In a New York Minute

debaseinstallCoaching With Intent, Safety and Risk Management

In a New York minute
Everything can changeIn a New York minuteThings can get pretty strangeIn a New York minuteEverything can changeIn a New York minute

Bothsidesnow.jpg (608×601)Throughout my life in the winter guard activity, I have always wanted to design a show around the Don Henley song, “New York Minute.” I’ve proposed it to just about every designer I’ve ever worked with and none of them will bite. They just look at me like I’m high or something and give me reason like tempo this or rhythm that. They humor me and say, “Well I’ll think about it.” Yeah…ok…whatever. In my mind, the show looks at the turning of life on a dime. When I hear the song I see the image of a woman hunched over a glass of bourbon in a dingy bar covered in thick smoke from a lit cigarette, and with bags under her eyes; similar to the infamous Joni Mitchell album cover. How do you capture that concept of on a gym floor and in five minutes? How do you convey that feeling of complete shock and the disabling of time that occurs in the instant that fate takes a hand, placing you on a path never considered or thought of? Maybe the no’s have less to do with tempo and meter and more to do with the challenges of my questions. 


This past weekend, the USF Winter Guard was involved in an incident resulting in a bus fire, while participating in the WGI Atlanta Regional. I am not involved with this program, nor do I know the details, but whenever I hear about an event that involves a pageantry unit while travelling, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and a knot the size of a grapefruit forms in the pit of my stomach. On the outside and from what we were told, everyone managed to escape unharmed, barring the exception of the loss of property. I was judging in Orlando on Saturday when announcement after announcement was made describing the incident and asking for financial support from the audience. It’s interesting, because I’ve heard that announcement before. In fact, I’ve heard it more than once and could almost recite it by myself and without thought. If you follow this blog you know that every so often the incident of McGavock High School, enters into my thoughts. I’ve written about it multiple times and the article I wrote  two years ago on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, received over 10,000 hits. On a cold Sunday afternoon after a WGI regional, fate changed the lives of kids, instructors, parents, a school, and a community forever. In a New York minute everything had changed. Everything! 

If you stay in the activity long enough, it’s inevitable that one day you will be trolling social media when you read the announcement. “Guard involved in accident.” It also could be a band or a drum corps. Sometimes it’s a dance team or baseball team. Regardless of the activity, the end result puts it all in perspective and that perspective allows us to see that the activity comes second to the lives in our charge. It’s coming up on March 13th and it doesn’t matter how much time has passed. I am forever tethered to that date, like an astronaut tied to the shuttle while floating in space waiting to be pulled back in. Unfortunately, our story isn’t unique. When youth teams travel, the ultimate result is that the odds are not always in their favor. Marching bands coming home from a late night contest. Drum Corps travelling thousands of miles in one summer. Winter guards taking vans to the local show just an hour away. Judges who work all day, drive home with tired eyes and mental exhaustion. There are times when we have released kids to go home after a long rehearsal day or show and they don’t make it there. Many years ago, a local band lost several of its members when a carload of kids left a football game and as many kids do, didn’t go directly home and some in that car never saw home again. 

Too many times we drive when tired under the mission of “we have to get there by noon.” If there was a medal for the most stupid guard person in the activity for driving when tired, I rank somewhere in a finalist position. Mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion, stress, alcohol, and anxiety all play a factor in our weekends and that combination can be deadly. Just two weeks ago I judged a fairly lengthy show and was offered a hotel room by the circuit, but really just wanted to get home. It was only 2 hours away. The show ends at 10. Piece of cake. Ummmm….Yeah no. Somewhere about an hour into the drive, my car drifted into the medium and with absolute brilliance I did what most of us do. I kept driving. 

The reality is that many, if not most tragedies can’t be helped. Shit happens. We exist in an activity where travel is inevitable and necessary. The programs are underfunded forcing them to cut corners where they can. They hire not so reputable bus companies, if they hire one at all. Some rent vans and have volunteers drive. Sometimes the kids drive themselves to the show. It’s reality. 

I get highly frustrated with the pageantry arts and can’t for the life of me understand why we as an activity don’t discuss safety nearly as much as we discuss the in’s and out’s of designing a good show. In most sports, coaches and volunteers must take a minimum amount of hours on the topic of risk. These topics range anywhere from how to maintain good boundaries with minors, to the protection against concussions, and how to maintain a safe environment while travelling. If we do this, will it change our behaviors? Will it help the fact that we still don’t have enough money to hire a reputable bus company? What about our stupidity of travel while exhausted? Will it save the life of the kids who get into a car after practice and make stupid choices to text and drive? The answer to that question is easy. We don’t know. We will never know if it helps until we open up the dialog. I work in social services and have my entire life. There isn’t a conversation that is had, that at some point doesn’t flow back to risk. We assess risk at every turn. We learn how to calculate risk to determine if what we are proposing is worth exposing ourselves to the liability. This weekend while judging, I pulled into the show site and there were 6 kids directing traffic into the school, without the presence of an adult. Minor risk? Sure. Chances are no one will get hurt. Smart? I beg to differ. 

It was March 13th and in a New York minute everything changed. Time would teach me that death is relentless and doesn’t care how old you are or how much money you have. It was March 13th that taught me that fate will stop you when it chooses and force you to look at yourself in the mirror and ask why. The song says that the wolf is always at the door, so you better hang on tooth and nail to the people that you love. There has never been a truer statement. There were no more performances. No more rehearsals. Nothing the staff could have done would have changed the events of that day. There is no blame to place and no one to sue. There are lessons, though. Lessons that say all passengers should be in a seat belt. There is the lesson that 15 passenger vans are awkwardly weighted. A band program that lost members of it’s ensemble might tell you that having better communication with parents might save lives. A discussion by the band director that says, “We care about you. Wear your seat belts and don’t text each other,” might just keep the kids alive. If you are a parent, you are trusting  the band staff with not just your children, but your very soul. When it is all said and done, there is nothing that can compare to the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It is incumbent upon us to have these discussions. 

“In these days when darkness falls early and people rush home to the ones they love, you better take a fool’s advice and take care of your own, because one day they’re here; the next day they’re gone.” 

I know some things just can’t be changed, but if we were truly looking out for each other, we would talk more about the lives in our care during these weekends of competition and rehearsal. Before someone gets into a car to drive after a long weekend of teaching and judging, we would ask if they are o.k.to drive. If we lived up to our words when we use the word “family” when describing our guard friends, by working harder to ensure the safety of all was not an afterthought, but the first thought we have when planning a season, weekend, or show. We would have more dialog with young instructors on safety. We would ensure safety is the number one goal, ahead of winning and medals. A good risk manager will tell you that sometimes there is nothing you can do to stop a tragedy, but they will also tell you that leaving risk completely up to fate is simply irresponsible. Enter lawsuits. 

March 13th no longer defines me like it did for so many years. I rarely even think about it anymore. It did change me though, as does every event in life that stops you on a dime. My hope is that we learn from each other and don’t fear the conversations, as we have so many times in the past and more than anything, I hope we never hear about performers caught in the throws of fate.