This week our five-year-old daughter, Claire, has started AYSO soccer for the first time, and our nine-year-old son, Ben, is playing his first season of Little League baseball. Who their coaches are matters a great deal to Jennifer and me, so I understand as a parent why the subject comes up so frequently in our school community, too.
In part because our own children are embarking on the exciting and sometimes scary unknowns of sporting seasons in the weeks ahead, I’ve been thinking about what’s most important in a coach. I grew up loving sports of any kind, and can still recite the names of my coaches and many of my teammates over the years as I made my way along a youth sports journey that I was sure would culminate at Riverfront Stadium playing shortstop (well, if not short, then at least second base—I was a realist) for the Cincinnati Reds.
Ben’s experience has been very different. His interest in baseball emerged just late last summer, so he’s still learning the very basics of the game and becoming more and more comfortable with what he’s supposed to do on the field. Despite my own ingrained love of sports from the earliest years of my life, I never pushed Ben to follow. After all, it’s his life, not mine. But now that he’s been bit by the baseball bug, I have a keen interest in his experience. And, as we all know, the player experience often starts with the coach.
So what in a coach is most important in Little League, Middle School, and varsity sports? I grant that there may be some shift in gradation as children get older and become more proficient and competitive, but I hold firmly to the belief that it starts with character. For me, in fact, it starts with kindness and character. For me in athletics, I define kindness as an innate affection for children and a deep commitment to connecting that natural emotional connectivity to a love for and respect for the game as well. I want Ben to be coached by a man (or a woman) whom he can admire for the rest of his life.
As I see it, my primary responsibility as a parent is to get our children connected with the finest people (adults and peers) who will challenge them to reach beyond themselves in pursuit of a great life that leaves the world a better place. As children age, they naturally want less and less to do with us as parents, so who they spend time with matters more and more. Kindness and character (whether we’re talking baseball or biology) matter most.
The best basketball coach I have ever met told me once that a great coach has to have a clear passion for teaching the fundamentals of the game, a keen ability to manage the game from the bench, and a deep appreciation for how to develop team chemistry among his players. I don’t disagree, but I am left wondering, what’s it all for? How’s it connected to living a great life? After all, my dream of playing middle infield in the Major Leagues has been shared by millions and millions of boys over the years, and so very, very few play ball after high school and an even smaller fraction make money playing pro ball after college. And none of us would want our child’s highlight in life to be a run to the state championship in high school. So what’s it all for?
It’s about learning life lessons, dealing with disappointment, building courage, becoming less selfish, and committing to something bigger than we are. And it’s about having fun. As I think about who will coach Claire and Ben this season, it’s hard not to wonder about the first practice and the first game and how we might maximize their success and minimize their difficulty. But it’s more important, in fact I believe it’s critically important, to have the long view in mind.
One of the finest men in sports I know lives fully in the moment but anchored in the long view. Alumni players he coached many years ago brazenly challenged their cross-town rivals to a game of tackle football in full pads under the stadium lights with referees calling penalties to make the contest official. They were in their late 20s and 30s and were struggling to fill their roster as game day drew nigh. Not a single one was in football shape. Once their old coach reluctantly changed his mind and agreed to lead them one last time, their ranks swelled from 8 to 35. When I asked him about this alumni game (frankly I was flabbergasted), he said, “Yeah, I’ve never come out of a locker room and seen my guys smoking on the sidelines.”
And more recently I overheard someone ask him how he measures success. A winning season? Making the playoffs? A state championship? “No,” he said, “I measure success by how many wedding invitations I get from my players when they get married.” Kindness and character matter most, and when combined with a passion for teaching the fundamentals of the game and a competitiveness that players want to emulate, the wins and championships will follow. Here’s to the long view, and here’s to the good and joyful and enduring work that our teachers and coaches do to earn those wedding invitations in the years ahead.