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Point to Ponder #1

September 25, 2012
By Tony Uggen of Northfield High School

Something to ponder....

One of the most difficult tasks an Athletic Director has is trying to fill coaching positions at the lower levels… my case, the junior high level.

In today’s world many young people have aspirations of getting into the coaching profession but few wish to hone their coaching skills at the lower levels which is a shame. It takes a lot of patience to work with younger kids. In fact, it can be trying, but I believe that it helps a young coach learn how to TEACH the sport they love to participants of a wide range of learning and athletic abilities and, at the level, a coach must take the time to teach the basic fundamentals. Without the ability to teach the basic fundamentals, there is little chance for success unless you are lucky enough to coach a very gifted group of young athletes.

These are strictly my personal thoughts, but few volunteer to coach at the junior high level because it can be very trying on one’s patience to teach athletes of that age. Believe me, I started my career as a young baseball coach teaching 13-15-year-olds how to play the game I love….baseball (keep in mind that I was 16 when I got my first assistant coaching position and had my first team at the age of 18 so fortunately I have the time to grow as a coach which is a never ending process!). Secondly, it is difficult to coach in a "feeder" program because you may not have the reign you like being that the head coach may have expectations for you at that level (though I believe this is the best way to build a program it may handcuff the lower level coach because they may not understand the schemes expected by the varsity coach). Finally, it takes someone with a thick skin and many aren’t prepared for how to deal with kids at this level nor deal with the expectations of parents and the community in regard to winning which, unfortunately, has been the soul method of determining a coach’s success and that, frankly, is sad.

For most young athletes, varsity sports will be the pinnacle of their careers. According to NCAA studies, did you know that only 3.0-3.3% of all high school basketball and baseball players continue playing at any level of the NCAA? Going a step further, did you know that only 1% of that remaining group will go on to the professional level (to hit home, only 0.02-0.03% of high school athletes will make it to the professional level). Yet, so often we pretend that somehow an inexperienced (or experienced for that matter) junior high coach is going to be solely responsible for preventing an athlete from going to the next level(s).

What is my point? It is very hard to find coaches to coach at that level. Sometimes no one wants to do it so you literally have to beg someone to do it and this isn't the best means of finding a coach, but for the sake of the kids, that’s the best we can do sometimes. The alternative is much worse….no coach, no team.

So this young coach, probably scared to death of being alone with 15 kids of various athletic, emotional and learning abilities, jumps head long into maybe the toughest level of coaching. They mean well. They take the time to create practice plans and create ways to motivate kids which is quite the undertaking considering all the ways kids are pulled in today’s word. Meanwhile, everyone waits in hopeful anticipation that “our team” is going to win every game and everyone will be on happy and on board with our new coach. The odds are often stacked against them.

Let’s be realistic. Two teams will play most nights and one will win and the other will lose. This is fact. 50% win. 50% lose. And in sports, that percentage will not keep a coach around very long. Secondly, a team’s talent will have much to do with winning or losing at the junior high level regardless of how good or bad a coach really is. Believe me, at that level, a very talented team with a less experienced coach has a much better chance of winning over a totally untalented team with the greatest coach in the history of sports.

The question thus becomes who would you rather have coaching your son or daughter? This is an extreme example, but would you rather have your son or daughter coached by a self-serving, arrogant in your face “know it all” who is out to prove his worth as a coach and little regard for his athlete's overall development or a coach who values your teenager, cares about their well-being and teaches them that “handling adversity will make you a better person in the long run” among other life lessons that coach might share? Again, an extreme example but, being a parent myself, I would rather my kid lose every game and become a better person than win and learn the “we must win at all costs” mentally. Good luck to those kids handling the trials and tribulations of life!

The system we use to value the “worth” of a coach is flawed. We seem more concerned with a coach’s record when determining their value as a coach which is wrong. I have no respect for the supposedly "great ones" that cuss out kids behind the scenes and act like fools on the field in order to prove they can harass officials into getting their way because "I am a great coach." And believe me, I used to be a yeller and screamer myself in the day, but finally realized that I didn't need this in my life and that, frankly, I didn't care much for myself and if that is true I am sure the kids weren't much enamored with me either. In the end, I could care less what a coach’s record is if he or she has their best interests of kids in mind, teaches them the fundamentals of their sport as best they can, gets kids to compete consistently win or lose and teaches their athletes life skills (handling adversity, playing as a team, develop a great work ethic, the value of respect, etc, etc).

Unfortunately, most put winning over player development and when kids don’t win, the coach is seen as a failure, people complain and, eventually, they run off, if given the time to grow, a potentially great coach. Believe me, I realize that there are some bad coaches, but nothing is tougher than telling someone that “you are a great coach, but I have to let you go because people think you aren’t good enough at this point and are hurting the program.” Believe me, if we get to that point I have fought hard to keep them, but sometimes it is better, for their sake, to let them go. It does happen and that is a horrible part of my job as A.D. because some coaches just need experience to develop as a coach but, oftentimes, we don’t give them that opportunity because “we want to win now!” And you know what? It is rare for the good ones to stay around anyway as most of them shoot up the coaching ladder as they should. The result is that I have to start over with mentoring a new young coach while some parents struggle over their “worth” as a coach and the vicious cycle continues.

(A note: it is easier to see coaches stay long term in junior high or middle schools that are separate form high schools because in that situation the coach has reached the highest point since they teach there. In JH-HS or MS-HS, there is always that chance to move up being in the same building. So in our situation, the good ones will generally want to move it. The best coach I ever had was a middle school coach in Hartford City. He coached Fall, Winter and Spring and actually made me want to be a teacher and coach because he meant so much to me and loved the desire and passion for coaching AND TEACHING!)

“Again Uggen, what is your point?” We have to determine whether we want to win at the junior high level or develop our kids to compete at the varsity level. Problem is this…..if we let everyone play and attempt to develop them as future varsity Norsemen it will result in more losses. Think about it. You aren’t playing your best players at all times. The result is inevitable. Most likely, you will get frustration from parents and kids because “you guys can’t win because that coach isn’t playing the best kids!” Those same parents and kids will then get frustrated and a few will quit or go in search of a better coach elsewhere (let alone the horrible message those parents and kids are sending to the lesser talented kids that “you aren’t good enough to be a part of this team”). What we don’t know is how good those kids could have been someday if we gave them a chance.

OR…we win at all costs and play only the best kids which frustrates the not-so-talented future “bloomers” who eventually realize that sitting on the bench is no fun (and believe me, I know this to having been the smallest kid all through school until I grew 8" my late frosh-junior years) and they will eventually quit. Again, who knows what those kids could have accomplished in the future? Sure, the parents of the talented kids are happy in this scenario with “our winning coach” but has this coach really helped the program in the end by leading a few kids to quit because they never play?

Both scenarios lead to frustration by parents and kids as that is the nature of the beast in coaching, but it is my philosophy that at the lower levels we expect our coaches to do the best they can to get kids into the game full well knowing that this is tough on that young coach because essentially we are limiting their success. I am not saying everyone should play. You earn the right to play and there are always those kids who need to learn that “maybe this isn’t for me” or “there are things you can do to get better” but we do the best we can to try to make it a fun and enjoyable learning experience anyway.

So here is the problem…..we expect way too much out of our young coaches sometimes. Everyone puts winning above fundamentals and learning the “important stuff” from playing sports. Sometimes great coaches don’t win because they put kids first. Sometimes bad coaches win despite themselves. I just ask that we consider allowing coaches to grow without their living in fear of being removed because we think “they can’t win!” It certainly isn’t due to their lack of effort! Let them have the time to grow and realize that oftentimes that coach can affect 100s of kids positively over the course of years and they will improve (just like your kids will)….if we let them. The bad coaches? Trust me, we will get rid of people who don’t care about kids or the coaching profession in a heart beat. I want what is best for kids as well.

I simply ask that you ponder all this the next time you “evaluate” our junior high (or Little League, or club volleyball, or whomever) coaches. Most are good at heart and many go home wanting to pull their hair out at times trying to figure out the age old question “what can I do to get these kids to improve?” All coaches do this and it can drive them nuts, but all we ever want a coach to do is put kids first, lead by example, mentor them and be a role model. THAT…is more important than any win or loss.

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