Coaching Advice from Jovan Haye -- Former NFL Lineman, Collegiate Coach, Dyslexic

I recently spoke with former NFL defensive lineman Jovan Haye about his experiences as a dyslexic student and collegiate and professional athlete. You can read his full story in his book, Bigger Than Me.

Jovan Haye made it all the way to the top — to the NFL. The dream come true.

But Jovan had a secret. He was dyslexic. In the cutthroat world of professional football, he was terrified that his coaches would see his learning difference as a weakness.

Now he’s a coach at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, and he wants other coaches to know the truth about learning differences and how to bring out the best in athletes who have them.

Jovan was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school, but not until after he’d spent his young life feeling like a failure, wondering why school was so hard, why he could never measure up, no matter how hard he tried.  This had a lasting impact.  And it wasn’t something he wanted to share.

It wasn’t until high school – when a kind and engaged teacher, Ms. Patton, helped him to see that he wasn’t slow or uneducable or lazy – that Jovan began to believe that he had reason to try.  That he might succeed despite his dyslexia. 

Encouraged by Ms. Patton and another teacher, Ms. Knight, Jovan did begin to try.  And he began to succeed. 

He learned how to study and went from the brink of academic ineligibility to the honor roll.  He didn’t play his first football down until he was a junior in high school but worked his way to a seven-year NFL career. 

Armed with a new self-awareness, and the confidence instilled by teachers who believed in him, Jovan was determined not to let his dyslexia (and what he describes in his book as a clear case of ADHD) hold him back any longer. 

Today, he’s also determined to help other kids like him.  Kids who struggle to understand why things that come easily to their peers are so darn hard for them.  Kids who are every minute anxious about what they might be asked to do, to read, to write — whether they’ll be found out or told that they’ve messed up.  Again.

And for young athletes, Jovan believes that informed and supportive coaches are key.

He believes that athletes should not have to hide their learning differences for fear of being discounted, or worse yet cut, by coaches who view differences as potential liabilities. 

Afraid to share his secret, Jovan learned to compensate.  For example, he knew he couldn’t remember 80 different plays, so he grouped them into categories – on every play that’s named with a bird, I do this; on every play that’s named with a color, I do this.  That helped him dramatically streamline the volume of information he had to retain.  Putting an image to a direction helped too – like being told to run from New York to Los Angeles.  He could picture that on the field.  The dyslexic brain thrives on visuals. 

Jovan made it work on his own, but he doesn’t think kids should have to struggle through that.

He believes instead that coaches are responsible for learning to bring out the best in all of their athletes – the differently wired included.  That might mean putting in extra time with a dyslexic athlete on strategies to remember the playbook.  It might mean drawing up handouts to help athletes who struggle with the dynamics of a complicated play.  Or maybe finding patience for an athlete with ADHD who needs a different approach. 

He also knows that coaches are uniquely positioned to make a difference in athletes’ lives. They’re the mentors who can positively influence tweens and teens when their parents fall out of favor.  They’re the teachers who can help kids embrace their dyslexia or their ADHD or their anxiety, compensate for their weaknesses and turn their differences into superpowers.

But this is often easier said than done.  These kids can be tough to understand and tough to manage. The differences are invisible.  And like Jovan, fearful kids will go to great lengths to hide them.

So what’s Jovan’s advice to coaches? 

He says it’s all about relationships. 

Get to know your athletes.  On and off the field.  Really well.  What’s their family history?  What are their grades like?  What excites them? Have they been diagnosed with a learning difference or with ADHD?  Are they struggling with mental health? 

You’ll learn what’s behind the behaviors, fears, challenges, dreams.  You’ll learn how to motivate and how to support.  You’ll learn to read body language and facial expressions to know when to push hard and when to back off.  This looks different for every kid.   

Jovan, despite having spent hours and hours mastering NFL playbooks, will tell you that relationships are so much more powerful than Xs and Os.  So much more important than wins and losses. 

For differently wired kids in particular, he knows firsthand that coaches need to reject stereotypes and look beyond the label. 

Dyslexia, for example, presents differently in every athlete.  Yes, it makes reading hard, but there’s so much more.  Jovan was affected by dyslexia-related visual perception issues that made him a terrible basketball shooter (but he was a great defender).  He struggled with motion-related fears, also related to dyslexia, that made flying extremely stressful.  Other dyslexic athletes will have different symptoms, different challenges and different superpowers.

The great coaches are those who take the time to understand, who help mitigate every athlete’s weaknesses and build on every athlete’s strengths.

It’s about leadership.  Being that kid’s Ms. Patton or Ms. Knight.  Leading athletes from where they are to where they want to be, on and off the field.  Most kids won’t make the NFL. Some might not ever win a game or a race. 

But as Jovan says, coaching isn’t all about ball.

(Photo provided courtesy of Jovan Haye.)