Why Mentorship Matters

 I was recently thinking about how lucky I am to have so many friends and role models. I arrived at this thought while practicing giving gratitude while trying to work myself out of some bad head-space on a day where the whole universe seemed determined to test me. I ended up thinking about less fortunate individuals and in particular how many people struggle in life because they don’t have good role models, people who offer security, affection, leadership, guidance, expertise, or live as a good example of how one ought to be. Mentors come in the form of many different forms from parents to teachers plain old good friends. A mentor is often but not always older, someone who has achieved success in some fashion or other, whether it be in business, work, art, sport, or leadership; someone who instills in us good values and someone whom we want to emulate. I am fortunate enough to have many including my mother and father. I have written about what my mother means to me in my recent Mother’s Day post and intend to do the same for my father when we celebrate Father’s Day in a few weeks. This post is going to focus on a number of mentors I have had besides my parents. One of the best parts about having a mentor that isn’t a parent is it allows a completely different type of relationship to form. Particularly for me, in my never-ending quest to please my parents, it was important to have someone to instruct me in the ways of life with whom I could have a different type of relationship, without simply behaving in order to make that person happy. 

The first mentor that I want to speak about is named Dencho Vassilev. I met Dencho when he became the coach of my youth soccer team at roughly the age of 10. Dencho was brought on to coach the Raptors because the coaches, my father and another teammate’s father, recognized that for us to continue to grow as players, we needed someone with greater expertise. This is a perfect example of good mentorship on my father’s part in recognizing his own limitations and having the humility to hand over responsibility of that arena to another man. Dencho had immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria, shortly after the fall of communism. He had been a professional soccer player in Europe and played for a very minor league team in Savannah Georgia while working in a factory trying to provide for his family. Dencho was tough. This was not a man who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth like most of the team and I had, and he did not tolerate excuses. He instilled in us the importance of respect: if we talked when he was talking, refused to respond yes sir or no sir, refused to greet him upon his arrival at practice, showed up late, or refused to demonstrate sportsmanship to our teammates and opponents, then we would run laps. Lots of them.  And when I say we, I mean all of us. If one player acted out of line, we all ran. At first this seemed draconian but before long we realized his intent was not to be an ass, though when running our fourth mile of the day, it often felt that way, but because he wanted us to understand the importance of teamwork. We win as a team, we lose as a team, and maybe you don’t care about acting out yourself, but you damn sure better care about your actions when your teammates pay the consequences and you damn sure better show up for those who depend on you.


Even years after he stopped coaching us, Dencho (Jeans and seater) still showed
up to watch his former players. I am immediately on his left (photo right)

He taught us to work hard and always give 100%. We weren’t perfect. We won many games and we lost many games, but Dencho’s post game speeches were always meaningful. He never cared whether we won or lost. He cared how hard we played and whether we showed sportsmanship. We could win handily and be scolded mightily for it if we had failed to play our best or if we had failed to show respect to the other team. Of course we lost many games as well and sometimes we lost by a wide margin, but would be praised if coach had believed we gave it our best effort and showed sportsmanship, and he was always correct when assessing our effort. Dencho inherited us as a ragtag mob of little boys with no discipline and little skill and turned us into respectful, hard-working, selfless men, who had been able to realize a considerable amount of success through discipline and hard work. I am forever grateful to him for that. 

Just as Dencho’s role as an active mentor in my life was coming to a close, I met Ousmane. Ousmane Diarha was the fastest 100m runner in all of Africa at one point, a 3-time Olympian, and when I met him as a 15 year old was working as a personal trainer and coach at a gym in Savannah where he had settled after having decided to emigrate from his home country of Mali. Ousmane came into my time at a critical point in my life. I had just entered highschool, a time that was very rough for me because I struggled mightily with self-esteem. My self-esteem was so bad that I would avoid trying my best at anything because I was scared of the vulnerability I would have to display in trying my best and was terrified of being seen and risking failing in the process, believing this would crush me. I had quit soccer, Dencho having recently retired from coaching to focus on his children and me not getting along with our next coach. I had been cut from the school teams or simply given up and was generally apathetic about everything. I hated the person I saw in the mirror and truth be told, I hated myself at this point. Ousmane changed all of that for me. 

Again, my parents came to my rescue, refusing to let me be a bum and do nothing but play video games and waste my life away. They decided to introduce me to their trainer, Ousmane, hoping that he could get me into better physical shape. He did far more than that. I was, I think, receptive to the idea of working with a trainer, having always admired the physiques of professional wrestlers or the athletic prowess of my favorite football players. Though intrigued, I was probably scared at the prospect, as my lack of athletic talent would be on full display for this man and the entire gym to see. Whatever fear I had upon entering quickly vanished as I was met with a huge smile and a loud greeting from Ousmane, whom I would learn had a great gift for being genuine, friendly, and making everyone feel like they mattered. He was also a damn good coach and after a few months I saw results in my athletic performance and in my appearance. For the first time in my life I liked the reflection in the mirror, for the first time since some of my classmates entered puberty while I lagged behind in childhood, I felt like I was possessed of athletic talent, and for the first time in my life I was working hard and dedicating myself towards something and seeing results. I would go on to run on the cross-country team and become a starter at defense for the soccer team. I had the confidence to stand up for myself when being picked on and the confidence to actually initiate conversation with girls (gasp). I loved working with Ousmane so much that when I got my driver’s license, the first place I drove myself was to the gym just to tell him, and I would visit the weight-room 5 or 6 times a week I was so in love with the challenge. I even had my first true career in personal training not just because I loved the work, but because I wanted to be for others what Ousmane had been for me. His work ethic was beyond impressive and every morning when my alarm would go off before 5am, I would think: what would Ousmane do, and I would get my ass out of bed, greet everyone with a smile, and love what I was doing. 

I could probably mention more mentors as I have been lucky but these are the two that meant the most to me. A number of wonderful teachers that I had such as Ken Hincker, Cecil Hickam, Kevin Gavin, Ron Onorato, Cheryl Calahan, and Brian Riemann are equally deserving of mention as they helped me to work hard in the classroom and taught me not what to think, but how to think for myself, one of the greatest gifts of all. I have every intention of honoring them with a teacher appreciation post at another time. 

My father, Ousmane, and myself

In writing this post I am reminded how great I am to have had these two men as mentors. I am increasingly grateful as I recognize that both of these men were brought into my life by my parents, recognizing that though they are both wonderful and talented people, that they could only help me so much. I am blessed beyond doubt to have such mentors and I hope that after reading this post, that you will stop and think about the mentors of your life. Who do you know, or who did you know who helped make you the person you are today? Who taught you how to be yourself? Who had your back when no one else did and always wanted the best for you? Who pushed you to dare greatly? Think about those people and be happy. Not everyone has such role models. If I would wish for one thing in my life it is that I could mean as much to anybody as Ousmane and Dencho meant to me. 

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