An Ode to the “Firsts”

Do you remember your first practice in an organized sport? Whether it was in basketball, football, soccer, or any other youth activity, if you’re like me, you were a mixed bag of energy, excitement, and nervousness. Someone took you to the field or the court, walked you up to the gaggle of little kids and parents gathered there, and then it happened: You were introduced to your first ever real life “Coach.”

I started thinking about this moment in life today, after talking with a close friend of mine who is a middle school football coach, himself getting ready for equipment check out for the coming season. So many athletes can trace their beginnings in organized play back to people just like him; volunteers in youth sports or underpaid coaches in junior high/middle school who give of their time to help teach kids the games they love, but also give them their first foray into a coach/player relationship.

It struck me that I could vividly recall many of the messages my “firsts” (in terms of coaches in my youth career) tried to compel to me, and am sure many of you out there, if you took a moment, probably could as well. In the following sections, I’m going to hopefully honor as many of them as I can remember, as I’m certain I have used (or continue to use) beliefs, sayings, and life lessons I learned from them:

(NOTE: This purposely does not include mention of any of the amazing coaches I had in High School or College because, while their impact on my life is ENORMOUS, I am focusing solely on 8th grade and earlier in defining “Firsts”)

My 1st Little League baseball Coach (age 7): My mother was my team’s Head Coach, and while she was not attempting to fool anyone into believing her to be a true baseball mind, she did succeed in implanting two things in me during that “Little Caesar’s Pizza” season: 1. Parents are their children’s original and forever #1 supporter and 2. While some level of expertise in the sport matters in coaching…the ability to get your players to play with passion and pride is even more important (and anyone who knows my mother is aware of her unique qualifications in passion and pride).

My 1st YMCA basketball Coach (age 8): Coach “Dan” had played collegiately at the same college as my father, and therefore had an expectation level for what he thought I should be able to do. He told me this the first day of practice when he said, “Little Kas, you better be able to play like your Dad.” While it was a singular sentence he said to me during our very first introduction, I took it as THE THING I had to do to win his approval. Without really knowing what he meant by “…play like your Dad,” I was aware that my dad was an All American, so in my 8 year old mind, that mean he must have scored a ton of points. So I decided I needed to shoot every touch that season, and was in all likelihood less than fun to play with for my teammates (It wasn’t until later I learned that my dad was a Point Guard, a distributor first, scorer second). Coach Dan’s words had driven me towards action, but without me knowing what he really meant. The lesson of “Don’t assume your players know what you mean…be SURE THEY KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN” has stuck with me since.

My 1st Little Guy football Coach (age 12): Coach Jim had a clear idea of how he wanted our practice week to go, and he had tag lines for certain days of the week he used to get us to remember what we were doing that day. Something like “Tough Guy Tuesdays” was regular nomenclature for him, and honestly, I’ve seen that type of calendar labeling throughout my playing and coaching career (and do so myself). However, the singular thing I remember from him is “WARSH your pants Wednesday” (and yes, that is supposed to be “WASH” but he clearly added a hard R sound in every time) as he expected our white football pants to be clean for the weekend games. I’ve been a stickler for what my (and my team’s) attire looks like and how we present ourselves on game day since!

My 1st Junior High football Coach (age 13): Coach Kevin didn’t actually coach me…I broke my collarbone the day before practice officially began playing backyard 4 on 4 tackle football without pads and was out for the year. However, what he did do was tell me, “You can cry about missing the year and mope around the school all Fall…or you can be our Team Manager and help.” While I accepted the job more so to ensure I was still around my friends (and less out of any youthful altruistic ideal I had) what I learned was invaluable. Namely, that support staff (managers, trainers, assistants, volunteers, etc) are pivotal to a team’s daily functioning and ultimately, to any success they had. If I didn’t show up with the Med Kit, put up the pylons, or get the chains ready for game day, things didn’t go well (and Coach Kevin would light me up accordingly). I felt a sense of purpose, but at the same time, recognized that my buddies largely saw the job as sitting around in the grass all day while they did “the real work” of playing. I tried from that point on to not be the guy who dissed the managers, either as a player or later as a coach. This perspective I hope has shaped me into a coach who doesn’t overlook the importance of recognizing everyone involved in a program.

My 1st Junior High basketball Coach (age 13): Coach Steve had a try out system based on points earned in various tests. Mikan Drill makes in 2 min, shuttle drill times, and 3-point makes from 3 spots were all part of a calculation he told us were used in selecting the team. Two things stuck with me from that point on: First, Attaching points or a score to any mundane drill can absolutely increase effort in said drill (i.e. Competition has to be involved in your day to day practice). Second, if you are going to utilize analytics in grading your players (which I absolutely do) you had better be sure to explain WHY and HOW the numbers affect their role on the team. I vividly recall discussions in the locker room during and after the tests about “I had the most makes in that, it’s more important than your shuttle time” or “I scored way more points in the test than he did, how is he starting over me?” These conversations did NOT enhance team harmony and only served to divide the locker room (which I’m sure was not Coach Steve’s intention). We have utilized analytics heavily here, but have tried our best to be sure our roster has a full understanding in its actual role in decision making regarding playing time and depth charts.

In conclusion, obviously I am not alone in having benefited from the time given by youth sports’ coaches. I hope this article stirred memories of those you had in your day, and while you may not remember all their names and faces, or be in contact with them anymore, I am betting their time in your life was meaningful. Here’s a salute to the “Firsts” in coaching…the men and women that serve as the launchpad to so many young people’s athletic careers!