Outside The Lines

On the first day of school each year in my math or history class, I would always see the same look on many faces that sat in the desks in front of me, especially the faces of the girls that I did not know.  The look on their face, many times, said “I’m about to have this maniac as my teacher? This is the guy that screams and yells at the top of his lungs during basketball games. He never sits down. He just rants and raves up and down the sideline!  Is he going to yell at me????”

Many of the kids that I would have in class only knew the guy they had seen at basketball games or at practice when they walked through the gym.  I’ll be the first to admit…that guy is pretty intense! I had coached many of the boys in Junior High athletics so they knew a little more about me, but I could always tell some of the girls were terrified so I would spend the first couple of days going overboard to convince them that I wasn’t going to tell them to get on the line!  Almost yearly, once we were a couple of weeks into class, I would have a student come up to me after class and say, “You’re a lot different in class than I thought you would be.”

In this entry of Coach With A Purpose, I would like to share my thoughts on the role of the coach off the court.  Without a doubt, I believe this is one of the most important and impactful aspects of coaching because it shows there is a distinction between the player and the person. On the court, I had to always do what was best for the team. Off the court, I would do my best to do what was best for the player. In my opinion, when these 2 roles become clouded it is difficult for the coach and the player and it leads to problems for all involved.  

Whether it be the coach that is too loose with players on the court or the coach that is too rigid with players off the court, I believe the effectiveness and impact that a coach can have will suffer.  As a coach, especially a demanding coach, the students must be able to see that you know there is a difference between being on and off the court.

One of the ways that I tried to send this message to my players was to make it mandatory for each player to see me (or their coach) before they left to go home after practices or games.  This was something that I learned from my high school coach, Dan Noll, who was a master of relationships. By having the players come by the office before leaving, there were several things being accomplished.  First of all, if I had to get on a player hard during practice it was an opportunity to let them know before they went home that it was never personal.

Also, on occasion  when a player did not play at all or played very little in a game it gave me an opportunity to get a feel for their understanding of the situation and whether or not I needed to talk with them before they left.  I never wanted them to think them not playing was a reflection on them personally.

Finally, I would have a chance to convey any thoughts that I wanted to leave with them before they went home for the evening, just tell them “good job”, or offer a few tidbits of advice.  Finally, depending on the circumstances, there were times when it would have been easier for both me and the player to just ignore the situation by just going our separate ways but that is not the lesson I wanted our program to teach. We would face each other face to face each day before they left regardless of the circumstances. Easy doesn’t make it right.

When I had one of my players in class, I rarely talked to them about basketball.  I just tried to treat them like any other student when they were in my class. For one reason, I wanted them to know that there was more to me than being their basketball coach.  I was also their classroom teacher and I took that responsibility seriously.

Secondly, I wanted them to know there was more to life than athletics and that I respected their time off the court.  I believe one of the biggest mistakes coaches can make is trying to monopolize the time of their athletes and not respect their time outside of their sport. Without a doubt, all successful programs are demanding and commitment of an athlete’s time to their sport is up towards the top of the list of demands. However, as coaches, I believe we should respect our players time to be a student, time with their family, and just time to be a kid. As I’ve stated in several other entries of Coach With A Purpose, players can always tell if you care for them or care what they can do for you.

Thirdly, I always wanted my players to know that I supported them in their other interests outside of basketball.  Whether they were involved in other sports, band, theatre, FFA, or activities outside of school, I did my best to support them.  Whether it be by attending these events, offering encouragement in the hallways, giving shoutouts on twitter, or a quick text message, there are so many ways to let your players know that you support them.

Finally, I want to share with you what I believe is one of the unique aspects of White Oak High School…the coaches fist bump.  Many years ago I read a book by Coach K at Duke University that talked about using the “fist” as a symbol of unity within their program.  The first was made up of 5 individual parts (fingers) but it was much more effective when clinched than as separate parts. As we adopted this philosophy into our own basketball program, the fist became a symbol for unity…Five As One.  Consequently, when our players would leave after practice or games we would exchange fist bumps instead of shaking hands to symbolize this unity.

Over time, when I would pass my players in the hallways, we would exchange a fist bump as well and other students would see this and I could tell they looked perplexed.  Consequently, we just started to exchange fist bumps as well. As fortune would have it, my classroom in the high school was located by the classrooms of several of our other coaches so as we would stand in the hallways between classes and chat, over the years we started giving fist bumps to all the kids who would pass by us in the hallway.  

Fast forward a decade or so and one of the traditions at WOHS is the kids – all kids – getting a fist bump as they passed the coaches at the end of the hall.  As coaches, we took pride in just offering this small gesture that said “you matter” and it is these 4 minutes between classes that I missed as much as anything when I moved to the Middle School campus.  

In conclusion, there is much wisdom in the saying, “They will never care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  As coaches, we show how much we care by our actions off the court/field and by our actions after a player’s playing days are over.  As much as any other time, coaches show who we are when players take the jersey off.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!