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Friday, 29 May 2015 11:02

Coaching Youth Sports Requires Thick Skin

By | Sports

In my 40-plus years as a coach I have just about heard every excuse in the book, an overuse of the blame game, if you will.  Things are said like: "If it wasn't for so and so, I could have been a really good player."  I know that there have been stones thrown in my direction and generally speaking they got back to me.


Negative statements most often go where people don't want them to end up.


I have memories of students who I cut during basketball tryouts, and let me tell you, it is one of the most difficult aspects of coaching. These memories don't go away, but believe me when I say they don't haunt me.  I can recall the girlfriend of a boy that I had cut was walking in the hall between classes and shouts out to me, "You don't know anything about basketball because you cut the best player."  I do remember the kid who was cut, but not his name, and he was a decent player but he wasn't the better than any of the 15 I kept. And keeping 15 players is a form of suicide for a basketball coach, because it's difficult to keep everyone happy with playing time.


I have had my share of critics, as most coaches do, that have said things about me. This is a scenario that comes with the job because there will always be those who second guess the coach. In many cases it wasn't usually about coaching strategy, usually it was about someone's son or daughter not playing. Speaking from a parents' point of view and their judgment, I understand the majority of parents have blinders on when it comes to their own children.  I also can forgive them for any slang or profanity that was used against me.  Again, when you coach you must develop a thick skin and with the knowledge that you are a perpetual target.


When I go to a game now as a spectator, no matter the sport, I get to sit in the stands and hear what an old friend of mine called the 50-Cent Coaches who criticize the coach.  These people with 20/20 hindsight, because they are always right after the fact.  If you don't believe me, just ask them.  I do understand that part of the fan base for any team from the stands is also part of the game because they're into the action.


Then there are the war stories from the Over-the-Hill Gang who love to criticize the coach and/or the players.  When they played, they did this or that, or, our old coach was so much better than this coach.  When I was in my early years at Saratoga as a junior varsity coach in 1972-73, I was fortunate enough to have a great bunch of kids who I eventually coached as the varsity coach in 1974-75.  The people of Saratoga were generally very complimentary about what I did as a basketball coach. The students were my biggest fans and I really appreciated that.  My first year as Saratoga's varsity coach, the student fans came from the stands down onto the floor and carried me off on their shoulders after beating rival Glens Falls on the road for the first time in years.


Even with those accolades of victory there were some stones thrown in my direction from some adults who were unhappy with the playing time of their children.  As a young and maturing coach I developed a wall of defense against my critics. It is often referred to the growth of thick skin. This posture began in Granville, where I taught art and coached varsity basketball when a player's parents accused me of being intoxicated during a game. It just happened to be a game where I did not start their son who originally was on the starting five. From what I understand he is now in his 50s and still holds a grudge against me. Really? Looking back, he lacked quickness and speed, so I started a teammate over him who was also very athletic, but I really had to do something to create some strategy changes to fire up the team. At the end of that game, the player who lost his starting position but did play, turned in his uniform and quit.  He not only quit the team, but also quit on himself. That Monday the superintendent called me in about the accusations that were made about my sobriety the night of that game. He was supportive of me and understood that I did no such thing, but told me to be aware of what comes with the job. This form of character assassination, telling a lie or making an assumption about someone to get even, is a sad statement on human nature. The athlete was a good kid and I felt bad about what evolved from that situation, but coaches make decisions and I didn't throw him off the team, he quit.


That interaction was an eye opener for me, and so I began to develop the attitude that if I wanted to keep coaching I must learn to keep my head up and watch my step. Coaching is like walking on thin ice -- you have to have the understanding that each step you take needs to be nimble and fairly accurate.  Over the years, I developed the philosophy that communication with the players and parents is a requirement of the job most of the time. The explanation of why is a necessity and why decisions are made is relevant. The players and their parents need to be given heads up on choices being made. To be redundant here, the new millennium in the world of coaching has evolved with an essential practice of communication and truth as a necessary part of what justifies choices made by a coach. It used to be a Cardinal Sin to question the coach, but in the fairness of it all, there has to be transparency and openness in the approach to having answers for the questions. 


I forgive my critics, and there are times I would like to say I'm sorry for doing my job. But, coaching involves making decisions not everyone will like or agree with, that's the nature of it. To the player and parent: Accept and understand but don't let it control your demeanor and change your life. 


I don't carry a grudge because it's not my nature. I refuse to let it become a part of my thinking. To this end, I share a couple of Native American sayings:  "Don't let anyone or anything steal your energy" and, one of the most well-known Native American sayings, "Don't judge a man (or woman), until you have walked a mile in (his or her) shoes."

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