Whose Experience Is It?

Between the content of my email/voice mail inbox and the recent headlines from Independence, Iowa, about their girls’ basketball coaches, I feel like this is as good a time as any to address the true experience of high school athletics.

In my opinion, this is the busiest time of the year for a North Dakota athletic director.  At the end of every season, we’re working on a combination of things: coaches’ evaluations, end of the season financial reports, next year’s schedules, preparing transportation for the upcoming seasons, and more.  While these tasks take place at the end of every season, getting them all completed at this time of the year is particularly difficult.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in small, medium and large school districts.  I’ve worked in the Red River Valley on the east side of the state and in the Badlands area of the west side of the state, and I grew up and went to college smack dab in the middle.  Regardless of the size of the community and school district or where the district is located in the state, there is one undeniable fact about North Dakota athletics: we love our winter sports.

It’s understandable, in part.  We have a seemingly unending supply of winter-ish weather that’s broken by a period of nearly unbearable heat and humidity; indoor sports appeal to us.  Think about all of the sports that we offer at the high school level in the winter and how they’re viewed by the community.  Gymnastics and swimming families tend to compete in those sports at the club level year round; there are very few fan bases as passionate about promoting and supporting their sport as the wrestling folks; if you live in a strong hockey community, you’ll see people clamoring for ice time year round; and I wonder if there is a single town in North Dakota (maybe with the exception of mine!) that doesn’t try to identify itself as a “Basketball Town.”  I’m not suggesting that our patrons don’t care about fall and spring sports because that isn’t the case, but winter sports in ND tend to be a whole separate animal.

So how does all of that tie together?  While AD’s are working on completing those end of the season tasks that must be taken care of, we’re also dealing with a variety of parents, students, and community members who completely lose their minds about the “success” of winter sports.  I will freely admit that this sentiment tends to be a case of the “squeaky wheel.”  In education, the vast majority of patrons appear to support what we’re doing in the classroom as well as in athletics, but they also tend to be the very silent majority.  Those people that don’t agree have very little problem letting us know what we’re doing wrong.  As I write this, all of our winter sports seasons have concluded within the past month, including the last three activities that just finished last weekend.  In the past two weeks alone, I’ve received six phone calls or emails from parents telling me to fire a coach because he/she either (1) didn’t win enough, or (2) doesn’t know the sport well enough to coach at this level.  Of those six, two of them were even helpful enough to supply me with the stats they’ve so graciously taken from the stands.

For those of you now wondering if you should call/email me with your own suggestions, I’ll offer this tidbit now: I don’t engage these people in discussions about scheme/strategy/playing time/etc.  I have a detailed document regarding our communication guidelines (that I may use in a future blog post) that I try to follow as closely as I can.  That said, I often let parents/public have their say without my input; sometimes, it just feels good to vent.

Back on topic – aside from the fact that if a coach is incompetent at his/her job, it’s my fault for hiring/retaining/not fixing the coach, parents also miss one very important detail about high school athletics.  This experience belongs to the students, not the parents.

WHAT?!?  I can hear the response already: “But it’s our job as parents to protect our kids.”  My response – what is it you’re protecting them from?  The scarring caused by a lack of playing time in a high school game?  (This is a good place to note that it is, however, a parent’s job to protect their kids’ well being, and I do respond to/address those concerns immediately.)  Here’s the part about high school athletics that parents have forgotten since their own playing days: This experience – whether good, bad, or otherwise – belongs to the kids.

I have a graphic that I borrowed (read: stole) from a colleague that I encourage our coaches to use in the parent meetings.  It’s a picture of a car that has various labels on it.  I go through the process of explaining all of these labels to the coaches so they can pass it along, but it breaks down fairly simply.
Driver’s Seat = Head Coach
Passenger Seat = Assistant Coach
Front Wheels/Drivetrain = Upperclassmen (generally)
Rear Wheels = Underclassmen (generally)
Under the Hood/Mechanic = Administration
In the Back Seat = Parents

The parents (and other members of the community) don’t have a job on this trip; just enjoy (or don’t enjoy) the ride!  There are a ton of analogies I could use here about backseat drivers, etc., but you get the idea.  We’ve all been in the back seat of a trip that we enjoyed and a trip that we didn’t; so it is for high school athletics.  Most of us have had jobs that we enjoyed and jobs that we didn’t for various reasons, and we all learned something from those experiences.  That should be the take away for our student-athletes as well.

The harsh reality is that we can’t please everyone all the time.  We’re always trying, but it’s an impossible task considering the volume of clients.  Parents have the benefit of judging the experience of one kid; we don’t have that same advantage.  I heard a story once of a basketball coach who insisted on putting all 12 players on the floor for the opening tip.  When the official assessed a technical foul, he turned toward the parent section, raised his hands and said, “See.  I told you I can’t play all of them all the time.”  True story?  I don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter.  I’ll even relate this to parenting multiple kids at home.  We have three young boys at home aged 8 and younger.  I have yet to make a decision that appeals to all three at the same time.  If I can’t make an equally enjoyed decision for the three kids I spend the most time around, how could I, as a coach, possibly do the same for 20+ on a team?

We need to trust that our coaches are coaching for the right reasons, and that everyone involved in our high school athletic programs are professional enough to go about their business the “right” way.  Honestly, I have yet to meet a coach who either doesn’t like kids or wants to be bad at his/her job.  Let’s let the kids have their own experiences in our programs.  Feel free to sympathize or even empathize with their concerns and complaints, but we always need to return to one central question for the kids: What have you learned from this?  Good or bad, I guarantee they’ve learned something.

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  1. Pingback : Don’t Lose Your Minds! | Next Play

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