An Open Letter To The New Coach

Hey you in the back. I hear you’re about to start coaching.

First off, congrats! Coaching is deeply rewarding and meaningful, and is a great way to positively touch many people’s lives. I know you’re going to look for ways to get up to speed and that’s exactly what you should do. There are tons of books out there about coaching. If you want to learn how to build a team, teach a skill, or condition athletes, you’ll have a lot of really great resources.

But they don’t talk about the emotions that come up while coaching.

I have only coached roller derby for a few years but in that time I’ve had some of the best and worst days of my life. I have felt overwhelmed, miserable, stressed, angry, and inadequate. I’ve also felt respected, accepted, needed and loved. Some days I’ve felt all of these at once. It’s not popular to talk about the challenges of coaching, but more people should. Coaching is hard and you deserve to know that up front. It’s just not hard for the obvious reasons.

If your coaching experience is like mine, you will have moments when you need to talk an athlete through her tears. You will have to calm a skater down when she’s furiously shouting at the refs. You will have someone call you at night and ask why she wasn’t rostered. You will have to tell a skater that she needs to gear down before scrimmage because she hasn’t had enough sleep to be safe on the track. I sincerely hope you never experience it, but odds are high that someone is going to get injured; the longer you coach, the higher those odds.

Nor will these moments be strictly confined to stuff on the track. You will hurt someone you care about because you were too cavalier, or didn’t say something you should have, or didn’t think enough, or just didn’t have a good answer. Someone you’ve worked with over years will move away, or retire, or transfer to another league. You’ll have team members date each other, and team members break up with each other. Some will have stuff going on in their life they can’t tell you about. All of them will have bad days. All of this will wear on you.

The odds of going without a good cry in a season are pretty low. If you are lucky, you will get through these moments without any permanent damage. But I won’t lie — I’ve met more than a few cynical, jaded coaches who seem to have lost empathy for the people they coach. These days I wonder how much of that is what they started with and how much is the wear and tear of experience. It worries me. I believe that empathy is the most critical component of coaching. I hold on to mine tightly even when it hurts.

And for every painful example, there is a moment of joy to balance it out. Earlier this week, I had a skater struggling with a certain block. Her positioning was wrong and her mentality was wrong. I walked her through repositioning her body and told her how to make small corrections until it suddenly worked for her. She looked at me in complete surprise when it clicked, like her whole world had changed. I would never want to lose that.

Each of these experiences have made me a better person. Each of these moments are indescribably precious, including (or perhaps especially) the painful ones. When I lay it all out in front of me, it feels like an incredibly short period of time was packed with every emotion I can imagine. I can only hope that your journey will be as good for you as mine has been for me.