Conversation with Coach / by James Leath

“I was just trying to help.”
“I believe you, without a doubt,” I said. “But if you steal the lesson of hard work from a child now, then you purchase a life of hardship later.”

When a young athlete is struggling because they are not improving fast enough or not getting enough playing time, what would you tell that athlete? If it is someone else’s child, chances are you would be encouraging and offer some advice on how to improve. Maybe you even suggest they try and talk to the coach and see if they can get some answers. That child now has some new information to mull around in his or her brain and can decide whether or not to use that information. Their next move isn’t easy, but at least there is a chance now for some emotional growth that comes from overcoming a difficult situation. 

Imagine that same scenario, but it is your child this time. Is there anything different about what happens next? Chances are you would still be encouraging, but maybe instead of suggesting what your child could do, you tell them what they should do. Then you consider talking to the coach for them, instead of giving them guidance on what to ask the coach. Their next move is easy because you told them what to do and they won’t need to struggle through a conversation with the coach. 

For many years I have given my phone number to the parents and athletes and given them instructions on how and when to use it. With youth sports, my policy on missing practice is simple. If an athlete is going to miss practice or be late for whatever reason, they are excused if they do two things. 

One: Call me at least 10 minutes before practice.
This is not an easy thing to do for kids, and even harder recently since texting is so common. The conversation they have with me, from the greeting to the explanation, is always a train wreck. But here is the thing: it’s okay. The child on the other side of the phone knows he or she is talking to Coach, and Coach loves them. Often times I hear what they are calling about and give them a suggestion on how to say it. Then, I ask them to give it another try. We laugh, rapport is built between myself and the athlete, and they don’t have to worry about being punished for missing or being late for practice. But more importantly, they learned the lesson of taking ownership of their actions. However, if they don’t call me (texting does not count as a call, and a parent calling defeats the purpose of the rule) they are held accountable for their actions through decreased playing time and some sort of conditioning next time they are at practice. 

Two: Arrive a few minutes early the next day to learn what they missed.
Oftentimes, they didn’t miss much, but asking them to do this gives them a sense of accountability and responsibility for their actions. If there is nothing to learn, we joke about the train wreck of a call the day before and I’ll ask them to talk to me about why it was so hard. By doing this, I normalize their nervousness and they learn that overcoming fears is not as hard as they thought. 

Remember, we are in the business of creating adults. In the past week, I have not seen a cone, replaced a cleat, or heard a whistle, but I have had hard conversations with other adults. I can do that in part because the youth coaches I had were my models for communication and I was lucky to have some really great examples. 

Be the great example.