My Greatest Mistake as a Coach

“There’s nothing really good that comes from a 14-15 year old thinking that you really like them.” “I try to keep my personal side out of it as much as possible.” “I’m more like going for 80% impact.”

Is that the kind of coach I am or want to be?

There was some context to these words, but as I thought about and listened back to my guest episode on the Winning Youth Coaching Podcast, I wanted them back.

From fall 2016 to spring 2017, I drove over 2500 miles to coach both rowing and lacrosse as well as volunteer at and attend clinics. I spent thousands of dollars on gas, books and coaching resources, equipment, plus tuition at the University of Denver to help me become a better coach. I spent hundreds of hours away from home, my girlfriend, and dog, many of them uncomfortable hours in the cold, rain, early morning and late night, and many more hours studying, thinking about, and talking about coaching and my athletes with my co-coaches. In addition to all my personal effort, I had the lives and athletic pursuits of 45 young people entrusted to me by themselves and their parents. And yet, I’m only “going for 80% impact”?!

I knew immediately that I was unsatisfied with my answer, but it took me most of last season to figure out exactly why and what I could do to change it.

I Underestimated

Like any good compliment sandwich, I’ll give myself some credit here first. I WAS making a difference and either didn’t know it or underestimated it at the time of that interview. I have heard from several athletes and a few parents over the last couple years, any of which could have provided a good answer to Craig’s question and a sign to me that I was making transformational change beyond just the game.

But, that still doesn’t excuse my answer.

The Fears of a Young Coach

I started coaching at 19 as the player-coach for my club lacrosse team in the weight-room, running lifting and conditioning sessions for my teammates and teaching the basics of the squat, bench, and deadlift. I was the same age or younger than my teammates. I started as the college rowing team’s strength coach at 20, this time slightly older than some of my athletes. I started coaching HS lacrosse at 21, just three years older than some of my players. I started writing here at 23 and went on Craig’s podcast at 24. I’m 25 now and while certainly not yet old and wise, each year marks a significant increase in my coaching time, experience, and knowledge.

It is hard to be a transformational coach no matter your age. I think it is harder in a lot of ways as a young coach, coaching peers or people close to your age, to make your impact about more than just the game. I very much remember what it was like to be in high school and college, which makes it easy for me to say, “well, boys will be boys” at times when a transformational coach would take advantage of a teachable moment.

I tell my rowers before a 2000m test, and my lacrosse players before asking them to make a dodge knowing they’ll get hit, that courage isn’t about not being afraid, it’s about going for it anyway in spite of that fear. I needed to tell myself the same thing when coaching. Many times, I’d give into my fear of being laughed at or ignored when I’d think about intervening in an inappropriate conversation or taking time to talk about life lessons present in sport and concepts like love, fear, and vulnerability. I’m sure that this fear exists for older coaches as well, but I think it’s especially present for those close to the age of their athletes, and I know it was for me.

Now, I take a deep breath, that natural human fear of rejection gets a little less each time, and having conversations like the transformational coach I want to be get a little easier every time. Rather than rolling their eyes or mocking me, I think my players now expect and maybe even appreciate me drawing some parallels from sport to life.

Sometimes I don’t hit the mark or say just what I want to say. Like I expect of my players, I try to make errors of commission rather than omission, and when I miss, I put it behind me and try to make the next play.

I Never Had the Kind of Coach I Want to Be

Although I had positive role models in my life, very supportive parents and extended family, and only a few really negative experiences in sport growing up, I never had anyone I would truly consider a transformational coach in the way I want to be for my players.

I’ve played for a dozen coaches from basketball, flag football, and karate as a youth, waterpolo, wrestling, and rowing in high school, and lacrosse in college, and I’ve coached with a dozen more since I started as a college junior intern. The closest I get to saying, “that’s the kind of coach I want to be” is for some of my youth karate senseis, who I credit with nurturing my early self-discipline, work ethic, and stoicism.

This has put me at the disadvantage of having to make it up as I go along, finding my way as a would-be transformational coach absent a true role model either in my personal or professional experiences.

Fortunately, there’s the internet.

Thank you to Craig Haworth, host of the Winning Youth Coaching podcast and founder of Youth Coaching “Na-TION,” for providing such an amazing wealth of knowledge and uniting coaches with a common goal, as well as for asking me the question that has launched so much self-reflection over the last year. 

Thank you to Brian Gearity, aka Dr. G., program director of the University of Denver MA in Sport Coaching program, for creating the curriculum that has given me the vocabulary and knowledge I needed to verbalize and act on many of these concepts, for demonstrating to us what it looks like to love and care for your pupils while holding us to such a high standard. I cannot recommend this program highly enough for any other coaches seeking a very rigorous higher degree.

Thank you to Dan Shiels, former coach of the Ballard United girl’s soccer program, for creating as close to a perfect transformational coaching experience as could exist for his daughter, who grew up to become the strong and self-confident woman I’ve loved for six years now. Through your and Emily’s stories, advice, and experiences, I’ve learned and been deeply inspired by how much of an impact sport can have on the lives of young people.

Thank you to all of my athletes, former athletes, and parents of athletes who have let me know that my work is appreciated. We coaches need feedback too.

This year, I learned to be more vulnerable with my athletes. I made more of an effort to relate to them on a personal level and let them get to know who I actually am instead of some kind of coaching persona. I invested in and learned about them as people rather than just as lacrosse players or rowers. I let them know that I really do like them and wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t. At first, I did this because I knew it was the right thing to do, mostly for their benefit. But the more I did it, the more I found it really made the whole experience more enjoyable for me as well. When I bought in more, they bought in more, when they bought in more, I was more and more excited for each day and week of practice. It’s sometimes hard to manage a closer player-coach relationship, but as I allowed myself to become better friends with my athletes, we all got more out of it.

I know I’m not going to get everything right on my first try. I’ve spent a good amount of time churning that question around in my brain and going through the usual “what I could’ve said” lines. I wanted to write this partially for myself to process the events of the last year and commit to doing better. I also think it’s important that I write about the misses as well as the makes, so I wanted to put my own mistake on full display in hopes that someone else can learn from it too.

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