The Player Driven Culture System Case 4: Emotional Awareness

Jan 5, 2021 | Program Development

The Pathway: Mindfulness


“We made a conscious decision about getting into our kids’ heads and getting into other aspects besides football. We wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
- Steve Specht, Head Football Coach, St. Xavier High School (OH)


By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar


Mike McElroy didn’t know what to think. The twenty-something defensive coordinator transplant from Minnesota Concordia thought he was interviewing for a coaching position at Bethel University (MN), but the setting resembled more of what one would experience on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. Yet the interviewer was not the former queen of daytime talk, it was a 31-year veteran head coach Steve Johnson. Looking back, Coach McElroy remembers more about the emotional exchange between the two that day than he did about the questions being asked. “He cried in front of me three times talking about the kids in the program and his career path,” said Coach McElroy. “It was in a way that I was taken aback by it.” Coach McElroy was sold immediately; not on Coach Johnson’s football acumen but on how genuine he was. Coach Johnson’s success as a football coach is hard to ignore. Taking over his alma mater at the age of 33, he eclipsed more wins in his third season than the program did the entire decade before. Now, at 64 years of age, his authenticity as a man that has left a lasting impression among the many that he's coached.

A couple of years after being hired, Coach McElroy recounts a Bethel University football Gala with former players and was floored by the lifelong connection Coach Johnson made with them. “One guy that played in the early 90’s stood up and told the story of a recent struggle he encountered and some of the difficult choices he made during that time period. Throughout his talk, he kept reflecting on Coach Johnson's core values of being grateful, tough, and devoted. He used the same language we still use today. I was shocked by the consistency of the language and the message.”

This authenticity isn’t just saved for Coach Johnson’s closest associations. During the recruiting process, he meets with every potential student-athlete that comes into the facility. Not to persuade them to come to the school that has made him what he is today, but to educate each on the process of picking a school that best fits their needs. His purpose is strictly guidance: to make each player know that he cares about them, regardless of their choice. Coach Johnson serves as an invaluable contradiction that separates the conventional association of being “football tough” with the progressive role of being emotionally expressive with no reservations or no pretense. He’s okay with wearing his emotions on his sleeve at all times, and not afraid of complete strangers seeing it. Perhaps, he’s completely gone against the grain of what Coach McElroy and the rest of the staff playfully calls “the Tommy tough nuts,” of the coaching profession, those pumping their chest on their Twitter handles. “It’s weird, it’s different but it’s special,” said Coach McElroy. “That attracts a certain type of person. No fake tough guy stuff. We are going to hit you in the mouth on Saturdays, but we’re trying to be this type of man every day.” Oh, and Coach McElroy makes sure to prime recruits for the piece of advice that he wasn’t prepared for during his first meeting: get ready, he’s going to cry.