Several weeks ago I was listening to WFAN's wonderful program on youth and high school sports, hosted by Rick Wolff on Sunday's at 8am. The topic for the day was the emerging problem with finding and retaining high school varsity coaches. A great deal of the discussion focused on the stress and anxiety created by overbearing and overly involved parents, which by its very nature typically leads to undue intervention by the Athletic Director. There was some chatter about the growing influence of travel programs and travel coaches as well.
After listening to some of the horror stories, I felt blessed that in over 20 years of coaching both varsity and youth lacrosse, I have had a total of 2 issues that involved the unwanted and unneeded involvement of parents. One issue involved a prom, the other involved an inappropriate "goof award" given to a player by their captains. In that latter case I ultimately was responsible, promptly apologized, and learned from the experience.
What I began to think is that maybe the reason why I don't have to deal with the same turmoil as other coaches is in the approach that I have adopted, or rather adapted, since my coaching is a product of my personal experiences growing up in sports, the "trial and error" learning I did on the job, and the "hand I was dealt" by my school in terms of managing the problem (for example I was never budgeted an assistant coach).
So what I thought I would do is begin a series of posts explaining my approach to coaching. I believe it is a solid methodology for managing a team, developing players, finding success on the field, AND minimizing any undue interference from parents.
In today's post I want to look at those "external" factors that have had the greatest influence on my coaching lacrosse. The point of this post- since it unlikely that most if not all of you had a similar combination of influences- is to remind coaches that it is important to reflect on experiences in your past, both on and off the field, that helped shape who you are as a person and that brought you some success.
The first influence was that of my father. My father raised me to be inquisitive and curious in whatever I do; that and a healthy dose of skepticism were keys to my learning. He also insisted that I assume responsibility and "ownership" of my actions; they were my own and I was accountable. These values also affected my relationship with coaches, as I would always seek a better understanding (sport IQ) of what and why I was doing what I was doing. These values also influenced me to "advocate" for myself; to seek "fairness" when I believed I was being treated unfairly, and to ask the necessary questions when I needed a better understanding of a coach's expectations.
The fact that I played "individual" sports like tennis and wrestling also affected me.Playing these sports in particular provides and unique perspective on team sports; when I compete I do so alone, but the consequences of my performance had a direct effect on the rest of our team. The expectations of teammates was that I would always work to make my game better, and I had the same expectations for them. There were no "free riders" in this type of team environment.
In college I decided to give up the idea of playing D1 tennis and instead "fell in love" with Ultimate Frisbee. For those who don't know, it is played 7v7 on a field approximating that of a footbal iifield. It is a great sport, but the salient point is that we did not have a coach (no programs did at that time) and so we worked collaboratively to create both our offense and defensive schemes. Ego had to be put aside, and though one of the seniors invariably made a final decision when minds were split and consensus failed, we all felt empowered. When it came to the team, we "owned it." Just like many of us learned (and forgot) growing up, a team can come together without an authoritarian figure making game and practice decisions for you all the time.
When I first started out coaching lacrosse- a sport I knew very little about- I was fortunate to be working in the Princeton area, where Coach Bill Tierney was beginning his run of success at PU. Coach Tierney allowed me to come and observe his practices. In addition to the knowledge I gained about drills and managing a practice, the most important thing I learned is that Coach Tierney expected his players to have a high IQ for the sport, and that he expected players to "be aware" of each other and to help each other learn. Just being an athlete wasn't enough. Every player was a "thinker," a "doer," and a "communicator."
And finally, my relationship-or rather my frustration- with the athletic director(s) in West Windsor-Plainsboro had a direct bearing on how I would manage the team. From the start, I don't think the ADs ever appreciated or understood that lacrosse programs could benefit from several assistant coaches, given the variety of positions and specializations in the sport. For the life of me I could not ever talk them into budgeting me an assistant coach, and this reality forced me to turn to the players, and specifically the captains, to "assume" the duties of my assistant coaches. The irony of all this is that if it wasn't for the failure of WW-P to budget me a coach I would have never realized the enormous benefits to the program by empowering the captains to become "player-coaches." To a great extent this role would later become the glue that holds all the other facets of my philosophy in place.
So those are the influences on my coaching that I believe resonate more than any others. The experiences and realities shaped my thoughts, and as I mentioned in the beginning I think that they hold the key to coaches that are actually interested in running a successful program that they truly ENJOY and that minimizes any unwanted interference from parents or athletic directors.
In the next post I'll turn my attention to the three values that I believe should be instilled in each of the players, and the 5 criteria I use to evaluate myself (and other coaches when I am evaluating).