First Impression as a Coach / by James Leath

As a teacher and coach, on the first day of class or the first day of practice, I teach the same lesson. It goes like this: I introduce myself, I shake the hand of every student or athlete, and I don’t let go until they squeeze back and introduce themselves. More often than not, I get a smile out of the student when they realize they have not given me a good handshake. We laugh about it, and a relationship has begun.

This lesson is not confined to young students and athletes. In my day job, I am blessed to work with company executives and future NFL/NBA athletes getting ready for their combine tryouts. I am a 5’10-and-a-half white guy. I have no problem pulling a 6’10 center down to my level as I encourage him to introduce himself to me. It always catching them off-guard, and it is in that moment I am able to begin teaching.

In the movie Avatar, the Na'vi tribe say, “I see you,” instead of “I love you.” When a student or athlete knows you see them, they tend to pay attention to you. If you have their attention, you can soon have their respect. Once you have earned their respect, you can accomplish amazing things together.

As teachers and coaches, we are constantly fighting for the attention of our students. We cannot make the mistake so many coaches make and assume they care about what we are saying because we have letters behind our name or trophies in our office. What happened last year is in the past, and in five years it’s like it never happened. That being said, it is up to us to make our message relevant to them and to meet them where they are, now, not where our former students were, 5 years ago. Learn new stories, take an interest in what the students do on their spend time. Or my favorite, have them explain the game they are playing on their phone without passing judgment. Show interest in them, and they will eventually return the favor with their attention.

Back to the handshake. I teach my students and athletes to have a firm handshake because it is the one thing that can set the tone for what a person thinks of you, and also, it is a skill they will use the rest of their life. If you offer me your hand in a sign of respect and in return I give you “the dead fish” you automatically assume I am weak, or unworthy of your respect. To my female students, I tell them the story of when I met my bride. Over 10 years ago, I shook her hand and knew in an instant I wanted to be with that woman. A strong, but not overbearing handshake shows confidence, and confidence is attractive. Look them in the eye, introduce yourself clearly, and you will make an impression because so few people do that anymore. You have one shot to make a first impression as a teacher and a coach. Teaching a handshake on the first day sends the message that you are interested in that student as a human first, everything else second.

Running into a former student or athlete after 10 or so years is always exciting to me. More often than not, after the “bro-hug” or some version of it, they will offer their hand to their former coach, looking forward to that firm handshake they learned all those years ago.

God, I love being a coach!