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June 30, 2010 by David Gillaspie

I participated in my children’s’ sports and didn’t go crazy.  After one season watching kindergarten rec league soccer from the sidelines, I made a pledge.

The front end of my pledge: as long as my boys wanted to play sports, I’d make more than enough time to coach them right.  The other end of my pledge was they wouldn’t always play quarterback, point guard, or pitcher.

Each year I had two kids in sports and I coached two teams.  Soccer practice lasted two hours with each of their teams getting an hour.  Same with basketball; the younger boy got to play with the older kids and fit right in.  Indoor soccer, the bane of peewee baseball, also went two hours.

Maybe it says something about me, or maybe it’s the effect of pure sport, but coaching youth sports teams was the best time of my life.  I saw kids playing harder than they’ve ever played.  I saw parents counting the hours until their kid qualified for the classic league and real coaches.  Most of all I saw a strain of yearning, of trying to be better.

It’s the sort of thing that’s brought tears to more than a few tough eyes.

Year after year, team after team, I had parents calling to make sure their kids got on my teams.

It was a validation of sport, and doing it right.

Then it was over.

High school coaches don’t need rec-league dads hanging around.  Not the soccer coach, the football coach, the wrestling coach, the track coach, or the basketball coach.  They all needed college level players as coaches.  With that committment to excellence you’d expect great results, but it didn’t work out that way.

Sometimes an athletic department gets everything right except the heart of sports.

My coaching took a sharp turn with my son’s in high school.  I didn’t coach teams anymore, I was coached a disease.  I became…

Parkinson’s Coach.

My father in law came down with Parkinson’s and took more than a few turns for the worse.  In his late seventies, and out of real options, he lay in a hospital bed with pressure pumps on his legs, oxygen tubes in his nose, and a monitor on his finger to go along with the hoses coming out from under the sheets.

He looked gone.  My mother in law looked like she might follow him.  Since we lived together, I asked if my father in law could come home for his last days.

Then I coached him up.

I searched for something that mattered to him, then asked him to use it against Parkinson’s.  What mattered to him was the Marine Corps.  He’d been part of the greatest fighting team in American history, and in his fading days, he was every bit the Marine he’d ever been.

He was a Marine against Parkinson’s and I was his coach.  I made a pledge similar to the pledge I made to sports, that as long as my father in law had Parkinson’s, we’d attack it together.  The back-end of the pledge was he didn’t get to be a sick guy.  Instead, he was in training to fight an undefeated opponent.

It took some acting on my part to convince him he had a chance, and I made myself believe he did.  Why else did he get out of his death-bed?  Why else did he walk the extra laps around the house?  Climb the stairs?  He was in training.  He did the road work every day.  If he could have, he would have chopped wood like Muhammad Ali in training camp.

The doctor called it a miracle; we called it just another day.  Parkinson’s wants plenty of attention, and most people give the attention it deserves, but not the Parkinson’s Coach.

The Parkinson’s Coach reaches the person, not the disease.  The Parkinson’s Coach hits all the meds on time with meals on a regular schedule.  Parkinson Coach knows the best time to train is an hour after meds when they are their peak.  It’s hard to coach a guy an hour before his meds; it’s not the same guy as an hour after, but that’s Parkinson’s.

If you know someone with Parkinson’s, ask yourself if they have a Parkinson’s Coach, or a Parkinson’s caregiver.  The ideal is having both in one person, but if they have a caregiver, they could use a coach.

Here’s what a coach does: find the source of their inner strength and bring it out in the open.  Talk about it, whether it’s sports, or art, or music.  Find what matters to someone and amplify the power.

If it’s sports, use competition to push your Parkinson’s friend/loved one.  Put them in the fight; do the play by play for a game.  Show them how to win.

If it’s music that matters most, find the right songs.  Find related songs.  Create a song list that explains the history of music without saying a word.  Save those for later.

If it’s art, then get visual.  Break out the Janson’s and find the right era.  Pin up some posters of favorite work.  Trace it back to the initial influences.  Notice which colors and shapes bring out the best responses and find related work.

In the official world of Parkinson’s research these activities are called physical therapy, music therapy, and art therapy.  You will have appointments with all the therapists from occupational to speech to recreational.

If you are a Parkinson’s Coach, you and your charge do it all and call it training.  After a good training session remind yourself of the good you’re getting from art, music, and physical education, and be glad the heart of the curriculum wasn’t cut while you were in school.

Most of all, be glad you know the heart of a Parkinson’s Coach.


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