In spring, a young man’s thoughts turn to finding love, but for us old married guys, there’s always sports. More specifically, watching our kids play sports. If you’re a parent, you have to love this time of year when your young colts, pent up through the long winter, gallop unsteadily on to green fields again. Some of those kids will impress athletically. Others will suck. For the most part, nobody will care as long as fun is had. However, there’s one person who can’t stop caring: the coach.
I’ve coached kids for several years, even before I had my own. For me, few things in life are as intrinsically good as youth sports. As a boy, I played baseball and basketball, and ran track. My coaches were just regular working guys, but I hung on their every word, and the lessons they taught about teamwork and commitment really stuck with me. My wanting to coach youth sports as an adult had a fair amount to do with wanting to repay them.
I coach a team of 9- and 10- year-old boys in soccer, a sport I didn’t play myself until I was in my 20s. I’d love to say I am one of those sanguine coaches who stand on the sideline, cool as a cucumber, watching my game plan unfold to perfection. Or even one of those coaches who, confronted with a 15-nil thrashing, is unaffected because, after all, it’s just a game. But I’m not. I sweat through every game we play, and I really like winning. Even as a little kid, if nobody was keeping score, I wasn’t interested.
Once, when I was about 13, I had a coach in his 50s who, in the middle of a locker room team talk, ran to a nearby trash can and began to vomit violently into it. There was an uncomfortable silence, after the retching stopped, as we waited for our leader to take his face away from the can. Then, wiping his mouth with his hand, he told us it was just pre-game nerves.
I’m not quite that bad. I tend to take more of a “hope springs eternal” mentality into our games.
Coaching kids involves everything from teaching them technique to comforting them when they get banged up. I tie shoelaces, give rides and listen to long stories with no beginning or end. A coach has to be part diplomat, part cop. He has to treat all players the same regardless of ability. These are almost impossible balancing acts to pull off.
A coach also has to liaison with parents, and here’s where emotions can really run high. As a friend who coaches youth football once told me, “It’s all fun and games until little Johnny goes out there with your name on his back.” I’m lucky to have had mostly great parents over the years — ones who care enough to be committed but not so much that they come at me with a tire iron after we blow a 3-0 lead.
I’ve made being a coach seem noble and selfless, but the truth is that I do have some selfish motives. Being around kids makes me happy. I love that they couldn’t care less about my work life. When they make a great pass or score a goal, their joy in the moment is absolute — and I get to share in that. They also give me an excuse to keep playing long after my rickety knees and ankles eliminated me from any adult competition.
I sometimes worry about the future of youth sports. These days, the virtual world pulls too many kids away from the diamonds, courts and fields that pulled my generation out of the house. Too many parents have lost the sporting culture at home, where young athletes are really made. And coaches, especially the ordinary folks I so admired as a kid, are in short supply.
But hope springs eternal. Whenever kids, balls and sunshine combine you have the right tinder. All that’s needed next is the spark of a coach. Could that be you?