Why I coach(?)
My youth sports coaching career, in its present form, began with my oldest son’s second-grade basketball team; today he just finished seventh grade. In between I have coached three of my kids’ teams, in basketball, softball and baseball. I’m planning to coach my youngest daughter’s T-ball team when plays next summer.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m going to make it.
You’ll notice that I titled this entry Why I Coach (?) instead of Why I Coach. That’s because, today, I am writing from the perspective of a youth sports coach whose “career” has hit a bit of a trough.
I am managing my 7-year-old son’s coach-and-kid-pitch-no-score baseball team this year, following a year in which I managed his T-ball team. There are seasons when you as a person and a coach click with all the personalities, kids and parents. Last year was one of those years. This year is not. At least a couple of times I’ve had parents complain to me about, me.
Their complaints, which generally revolve around my loudness (my voice naturally projects, aided by past theater training), and my chattiness (I’m naturally talkative, aided by present copious Starbucks americano consumption).
Here’s a song dedicated by the baseball parents to the loud, chatty jerk-off who coaches their kids.
Not that unusual, really. It happens to every youth coach, even if you’re a combination of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and John Wooden. This past basketball season, I had a mom (whose father was my assistant coach) berate me with every curse word ever invented in front of a crowd departing from a game because I sat her son on the bench (to rest!). (She had previously rushed the bench only to be restrained by her father.) I know I’m loud and chatty, and while I compliment and encourage kids, I also — and this is a radical idea for a coach — also try to teach and correct. However, I understand how I can come off sounding a little unhinged, even if, unlike one my oldest son’s past baseball assistants, I’m not swearing up a storm and screeching away in my car with a hand on the wheel and another flipping the bird. (A shame he flipped out. My son liked that coach.)
Even when the mother attracted a stunned audience ripping me by the parking lot of the gym, eventually we found a common ground and settled things. I feel like, right now, I’m not able to connect like that. Maybe it’s the parents. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s both sides.
I’m not sure why, but I feel far less patient in dealing with people coming up to me and telling me I’m a horse’s ass who is ruining their children’s love of [insert sport here].
Maybe it’s years of dealing with petty complaints, whether about me, another parent, another kid, or why we’re playing on a certain field at a certain time. Maybe it’s the years of racing from work to a field or court, squeezing planning in on the train. Maybe it’s all the meetings I’ve sat through. Maybe it’s all the time being responsible not only for coaching, but making sure someone is bringing the treats and passing out the picture information. Maybe it’s because my own job has gotten more pressurized in the last year (not that I’m complaining, considering the alternative), leaving me less energy to deal with other people’s kids and their parents. What worries me is the nagging feeling I AM doing something wrong. I know I can be pretty dumb, but for some reason this season I’m feeling especially not smart.
At some point every season, I go through a period of wondering whether I should ever coach again. Guiding a bunch of kids you don’t know, who may or may not be interested in a sport, and trying to make them learn while have fun at the same time while you have a zillion other responsibilities can be an emotional drag, even if the parents are supportive (and mostly in my coaching career, they have been).
It’s a feeling that’s become more acute, and it makes me wonder whether I should leave my youngest daughter to someone more enthused and less asshole-ish than myself. Certainly, me not coaching might be easier on my family, which won’t have to worry about the time consumed by me coaching, and which can sit and watch a game and not see people whispering because they don’t want the other Cooks to know what they’re saying about ol’ Loud Dad over there.
However, when I get down like that, something happens that makes me realize the psychic rewards of coaching, the kind of rewards you can’t get doing anything else.
I go to the local library, and the mother of one of my old softball players tells me she wishes her daughter still had me for a coach. I get a phone call from a fellow basketball coach (one who, by the way, has far more basketball chops than I’ll ever have), asking me to give him a seal of approval to the star player’s mother, who is upset I’m didn’t draw her son that year. I go to my kids’ schools, and boys and girls who have played basketball under me run up and say, “Hi, coach!” I look up in my office at a drawing of me, wearing a “Coach” shirt and my weekend stubble, my now 10-year-old daughter did when I led her softball team. It’s titled “My Dad Is My Hero.”
For that matter, there is the moment when my 7-year-old, perhaps blissfully unaware of any animus toward me, tells me how much he loves having me as a coach. And then there was last night, when I asked my 4-year-old daughter, while I was bathing her, if she wanted me to coach her in T-ball. She said, enthusiastically, and loudly, “YES!”
I remember how I was near tears when my son’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team fought back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win a league title. I remember how I was near tears when my daughter’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball hit a last-minute shot to win their only game of the season. I remember how I was near tears when, on my son’s basketball team, the team’s best player led the charge to congratulate a kid who, midseason, hit his first-ever shot in a competitive game.
OK, maybe I DO get a little intense. But the point is, coaching these teams makes you FEEL something. And you get to feel it not just with a bunch of kids you didn’t know, but grew to enjoy, but also with your own child. And when you’re still hearing the echoes of the mom who thinks you’re too hard on her boy, you start remembering that stuff, and remembering how much you love to share those intense moments with you children.
So, despite a present feeling that maybe my coaching career SHOULD be over, when next year’s T-ball season starts, you’ll probably find me on a field somewhere in Oak Lawn, Ill., with a bunch of 5-year-old girls, their parents staring me down, wondering if that loud, chatty guy is the right coach to mold their little careers. And you’ll find my 5-year-old daughter. I hope at that moment, on the field, she’ll be as proud of having her dad as coach as she was in the bathtub last night.