ORLANDO – When word spread on Monday that Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue was temporarily stepping away from the profession because of health concerns – the second NBA coach to do so this season – it particularly resonated with Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel.
Vogel, 44, knows full well that he could have been the one suffering from the crippling effects of the all-consuming nature of coaching in the NBA had he not worked to make some changes earlier in his career.
``I remember Brian Shaw sitting me down when I was in Indiana and telling me and basically warning me that I was going to burn myself out,’’ said Vogel, recalling a conversation he had with his former assistant coach from the 2011-12 season. ``That was one of the things that (former NBA coach) Phil (Jackson) was always cognizant of (while working with Shaw) – the work/life balance and all of the Zen stuff added to it. The message still applies and it’s something I definitely focus on. It’s not always easy because there’s so much at stake and you invest so much of your time that this job consumes you. So, you have to be intentional about putting that type of stuff out of your mind.’’
Lue, who played for the Magic over two different stints prior to going into coaching, took a leave of absence from the Cavaliers on Monday after admitting to having chest pains, losing sleep and ``other troubling symptoms.’’ Lue has had to leave three games this season, including Cleveland’s 116-98 loss in Orlando on Feb. 6, because of stress-related symptoms.
Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford took a similar leave of absence from Dec. 6 to Jan. 17 after suffering from chronic and debilitating headaches caused by exhaustion and a lack of sleep. Clifford, an assistant coach in Orlando from 2007-2012, since adjusted his lifestyle, work and sleep habits in an effort to improve his health.
``It’s impacted me a great deal and I told the doctors, `I know I have to do my job differently’ and the neurologist’s line was, `No, you have to live differently,’’’ Clifford said when in Orlando back in February. ``As you get older your body can’t function without necessary sleep. I sleep now … and what I’m trying to train my body to do is to sleep more. … The one thing I would say is that as you get older, you have to listen to your body and you have to use the doctors. Modern medicine is a great thing if you use it. That’s what I’ve learned.’’
Vogel called the Clifford and Lue health scares and departures from coaching ``eye-opening,’’ but understandable because ``this is a very stressful profession.’’ Vogel has had plenty to be stressful about this season as his Magic have limped to a disappointing 21-49 record prior to taking on the East-leading Toronto Raptors (52-18) on Tuesday at the Amway Center.
Vogel and the Magic got some good news on Monday when standout forward Aaron Gordon completed the NBA’s concussion protocol and was cleared to return to action on Tuesday. Gordon, who has been out since suffering his second concussion of the season on March 7 in a one-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, leads the Magic in scoring at 18.3 points per game.
``I’m really happy. It’s good to be back with the team, back competing,’’ Gordon said following practice on Monday. ``We’ve got a good group of guys here, so it’s good to be out on the court helping them win and, you know, just progressing.’’
Vogel feels that he also is progressing in how he copes with the stresses and strains of being a NBA coach. He knows now that it’s as important for him to focus on his sleep, diet and conditioning as it is the Xs and Os of the Magic. After all, if he isn’t thinking clearly or he’s overly fatigued, he can’t possibly make decisions on the fly as well – something that is essential to a NBA head coach who much constantly adapt and adjust during games.
Vogel got into coaching more than two decades ago by being a video coordinator, a profession that is often synonymous with being a hermit or a shut-in because of all of the hours spent tucked away in a darkened film room cutting up video clips. When he first started in the profession, Vogel admitted there were many instances when he would sleep in the office or nod off during game tapes because of the long hours demanded of the job. He still jokes today that the only reason he was able to meet his wife, Jenn, was because the NBA lockout in 1998 gave him time away from basketball to have a normal life.
Years of experience – not to mention that pointed warning from Shaw back in 2011-12 – have taught Vogel that being a ``grinder’’ is no longer a compliment. Life balance, he stressed, is important in keeping coaches from burning themselves out and causing health problems.
``This is a very stressful profession. Not just coaching, but head coaching at this level with all of the variables that you have on your mind 24/7, it does take a toll on your health and you have to be very cognizant about what’s going on with your body and listen to your body and make sure that you take care of your body,’’ said Vogel, who recently became the 67th coach in NBA history to notch his 300th regular-season victory. ``Sleep, eating, diet and balance are some of the biggest things. Being able to step away from your work is big. Not even the actual work of sitting down and looking at game tape, but actually putting your job aside and focusing on other things. That’s a big part of being successful in this league.’’
Golden State’s Steve Kerr, another coach who had to miss time a year ago following health troubles related to back surgery that went wrong, pointed out on Monday that while the NBA teams pour lots of resources into studying the sleeping habits of players, coaches’ poor sleeping patterns often go overlooked. Even though teams often arrive back from road trips at 2 a.m. or later, coaches usually are back at work a few hours later to begin preparations for the next opponent.
Said Kerr to reporters on Monday: ``I think sleep is a big deal. It’s one of the reasons we kind of tailor our schedule when we travel to letting the (players) sleep. Coaches need sleep, too.’’
The Magic’s struggles of the past two seasons have only intensified the stress in Vogel’s life. He admitted that because coaching is so all-consuming that there are times when he has trouble stopping himself from thinking about ways to fix what ails a Magic team that has been beset by injuries all season. Then, as Vogel also pointed out, it’s also quite difficult to take the emotion out of difficult losses.
Vogel said one of the things that helps him is that he greatly enjoys his work – even when things aren’t going so well for the Magic. His biggest mentor in coaching, Jim O’Brien, once taught him that there’s an art in watching game film, picking apart a foes’ weaknesses and devising a game plan that can be successful. Vogel enjoys that work – that is, until it becomes counterproductive.
``Like most coaches I’m probably a little stubborn from the standpoint of saying, `I can handle it,’’’ he said with a half-hearted laugh.
``But, honestly, I don’t view it as work,’’ Vogel continued. ``I come in and turn the video machine on or the computer on and I’m having fun. I thoroughly enjoy this profession and everything that goes into it – from improving your own guys and also the game-planning and studying the opponents. I enjoy that, I really do.
``When we lose, watching a game tape is therapeutic for me because it brings clarity to what happened,’’ he added. ``And when we win it’s fun and rewarding to see our guys do what we ask them to do. So, if you don’t look at it as work, you can probably talk yourself into working too much.’’
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