Beyond the Whistle

High school sports are the best.  Unpaid athletes coming together for the sole issue of being part of a team, representing their school and community and playing a sport they love.  Sure, some do it in hopes of gaining a scholarship but since the percentage of high school athletes competing at a NCAA 1 school is about 2%, the odds are against them.  The irony is that most players know they aren’t going to get a scholarship, but they play because they love the camaraderie, competition, consistency, and culture. It’s what make high school sports organic, home grown and so much fun to be a part of.  The only thing most of these players will gain will be pride, life lessons and lasting memories. For most high school athletes, that’s enough.

My husband coaches at a public high school in Northern California.  He has been doing it for over 22 years.  Being the Head Coach is a huge job that he shoulders, and I am in awe of his ability to multitask.

Coaches are a special breed.  They are part thick skin, part softie. Part tough-guy, part tender hearted. Part disciplinarian, part drill instructor. Part critic, part cheerleader. Part teacher, part student. Part motivator, part mentor. Part coach, part loving parent.  Their impact goes far beyond the game.

Coaching is about so much more than game day–to be honest, that’s the easy part.  It’s about unifying people from all different nationalities, upbringings, income levels, religious beliefs, athletic abilities and making them believe that their sum is greater than the parts. It is about game planning; teaching how to win with class and how to lose with that same class; monitoring their academics; watching endless amounts of film; pushing kids to consider college who never entertained the idea before; modeling self- respect and respect for their school and community. It is about pushing players to be better than they ever imagined and holding them to standards that teach responsibility and teamwork.

My husband does all that, teaches full time and continues to be a present and loving father to our three kids. And he does this year after year, for very little pay, with the hope he will somehow make a small difference in their lives.  He may not wear a cape, but to me he is a superhero.

Walking beside him for the past 22 years has afforded me the ability to get to know so many amazing players, parents, and families.  Name the year and I’ll rattle off four or five families that are forever engraved in my heart.  We attend ex-players weddings, graduations, and other milestone events. We follow every player on Saturday or Sunday who continues to play football at the next level and root loudly for their team. We have t-shirts from college teams across the country because on game day, we represent. Coaching transcends the field, it allows you to create a family with people you chose to be related to.

Every year I ask a few senior players to write my husband a letter about their time playing for him. I give him those letters on Christmas morning.  We have kept all the letters in a book—a book so special that if our house were to catch on fire, after grabbing my kids and my dog, that book would be next. Each Christmas morning, he opens his present and sets his letters aside until he can read them alone, because each letter matters so much. That and because he doesn’t want anyone to see his “eyes sweating” as he reads them.  He tells me each Christmas that, hands-down, it is his favorite gift.

Glancing over those letters, words like respect, preparation, family, impact, character, and hard work jump off the page.  Young men, some barely shaving and others with full mountain beards, share stories of being challenged, motivated, inspired and encouraged.  They recall games of importance and remember the painful sting of their final game. They share the triumphs of championships and the disappointment of games lost.  Players tell about calling coach the middle of the night if they needed advice or raiding our refrigerator when they came over to watch film.  They tell funny stories of his on the field antics or his off the field moments where he challenged them in the weight room or the classroom.  One of my all-time favorite letters came from a pastor’s son who admitted “If you told me to jump on a grenade, I would” because he trusted his coach so much.

The letters often speak of observing how their coach treats his family and some share they have never witnessed that kind of love from a man.   They talk about his booming voice and his soft heart, the perfectionist with technique and the countless hours he puts in to making the team better. They remember moments of being held accountable for their actions and the life lessons learned from focusing on something other than themselves.  They appreciate his passion for the game and love for his players.  They admit he’s actually “kinda funny” when he’s not yelling at them and they talk about keeping in touch with him when they are gone.  The word “brotherhood” comes up in almost every letter.  They recall moments he may have forgotten but memories they hold close forever.  So many letters end with “Coach, I will never forget you” and I believe them.

If your child plays high school sports, enjoy it. Don’t blink, it goes fast.  Savor the games, even if they don’t play as much as you would like.  Root for the team, not your players time on the field.  Leave the coaching to the coaches, even if you think you know better. Remember, all your child wants after the game is a hug and to know you are proud of them, not your detailed analysis of how they played.

Do not equate your child’s self-worth and lovability with their performance. Focus less on the pressure of a scholarship and more on their job as a well-rounded student-athlete. Be proud of their dedication and hard work. Model respect for the coaches.  Show gratitude to the coaches who make sacrifices in their personal life and basically volunteer to teach your child skills that will make them better adults, employees, spouses, and community members.  Inspire your player to do their best, work hard and enjoy being part of something bigger than themselves.  Encourage hard work, hustle, and heart.  Let them know it’s more important that they are a good teammate than a great athlete. Above all, urge them to have fun.

Consider yourself blessed. There are so many unsafe and unhealthy things your child could be doing with their time. Be grateful for their commitment to play sports during high school and give them credit for the courage it takes to join a team and work together for a common goal.  Teaching our high schooler’s to be grateful for those who have invested in them—from coaches to teachers to teammates– is an invaluable life lesson. Gratitude is learned best when it is witnessed and we, as parents, are the best role models to teaching this.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Whistle

  • Outstanding article Kel. As a coach, Girl Scout leader, teacher, and honor society advisor we really never know the full impact we have on young people

  • The comment from Pat is so true. Even those of us who are unable to coach, hold Scout meetings, or be an advisor, impact our children and their friends. The encouragement and “bleacher bun” crowd show our children how to participate in, and become part of that larger equation just by being there. I had four boys who were very close together and by the time they were out of college, my “bleachers buns” had callouses. Great blog!!!!!!

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