The Art of the Handshake / by James Leath

With the start of a new season or class, regardless of the sport or subject, I start with the same lesson. Below is an example of how I do it, and it is also the first chapter of my next book.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living it. 

The school bell rings. Class is over for the day. 

The halls are now flooded with invitations to “come over and play” and conversations about what happened at recess. Parents stare down at their phones as they sit in cars lined up around the block. 

The beehive of activity dissipates into the surrounding neighborhood as kids pair up and walk home. 

Twenty-nine 5th and 6th graders shuffle toward the grass field for the first day of practice, eager to be a part of the Saroyan Stallions football team. 

Backpacks are thrown in a pile and a game of freeze-tag commences.

I gather up my clipboard and my whistle, tie up the laces on my cleats, and head out to my new team. I am just as giddy and eager to get started as they are, excited for what will happen in the next three months. 

My watch beeps, it’s 3:10pm. I blow my whistle three times. 

Every athlete is frozen, with their eyes locked on me waiting for instruction. 

“When I blow my whistle three times,” I yell, “that means practice has begun. You will stop what you are doing, sprint to this chalked sideline, and line up shoulder to shoulder.”

A few begin to run toward the line. 

“Wait!” I pause until all have stopped running. “Let’s practice. Go back to what you were doing. When you hear three loud whistles, what will you do?”

A melody of random words comes hurling my way and I pick out some keywords like sprint, line, and shoulder. I am satisfied. 

I let them play for about ten seconds. I notice some pretend not to look at me and I notice some slowly start walking toward the line. 

I take a deep breath. “BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr!”

The team prints to the line facing the field and awaits instruction.  

There are no cones on the field. 

There are no footballs. 

There is just an empty field with lines of chalk, the same chalk that covers my shoes and shorts from when I lined the fields 30 minutes ago.

“Welcome to your first day of football practice.”

I pause for effect, and take a deep breath as I take a long look at the young minds eager to please their new coach. 

“You did an okay job sprinting to the line. Can you do it faster?”

“YES!” They smile, and I smile. This is going to be a fun group. 

“Good, let’s try it again.”

I let them play for about 20 seconds, then blow the whistle three times. They are back at the line ready to go. 

“My name is James Leath. Please address me as Coach Leath, or Sir. I will be your coach for the next three months. 

Please hold out your right hand with your thumb up and fingers spread. 

Now, rotate your right hand about one inch.”

I demonstrate with my hand how I want them to do it. 

“When you see me at school or around town, I would like for you to hold out your hand like this, aim the web of your thumb and index finger at the web of my thumb and index finger, then wrap your hand around my hand. It looks like this—“

I call up one of the athletes I believe will be one of the leaders on the team and show him the right way to give a handshake. 

“What is your name?”

“Isaac, sir.” 

“Who taught you to call me sir, Isaac?

“My dad, sir.”

“Your dad is a smart man.” I hold out my hand and Isaac shakes it firmly.

This is a good handshake, Isaac. When you meet someone for the first time, or when applying to college or a job, a firm handshake shows you have confidence. I turn to look at the team and ask, “Where should you be looking when you do this?”

A hand raises about 10 feet from me. There stands a boy with hair past his ears and a soft voice who would soon be voted by his peers as a captain. “You, in the red shirt. What is your name?”

“Callum.” He says. 

“Hi, Callum. Glad to meet you.”

I walk over to him with an outstretched hand. He puts his hand out and gives me a fine handshake—two in a row. (I later meet the men these boys call Father and it is obvious both take fatherhood very seriously). 

“Should you look me in the eye when you shake my hand?” I ask.


“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done, Callum.”

I tell the team they have one minute to shake hands with four people and remember their names. I encourage them to take their time and give a great handshake, and give them permission to try it again if they “miss” and instead give the dead fish, a term for when someone shakes your hand with little effort. 

When they line back up, I ask them at random to introduce their friend. This is how I start to learn the names of the athletes.

It is now 3:30pm on the first day of practice. 

I spend the next hour teaching them how to line up for warm ups and spending time explaining how to do the exercises. 

There is no yelling. 

There are no degrading or condescending comments. 

There is no need to treat these young athletes with any disrespect. 

We are in class. I am the teacher, they are the students, and we are setting the foundation of how we will work together. 

Then there is a small break for water. 

I take a deep breath. “BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr!”

They sprint to the line. 

“We have 30 minutes left. Are you ready to learn about football?

They scream in unison, “Yeeesss!”

“Yes, what?


For the next 20 minutes, I line up the athletes in our base offensive formation, explaining what a linemen does, what a running back does, and what is expected of our receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks. 

For the last 10 minutes, we play sharks and minnows, because when kids are playing, they will run faster, harder, and longer than if they are lining up for sprints. 

We do a team break, “Stallions, hu, hu, hu!” I tell them no one can leave until they shake my hand. 

Every, single, kid, shakes my hand, looks me in the eye, and says, “Thank you, sir.”