How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach / by James Leath

“Excuse me, where can I find the batteries?” I’m at Home Depot walking around aimlessly when I find a guy wearing an orange vest. He has a clipboard and is obviously working on something. I feel bad for interrupting him.

“Hi!” He greets me with a smile. ”Batteries…hmmm. You will find them on 18. Follow me, I’ll show you.”

He turns on his heels and begins a fast pace. I’m in my flip-flops and struggling to keep up with his pace.

I am reminded of one of my first heroes, a football coach at Central High School in Fresno, California, named Coach Bog. Walking with him anywhere meant you were going to sweat and be a little out of breath. Years later, when I was hired as a teacher at that school, I asked him about his pace. “You teach people how to treat you by the way you dress, the way you talk, and the way you walk.”

He paused, letting it sink in and allowing for questions. This was his teaching style. I was accustomed to his way of teaching so I kept my mouth shut and waited for him to continue.

“Be intentional about how you dress,” he said. “Master the English language, walk with a purpose, and people will want to hear what you have to say.”

I snap back to reality when the man in the orange vest points to the batteries and says, “Here you go, how can I help?”

How can I help? He just walked 11 rows to show me where the batteries are and now he asks how he can help?

We found what I needed and I thanked him for his time. I reached out my hand and he grabbed it with enthusiasm. A firm handshake. Eye contact. “My pleasure, have a wonderful day, be blessed.”

The man set the example for what youth coaches can do for their athletes.

    • He was busy, but not too busy to help me.

    • He was deep in thought, but okay with the interruption.

    • He told me, but then he showed me.

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What if we coached the way this man helps strangers?

At the beginning of every season of whatever sport I am coaching (the last few years have been specifically middle school students and younger), I have a meeting with the parents. One of the first things I tell them is that thier children are my priority. I say, “If you and I are speaking and any of the students interrupt me, our conversation is over. I am there for the students, not the parents.”

I teach the students how to interrupt me in a similar way and I teach them how to shake hands. I tell them to look for an opportunity to interrupt, for example, during a pause in the conversation, and say, “Excuse me, Coach Leath,” and to wait for me to respond.

Do this. Teach your students the skill of the interruption. I promise you, when it happens, and you take your attention from that parent and fully give it to the student, you will light up your athlete.

Then, whether they need to trust you in the heat of competition or get batteries in a Home Depot, they will follow you at the pace you set for them. You can’t expect to be perfect, but your example as a coach, whether good or bad, has the power to alter the life of the students who call you coach.