This theory has driven my Dad’s coaching philosophy for more than 30 years of leading youth sports teams. I learned of this simple maxim during a conversation we had years ago regarding my little brother’s hockey team—a group of boys who, under the guidance of my Dad, managed to go five seasons without a single loss. It wasn’t because they had superior talent (although they were pretty darn good), and it wasn’t because my Dad pushed them to the limit and demanded excellence (although he's been known to run a pretty hard practice), it was because he understood that all kids crave greatness and he consciously put them into situations in which they could become heroes. He’d send them out onto the court (or the field or the rink) with a pep talk for confidence and a slap on the helmet for courage. And after they’d scored the go ahead run or the winning goal, he’d welcome them back to the sidelines with an enthusiastic “Atta Baby!” and a big ole’ bear hug. And after each game, the boys seemed to walk a bit taller and stick their chests out a bit farther. Pride feels good to a kid.
It takes a special person to make a second grade soccer game feel like the World Cup, but a great coach knows that spirit and grit can take a team farther than talent alone ever could. Great youth coaches inspire confidence and can turn a rag-tag team of country boys into a fine-tuned victory machine. They can transform a group of small town volleyball players into a cohesive record-breaking unit that believes they are worthy of winning. And sometimes, they do much more than that.
I remember my Dad driving around town for an hour after every rocket football practice, the back of his truck loaded down with ten year olds in shoulder pads, to drop off the kids whose parents never came to pick them up. I remember one of his players sleeping on our couch for a few months because his mom wasn't around and he didn’t have a place to stay. Luckily, my Dad isn’t the exception to the rule. Many youth coaches take on much more than the responsibility of teaching kids how to catch a ground ball or how to throw a perfect spiral. Whether it's giving a kid a few bucks for lunch money or checking in with them to make sure their homework is done, coaches regularly take time out of their own lives to provide a safe place to land or a shoulder to lean on. Just last week one of my high school students gave a speech about the most influential person in his life. In his speech he talked about a guy who treated him like a son on and off the field, who inspired him to be a better man, who led by example, who exuded strength and kindness, and a guy who he wished he could be like someday. This seventeen year old kid was talking about his assistant football coach and there was no mistaking the importance of his influence. Kids crave acceptance and love, and the best coaches offer an abundance of both.
We’ve all seen the sports movies that follow the same predictable plot line: coach takes on team of misfits, coach inspires team to believe in themselves, team takes on a competitor that is bigger and better, team relies on lessons taught by coach, team wins and coach looks on with pride in his eyes as his misfits are transformed into champions. There is a reason why we pay good money to sit in a crowded theater to watch these movies. We’ve all had one of those coaches. We’ve all been part of something greater than ourselves. We’ve all had our day in the sun. And if we haven’t, then we sure would like to. Because pride feels good…but knowing that someone is proud of you feels even better.
So, thank you to all of the coaches out there who race from the office to the court every night of the week. To those who miss meals with their families to make sure one of their players makes it home safely. To those who give up overtime at work for quality time on the field, and trade quiet nights at home for raucous nights in gymnasiums. To the men and women who volunteer their expertise and their guidance, their time and their love. Thank you for treating our kids like your kids and creating situations in which they can become heroes.