balance jumpers. In the end, he crushed me.

Once again, I was a kid—but this time, a demoralized, humiliated 12-year-old. I’d let the team, the school, the whole district, down. As I dragged my 63-year-old body off the court, I snuck a look at Andrew, half expecting a sour face and an exasperated shake of the head. Instead, he just said, “Go get a drink of water, and then we’ll talk about it.”

It was the perfect response. I had a moment to separate myself from my defeat, and when I came back, he sat me down and said, “You know, I didn’t like your body language out there,” but with none of the disgust I’d expected to hear in his voice. “Do you think you’re Michael Jordan? So why did you hang your head every time you missed a shot? And what was the race out there?” He described how, the more I fell behind, the more I increased my pace. In a few moments, I had a full picture of how, body and mind, I’d prepared the way for my own defeat. I got an indelible image of how I’d handled myself, not only on the court, but in plenty of other similar situations in my life.

This issue of the Networker is about what coaches like Andrew, who also figures prominently in Lynn Grodzki’s lead article, can teach psychotherapists, and the role that challenge and incorruptible truth-telling can play in the change process. A good coach is someone who, however hard he may push you, above all, respects your ability to push yourself to the next level, to become stronger, smarter, braver, and more capable than you think you are.

A couple of weeks ago, I played a rematch with the same young guy who’d trounced me so badly not so long before. This time, I won, and as I lay exhausted on the gym floor catching my breath, he surprised me by coming over to talk—something we rarely do after one of our battles. “I’ve never seen you shoot like that before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody shoot like that,” he said, graciously extending his hand to congratulate the basketball player I’d become.

I was euphoric—at least until our game the next week, when that damn inner 12-year-old took over my brain again. Pushing myself too hard, I pulled a hamstring, and was—once again—cast down, but, maybe, just maybe, not as far as I’d been several months ago. As Andrew has helped teach me, there’ll be other victories, other defeats. Such is life.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.