3 Life Lessons I Learned From High School Gym Coaches

I learned more than just how to play badminton, basketball, and volleyball

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

I’d be willing to bet that many of you reading this were “the gifted kids” in school. You may have learned to read at an early age. Perhaps you were among the first to write complete sentences and later paragraphs.

When you got to high school, you probably loved the variety of classes you got to take. I took classes like shop (Industrial Arts, we called it), Global Studies, Spanish, and Creative Writing.

There was one class I dreaded, though: gym, or as it’s often called here in the U.S., Physical Education or P.E.

P.E. was the one class where I was at a disadvantage. At only a couple of inches over 5 feet and 110 pounds going into high school, I was never going to be the star of the class. I didn’t understand why I had to take P.E. at all. I was clearly heading to college and would use my brain, not my body, to carve out a career. What’s the point of being in a gym with a bunch of jocks, I thought?

Looking back, though, my P.E. coaches taught me quite a bit more than how to play sports badly. Here are three important life lessons I learned from them.

The soft touch

Our first class module of the fall semester was badminton. Coach Clayborn explained to us how to handle the racquet, how to hit the birdie (or shuttlecock as it was sometimes called), and showed us what parts of the court were inbounds and out-of-bounds.

After that Coach created a schedule for round-robin singles play. Eventually, we’d move on to doubles, but he wanted to assess our abilities individually at first.

After my first 4 matches, I had a perfect record — that is to say, a perfect 0 wins, 4 losses. I knew I wasn’t destined to be class champion, but I’d hoped I’d beat one of the other equally uncoordinated kids once in a while.

A few points into my 5th match, Coach Clayborn blew his whistle and ordered my opponent off the court. “Paul, I want to play a couple of points with you,” he told me.

Two shuttlecocks on a badminton racquet
Two shuttlecocks on a badminton racquet
Pixy — CC0 Public Domain License

Coach started off serving. He served the birdie right to me, and I whacked it as hard as I could back. However, I didn’t get enough velocity on it, and it didn’t clear the net.

“Let’s try that one more time,” Coach said, serving me another one. Again, I whacked the daylights out of the birdie, and this time it cleared the net. Coach didn’t hit it back. Rather, he just stood and watched my return whiz well past the backcourt out-of-bounds line.

“Okay, now you serve me one,” Coach Clayborn requested. “Try to give it to me right in the middle of my side of the court. I’ll return the serve, then you hit it back to me and try to win the point.”

I served it right in the middle as Coach requested. Coach gave the birdie the tiniest of taps with his racquet. It just barely made it over the net, then dropped like a rock on my side. I was way out of position, and I dove forward. Too late — the birdie hit the floor before I got there. Point for Coach!

And, Coach had a point. “I understand what you’re doing, Paul. You’re trying to slam it home every time. And sometimes that’ll work, and if badminton were a sport on TV you’d make the highlight reel. But that won’t win you matches. Sometimes giving it a soft touch is all you need.”

How you can use this

It’s important to use the right amount of force for the situation at hand.

In the late 1980s when I was a teenager, there were few places more intimidating than a car sales lot. Salespeople of the day were constantly in your face, not giving you a moment to think, following two steps behind you around every inch of the lot. Their personality was the equivalent of whacking the badminton birdie with all your might, every time.

As an introvert myself, I learned to deal with people with a softer touch. I discovered that I didn’t have to be loud. Nor did I have to constantly talk. With a few well-placed words, I found I could get people to come to me. I could still get the information I needed with one-tenth of the effort, just as Coach Clayborn could score points with one-tenth of the effort I was expending.

Another advantage of approaching life with a soft touch is that when you occasionally do go all-out, hard-core with your words and actions, people will respect it more.

Years ago, I was in a Texas Hold’em poker tournament where the prize was an iPad. I’d bought my mom one the Christmas before, and now I wanted one for myself. Midway through the tournament, I realized I needed to accumulate chips quickly to make it to the final showdown. I’d played with a slow touch, making small, inquisitive bets here and there, folding if I looked beat.

Twice in two hands, I had an opponent make a huge bet, and I said, “All in!” right behind them. They were not accustomed to such behavior from me, and assumed I had an extraordinarily strong hand. In both cases they folded, and I got their chips. A couple of hours later, I had a new iPad to carry home.

Can you think of an area of your life where it would help to apply a soft touch? Where you could accomplish more with far less effort, and in which the few times you apply full pressure, your effort would be perceived with the utmost respect?

The assist

The following year, the winter module of our P.E. class was basketball. With 30 kids in the class, we were divided into six teams of five. We played 2-five minute halves.

Holy cow, were we all terrible. A final score of, say, 11 to 9 indicated an extremely high-scoring game. Plus, the 20 kids who weren’t on the court were watching us. Mrs. Rodgers, the coach that year, told the kids in the stands to cheer for us. They must have misheard “cheer” as “laugh,” because mostly that’s what they did.

So, one day, my team the Bush Hogs were on the floor, playing the Tweety Birds. I ran around the court, almost no idea whatsoever what I was doing. As I stood just to the left of the free-throw line, the unthinkable happened.

One of my teammates passed me the ball!

What do I do what do I do what do I do? I didn’t want to risk chucking up an airball and becoming the laughingstock of my classmates. I had to get rid of the ball right that minute, like, immediately, if not sooner!

I saw a yellow jersey and realized it was my teammate Bernard. I threw it in his general direction. He caught it, turned, banked it off the backboard, and it sailed through the net. Score!

kids playing basketball
kids playing basketball
Photo credit: dtcreations on Morguefile

Mrs. Rodgers blew her whistle to temporarily stop the game. “Bernard, that was a very nice shot,” she said.

“But the reason you got such a nice look at the basket is that Paul set you up with that pass. Don’t you think you should walk over and give Paul a high-five?”

Wait, what??? I did something right? In P.E. class?

Bernard walked over and we slapped hands. Mrs. Rodgers explained to the class that what I had done was an “assist.” Players who produce those, she said, were as valuable to the team as players who produce baskets.

How you can use this

Anytime you find yourself basking in the spotlight of accomplishment, take a moment to think to yourself, “Who helped me? Would it have been possible for me to get this done without the assistance of others?”

Then make sure those others get proper recognition for their share in getting the job done.

Several years ago when I was still a web developer, we had a team meeting. The chief information officer gave a progress update, and noted that I had deployed an important project the company was waiting on. “The executive suite sends its thanks to you, Paul,” he said in front of the other developers.

“Well, thank you,” I replied. “But I want to point out that my project would not have been deployed this week had Matthew not shown me a few things. He knew of a library that could add, subtract, and compare dates. Using that library kept me from reinventing the wheel. It knocked several days off my development time.”

“Then thank you, too, Matthew,” the CIO beamed.

Giving credit for assists, whether it’s at work or in a social group, buys you a great reputation. It makes people want to work with you. They know that when the spotlight falls on you for the work you did, you will make sure it shines on them as well.

You may also find that giving credit for assists opens your way to leadership or management positions. True leaders aren’t territorial about their achievements. They understand that when they give due credit to others, it doesn’t dim their own light — in fact, it brightens it.


When we learned to play volleyball, our P.E. coach Mr. Lovelace informed us that it would be several weeks before we would see competitive action.

“I realize the Summer Olympics were on right before the school year started,” Mr. Lovelace told the class. “Many of you watched the volleyball tournament and saw those athletes hot-dogging it, doing all kinds of crazy moves. If you’re the best in the world, you can do that. You’re not the best in the world. You’re beginners.”

We spent weeks doing drills, passing the ball to one other. We’d do one-on-one drills hitting back and forth over the net. We’d do two-person drills where one person would set the other up — but the teammate was only permitted to jump and meet the ball. No slamming it home. No showing off.

volleyball players at the net
volleyball players at the net
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

We all had to pass a test on how to serve to the proper area of the court. We also had an exercise where Mr. Lovelace would hit balls to us. Based on whether or not we thought the ball would land out of bounds, we would either return it or let it land.

Finally, Mr. Lovelace broke us into teams and let us play. “I realize you all wanted to play sooner,” he explained. “But trust me, if I were to bring in a beginner team who’d just started playing without mastering key skills, any six of you would beat the pants off the six of them.”

How you can use this

We never stop being beginners. That’s the beauty of life — there’s always something new to learn and experience.

Whenever you undertake something new, whether it’s for work or for personal pleasure, don’t spend too much time watching the highlights of the top people in the field. You won’t be able to do what they do for years. Instead, sit down and figure out, “what are the key skills I need to master to get good at this?”

Most of my life, I worked in IT departments. One job, however, was a webmaster position I took within a marketing department. Therefore, I spent some time thinking, “what are the core skills every marketer should know?” I observed each member of my team and learned commonalities. I didn’t hesitate to ask questions.

What I did not try to do in my first 6 months was show up with big ideas. I recognized that I needed to have an understanding of marketing fundamentals before I could explain how my ideas fit within the framework of a marketing department.

Since many of you write on this platform as well as read, let’s take a moment to consider — what would be the fundamentals of publishing here?

  • Choosing topics that members of this platform would want to read about
  • Writing headlines
  • Choosing featured images that reinforce the topic
  • Writing introductions
  • Formatting
  • Editing
  • Choosing publications that are a good fit for what you write

If you focus on these fundamentals as a beginner, I can’t promise you’ll write a viral article in your first month. However, if you keep at it, you’re quite likely to enjoy success in whatever terms you define it — revenue, views, or helping people.


I feel like I owe my coaches an apology for all the times I thought I didn’t learn much from them. In actuality:

  • Badminton taught me the value of approaching life with a soft touch
  • Basketball taught me the importance of crediting others who aided in my success
  • Volleyball taught me the importance of mastering the fundamentals of any activity at which I’m a beginner

More importantly, though, I hope you will take a moment to think back to the coaches you had when you were in school. Ask yourself, what lessons did they teach you without your even realizing it?

Feel free to share your lessons learned in the comments. Special thanks to Coach Clayborn, Mrs. Rodgers, and Mr. Lovelace.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s another life lesson I learned from an unexpected source:

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher https://www.buymeacoffee.com/paulryburn Twitter: @paulryburn

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