I Can’t …. The Importance of Good Coaches

By: Heather O’Neill

A lifetime ago I was a dance teacher. I would teach dance 5 to 6 days a week. I was around young people all the time. 

As a hip hop instructor, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, making movement fit the music, and dancers would make it happen. There were times where I may have gotten a little carried away, making them move up and down and all around in a matter of 2 1/2 counts….those of you that have ever been in a dance class may know what I’m talking about…..and dancers would complain, shake their heads, stare in disbelief and sometimes utter I can’t. 

It would frustrate me to no end when I would hear a young person say I can’t—  especially in a dance class. These were young people, moving their bodies to music, not trying to decipher Newton’s Second Law of Motion. 

I started having my students do push-ups every time they said the phrase I can’t. It became a thing.

My regular students knew the drill. If they said the now forbidden phrase, it would be 10 push-ups, not just for them but for the whole class. They started to become attuned to when someone would say I can’t; and if I didn’t hear it, you bet they did. They would stop and stare at the person who just uttered the phrase. Sometimes they would just drop and do the push-ups. Sometimes they would try and pretend it didn’t happen; but by the change of their demeanor, I knew. I’d give them a look, and they dropped. 

Now, I wasn’t heartless. I would always give them a pass for the first time (sometimes second or third), but was sure to let them know that if they said it again, we were doing push ups. I wanted them to be aware of their words—which would dictate their actions and mindset. 

When we went over this rule at the beginning of class, I would give alternatives to the phrase. Dancers could say:

  • “I need help” 
  • “I’m not getting this part” 
  • “Can you go over it again?”   

Without realizing it, I was giving them self-advocacy terminology that I hoped would take them through the rest of their lives.

Honestly, as time has moved on, I had forgotten about this past practice. Then I saw this on social media from a former dancer that was teaching her own classes:


It brought me right back. 

As a mom watching my boys engage in activities that they love—music lessons, dance classes, tae kwon do, and youth sports (football, basketball, and baseball)—I want them to be surrounded by people who will hold them accountable for their words and actions, model for them positive sportsmanship, and teach them skills that will not only work on the field, court, studio but also that they will carry with them through life. 

As I sit on the sidelines or in the waiting rooms, I realize that I am judging these coaches pretty harshly. I have put this level of expectation on them—whether they ask for it or not. For some, I believe, are extraordinary in their actions and words. And others, I realize, may not be coaching for the right reasons. They’re not instructing their players in skills and actions that will take them further in life, but simply making moves to win a game. 

Who remembers who won the 2013 town league championship? No one, unless you were on that winning team. Who remembers how the coach spoke to you, or what they did to ensure that you were accountable for your actions? My guess is most players. 

Like all parents, I want the best for my kids. I want their coaches to be the people that removing the phrase I can’t for them. 

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