The Coach and the Village
In one of those indelibly etched memories, my son was playing rep baseball in our small town. He was probably 10 or 11 years old and playing with many kids a year older. He wasn’t the strongest player on the team and struggled often on the field. His coach was a knowledgeable baseball guy who stood a strapping 6’2”, with a few days of stubble and a gruff voice that was very demanding of his young charges. I watched him one game explain to my son what he needed to do in the field at second base after he had made a mistake in positioning - something that happened a lot with 11 year olds. My son then went out the next inning and made the exact same mistake again.
I watched him run off the field at the end of the inning. If I was a little worried about his “safety” then he must have been a little wary about getting to the bench. I watched him sit down towards the end of the dugout and then saw coach stand up from his spot at the other end and walk down to “talk” to my son. Coach sat right next to him, put his arm around him, and spoke to him in a clear and calm manner. I watched as my son listened and nodded. Coach then stood up, gave him a playful punch in the shoulder, my son smiled and went to put his batting helmet on for his next at bat.
That interaction has stuck with me. It was a defining moment for me about what true coaching looks like. And more importantly, it was moment that I saw the impact other adults have in my son’s life and that it is important to seek out those who will be a positive influence and have faith and trust in them to be part of the village to raise your child.
As coaches, we need to understand and embrace that we are a very important part of the “village”. We are not only leading athletes to succeed in a given sport, we are leading athletes to become better people.
We also need to make sure our team communities are on board with us being part of that village. I came across a terrific graphic online at believeperform.com titled “15 skills athletes can transfer from sport to the working world”. The full graphic and text is below but those 15 skills are teamwork, communication, growth, emotions, tenacity, coping, resilience, leadership, learning, determination, pressure, concentration, commitment, goal setting and motivation. If we are only working with our athletes on the skills, tactics and strategies of our sport then we aren’t part of the village that is training the whole person in our program. We need to be helping our athletes be better at all of the 15 skills listed above.
I had an interesting conversation with a parent of a grade 6 student who plays AAA hockey. This is a family who has a lot of experience in hockey, both coaching and with their own kids playing. Their son had chosen to play in a different organization next year and I asked what the catalyst for making that decision was. The answer was simple: we needed to find the right coach. That begged the question, what makes the right coach for you? He said it was a coach who could develop the whole person, not just the hockey player.
It’s a big responsibility that athletes (and their parents) have entrusted us as coaches to be a part of their village. We spend an inordinate amount of time with our athletes each week and it’s crucial that we develop the whole person. As an athlete, my coaches all played a very big art in my life. Some were terrific and I learned a lot, not only about a sport but, about life. Some weren’t as solid, but were a big part of my life just because of the amount of time we spent together. As coaches we can’t be consumed with just winning games. There are too many other skills that need to be developed within the sport and team environment that will be crucial to our athletes long after being able to take a snap shot will be.
When I am coaching athletes who are at an age when their parents are still involved, I like to communicate a few things very early in the season that help in the development of my athletes. First, I ask, unless there is concern for health and safety, that athletes come to me directly if there are questions or issues. If a player thinks they should be getting more ice time, then they should be talking to me rather than their parents. Second, I make sure that parents understand that, as a coach, I am invariably going to have an impact on their athlete - there is no way around that. If they feel that they want me only to teach hockey and not teach any life lessons, then maybe my program isn’t the best fit for their family. Third, I ask for their support in what we are trying to accomplish. Negativity away from the rink - in the car, at the breakfast table - will only make the season less fun for all concerned. Even little comments can make a difference in the way an athlete will look at a situation, a coach or a teammate. Finally, I ask parents to help focus our athletes on the now - not to look to next season, or who is training them in the summer, or who they want their coach to be next year. Players have enough to worry about without being bombarded with these issues as well.
My son’s baseball coach wasn’t perfect. He sometimes did things his way that wouldn’t have been my way. But, at the end of the day, just by having someone else in his village that wasn’t his parent, my son had further developed the “whole person”.