Once a Coach, Always a Coach / by James Leath

“Hey, Coach!”
The voice on the phone is a deeper version of the one I remember from 10 years ago.
“Matty? It’s good to hear from you. How are you doing?”
“Good, coach. I'm good. You?”
Thanks to caller ID and Facebook, I knew three things about the situation. One, he is using the same number he had back when he played 6th-grade football for me. Two, he is a nationally ranked wrestler in his second year of college. And three, it’s his birthday.
“I’m great, bud. It’s great to hear your voice. Happy birthday! I see you are doing well.”
“Thanks, Coach, appreciate it. I’m having fun.”
I’m always excited to see where calls from my former players will go. A scholarship offer, relationship advice, a baby.
“So what’s going on, bud?”
“Just wanted to call—no reason really.”
“Well, it’s good to hear your voice. Tell me, what do you remember about our time together back in elementary school?”

Around the time Matty was on my team, we had incredible success. We lost only three games in three seasons and had been to the championship every year, winning it twice. I thought maybe he would bring up that time he fumbled and yelled at me on the sideline, then writing me a note the next day apologizing. Or maybe all the wins and championships.

I was wrong.

“Do you still open the door for your lady?”
“Ha! Of course, I do. When did you see me do that?”
“Anytime she was around, you always made it a point to open the door for her. I’ve done it ever since. Girls love it, coach.”

We laughed. I had no idea he ever saw that. We forget, as coaches, that our players are always watching—before, during, and after practice—and taking mental notes on behaviors they will try to imitate.

“I’m glad to hear that, bud.”
“The other thing I wanted to know is, do you teach the handshake to your teams on the first day of practice?”

Many years ago, I started every season by lining the team up and teaching them to shake my hand, look me in the eyes, and introduce themselves (click here for more details on what that looks like). I spend the whole practice teaching. No drills or conditioning. It’s orientation day, and the payback for taking the time to orient the kids to their new team is incredible.

“I do! I’m so glad you remembered that. Why do you ask?”
“I’m a wrestler. We start every match with a handshake. Many times, I’ll be given a limp hand, you called it the ‘dead fish’.”

The dead fish. It drives me crazy when a grown-up gives me their hand in a handshake and it has no life in it.

“...and I’m like, ‘No, shake it like a man.’ I won’t let them give me a bad handshake. I feel like when I do that, I have a psychological advantage over the guy, and the match is already won!”

I smile, and sense of pride fills my heart.

“That is fantastic, Matty. Means a lot to me that you remember that. Do you mind if I offer some insight on what you just said?”
“Of course, Coach!”
“You said that you say, ‘shake it like a man’ and I think maybe you should say something different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you don’t mean any disrespect when you say that, but what you say implies that a woman couldn’t give you a strong handshake, so maybe one little change could be, ‘shake it like you mean it’.”
“Awe yeah, makes sense. I like that. My mom will like that, too!”

We continued to talk for a few more minutes. It is always great to catch up with former players and see what lessons they took from our time together. This conversation reminded me, however, that a coach’s influence doesn’t end when the season is over, but that for the rest of that player’s life, I will always be “Coach.”