In my junior year of high school, I had my first experience with counseling, and it taught me a lesson I will never forget. I was in the middle of a nightmare wrestling season, and it was about to get much worse.
I had started wrestling sophomore year, and after a promising first year, I was slated to wrestle varsity as a junior. I was so excited. Then, just as the season began I got suspended for three days for a drinking incident on a school trip. On top of the three day school suspension, I was banned from competing in sports for four weeks, which was almost half the season. I was crushed.
I served the four week suspension (still practicing, but not competing) and my only hope was that the last half of the season would be my chance to shine. The four weeks ended, and just as I was about to step back on to the mat, I chipped a bone in my right thumb during practice. My hand started to swell up, and I was in a lot of pain.
When I talked to my doctor, he told me I could either put a cast on it now (making it impossible for me to compete), or I could wrestle with the injury and risk reconstructive surgery at the end of the season.
I wanted to compete so badly, but I was torn as to what to do. I saw so many guys sideline themselves due to injury, when I believed they could have toughed it out. I didn’t want to be that guy.
I needed help, so I turned to the manliest guy I knew… John Pirani. Mr. Pirani was the assistant coach of the football team, the head coach of the lacrosse team, and also a counselor at our school. To give you a sense of this man, the running joke in the school was Ditka vs Pirani, who would win? He was like our very own Chuck Norris. He had the body of a grizzly bear, a voice like James Earl Jones and the presence of a fully grown male Gorilla.
I knew if I asked Mr. Pirani what I should do, than whatever he said would be something I could count on. If he told me to get the cast, there would be no shame in doing it. If he said I should tough it out, then that’s exactly what I would do.
I walked into his office and asked “do you have a few minutes to talk”? He invited me to sit down. I told him my story and I asked him what I should do. His response surprised me.
“What do you think you should do?”
What do I think?!? Wait… that’s not what I came here for! I came here for you to tell ME what to do, now you’re asking me?
I was so confused. This counseling business is a bunch of crap, I thought.
I talked more, told him it seemed like the right move to was to put a cast on, since risking major surgery on my hand for half a season of wrestling didn’t seem like a good move, even though I knew it would let the team down.
I waited for a response, and he just stared at me.
He’s staring at me?!? What the hell did I come here for! “But what do YOU think I should do?” Surely he knew what I should do, and if I just got his permission, I could feel good about myself. I kept asking him, but he never gave me an answer, he just asked me more questions. The conversation lasted about 15 minutes, and I left confused and disappointed.
After going home to think about it, I realized I wanted Mr. Pirani to tell me to get a cast, but I was too afraid to make that decision myself, since I didn’t want to seem like a wuss. I went the doctor, got the cast and sat out the rest of the season.
The lesson I got from Mr. Pirani that day extended beyond me listening to my gut, it showed me why that session was exactly what I needed.
He didn’t tell me what to do.
I see this SO often when people go to counselors, therapists, coaches or even trusted friends. People love to tell other people what to do. We ask them “what should I do” and they take the bait. But what if that’s not what people need? What are we really doing when we don’t let people decide for themselves?
As hard as it is (and sometimes I screw it up), I have a steadfast commitment to never tell anyone what to do, no matter how many times they ask me. I am anchored by the belief that I don’t know what is best for other people. My job as a coach or counselor is to coax out their wisdom, and their confidence, not to project my life on to theirs.
It is such a disservice when we tell people how to live their life, and it doesn’t matter if they are our kids, friends, clients or followers. No one knows what’s best for anyone else but themselves, and any time we think we do, we are simply projecting our own desires on to them.
Great therapists, coaches and counselors help us cultivate our ability to listen to our own intuition.