Counseling gives too much control to the client

Editor’s note: This in an update of an article by Mike Tramuta originally published in October of 2018.

In a previous article, I thanked the people that helped me learn the fundamentals of chemical dependency. In this article, “coaching chemical dependency,” I would like to thank the people that taught me the fundamentals of basketball, that led to me becoming a basketball coach for more than 30 years.

First, there was my junior varsity coach at Dunkirk High School, Don Rozumulski, who taught us dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding and defense. Next was my varsity coach Al Stuhlmiller, who taught us the word “desire,” to become the best one can be.

Then at Cardinal Mindszenty High School, Mike Orbanati and Bob Muscato. Coach Orbanati was a disciplinarian that taught me how “to play above my ability.” Coach Muscato was, and still is, the smartest x’s and o’s coach I ever met and who gave the chance to learn from him when he hired me to coach the junior varsity for two years. In college, the four years (1961 to 1965) that I played for Fredonia State, there was Bill Ludwig and Pat Damore, who taught me the motto of the college, namely “Let each become all he or she can be.”

Finally, there was Coach Virgil William Hughes, “Coach,” who taught me the college game on the Division III level. I was fortunate to have a background, because on the Division III level, a coach has to coach and elevate his players to another level. In my opinion, Division III coaches do the best coaching jobs, because they have to.

So you are now going to ask, “What does coaching and playing basketball have to do with chemical dependency counseling?”

In my opinion, everything. In the book I’m writing, “Coaching Chemical Dependency,” I’ll point out the similarities and some differences in working with chemically dependent people and coaching athletes in basketball.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. In basketball we always start and practice conditioning, dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding and then move to team play with individual and team defense, individual and team offense, add situational play, using the clock daily.

In chemical dependency counseling, we start with self-help — at least I do — namely the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) as the basis of the program. Counselors are trained to monitor and prescribe appropriate treatment. Just as a coach does with his or her players. The fundamentals include meetings, the 12 steps, sponsorship, spirituality, and volunteer work.

Just as a basketball coach monitors his players’ behaviors daily, so, too, does a counselor by observing what his or her clients are “doing” and not necessarily what they are “saying.” In my philosophy of coaching/counseling, I always tell them, “anything that is good to do, will be hard to do. If there is no pain, there is seldom gain.” In all the basketball camps I worked, the best kids worked the hardest. Of all the clients I counseled, the best clients worked the hardest, and made a commitment to the recovery process, which in my opinion is a “gift.”

The next step is motivation. I feel that a counselor/coach’s job is to motivate their clients/players to play to the best of their ability. Over the years as a coach/counselor, I learned to “adapt” my offense/defense to the type of talent I was given. In counseling the same ideas apply by assessment history, years in treatment, levels of treatment, and issues “never discussed.” Two motivational stories will explain where it comes from. My first game as a JV coach in 1965 was taking my kids from Gowanda to Jamestown. As a young coach and having mainly a team of eighth-graders and freshmen, we got punished (88-28). Jamestown kids were great; as seniors, they went undefeated and won the section championships. I remember riding the bus home in complete dismay. Coach Howard Hillis, a great mentor, put his arm around me and said, “Welcome to Gowanda. You are now a basketball coach. What are you going to do from this point on?”

I ended up with seven kids on the team who were willing to put themselves on the line every day and work hard to become better and smarter players. That was 53 years ago. Gowanda had never beaten Jamestown, which was a 4A school at the time, in anything. The motivation that this team picked up in two months stunned me later. On paper, they were bigger, stronger, better than us and they knew it. What they forgot about was a player’s heart. To make a long story short, the game went into four overtimes/sudden death due to the varsity game. I remember telling my center, Doug Lay, who was a quick jumper, and played above his ability, “You can get the tip, even though their center was 6-foot-6: tip the ball to Stan (Jimerson), Stan takes a dribble and lets it go. The next score wins. In all my coaching, I was never prouder of a group of kids who came back and won the game 50-49 in four overtimes/sudden death. That type of motivation was to play a key part in my coaching/counseling career, because it’s amazing what can be accomplished when kids/adults don’t care who gets the credit and they are true to themselves as athletes and clients.

Today, in 2023, chemical dependency is in a sad state of affairs. Today’s treatment in these rehabs should be classified as “maintenance.” Drugs such as methadone, suboxone are administered, with the idea that if you are a heroin addict, that you don’t use heroin but other drugs are acceptable. Where is the “overcoming” drugs in general by “abstinence,” not “harm reduction.” In other words, like my kids that lost by 60 points the first time, don’t ever try because you’ll lose big again.

To me this is absurd treatment, going absolutely nowhere. The treatment programs will argue for this type of treatment. Overdose deaths are out of control and yet supervisors’ thinking is, “at least we are keeping them alive.” To all the people I worked with that got and stayed sober through abstinence, “aren’t you glad that you are not a client in the current recovery environment?”

I am going to pray for the current treatment that they begin to see that they are the problem, not the solution. The clients in the past found a way to make up 60 points and be competitive against a tough disease. I’m sick of going to funerals of young people especially, who have bought into this garbage.

Mike Tramuta is a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy counselor. He can be reached at 716-983-1592.

P.S. Congrats to Fredonia High School basketball team and Coach Bertrando. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when everyone gets the credit. Well done!


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