Saturday, November 04, 2006

Coaching or Encroaching?

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” famed professional football coach Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying. Maybe that sentiment is true at the professional level, or even high school or college. But at the elementary and middle school level, winning shouldn’t be the only thing. And most of the volunteer coaches in town seem to understand that.
Sports coaches should assist athletes in developing to their full potential and are there to provide encouragement. According to a web site on sports coaches, “the role of the coach is to create the right conditions for learning to happen and to find ways of motivating the athletes. Most athletes are highly motivated and therefore the task is to maintain that motivation and to generate excitement and enthusiasm.”
From what I understand -- as a former cheerleading coach at the Pop Warner football level as well as at high school, and as the wife of a past volunteer coach-- the role of the coach of young children and adolescents is to introduce them to and instruct them in the particular sport at hand. Allowing them to play or try-out different positions in the hope of finding their strengths is key. And encouraging them to play their best with an eye on the prize (winning) is also valuable.
But what happens to the 8, 9, 10-year-old child who shows up at every practice, sits through games without getting much out of it (i.e. playing time) and is not receiving the return on their efforts? Although as adults we know that self-worth comes from within, as children we seek it initially from outside, grown-up sources.
Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL football star, and the subject of the book, “Season of Life,” and referred to "The Most Important Coach in America" is described in one passage of the book as saying to a team he was coaching before a game:

"What is our job as coaches?" he asked. "To love us," the boys yelled back in unison. "What is your job?" Joe shot back. "To love each other," the boys responded.

Mr. Ehrmann spoke last night at New Canaan High School during a program sponsored in part by New Canaan CARES. On November 7th, Mr. Ehrmann will return to speak with all coaches and physical education teachers during their in service day. His message is significant, especially to volunteer parent coaches.

Within the past year, Jack -- who eats, sleeps and breathes sports -- has had the good fortune to be coached by several New Canaan fathers (thank you Doug Hart, Joe Radecki, Tom Sands, Bruce Wilson and Rick Condon) who not only recognized his athletic ability, but sought to help him hone it. Each young player was taught his worth, no matter what the level of his athletic ability. Doug Hart and Tom Sands notably had the ability to turn individual baseball and football players into a team – a team whose main priority was having fun, win or lose.

“Hold your heads up high,” exclaimed Tom Sands to his young charges after a baseball loss. “You were great out there; be proud. You’re the ‘A- Train’ (a team nickname)!” The boys were only momentarily discouraged by the loss, and although they would go on to lose a few more games, they also wound up in the finals of the 10-year-old championship. Because they were good baseball players? Absolutely. Because they had fun playing the game? You bet. And, equally as vital, they knew they were cared about.

Being relegated to the sidelines -- first in sport -- may translate into sitting things out, sidelining oneself, sooner or later, in life. Encroaching upon the growing child’s sense of worth isn’t the coach’s job. For a kid, discovering and feeling that some adult other than their mom or dad finds them essential on the field or on the court of play is priceless. Right now our children’s self-esteem and their self-assurance are being built; it shouldn’t be torn down. That strategy works fine at military boot camp, but these are just kids; pre-teens.

The voluntary coach needs to understand how critical they are to the development of every kid. It is a great act of trust for parents to turn their child over to these coaches, and the quid pro quo is that the coach will approach their role with objectivity, compassion and an eye toward developing a sense of community and worth among every child.

Now that’s a winning season.

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