I’m Sorry I Yelled At You On The Bus

I made a lot of mistakes as a high school head coach.  Now that I’ve been an athletic director for a while, I recognize that many of the mistakes I made are common among brand new, young, former athlete turned head coaches, but that doesn’t change the fact that I made a lot of mistakes as a high school coach.

Poor play calling at times?  Of course.  In fact, there are two calls in my last game as a head coach that still eat me up.  But those aren’t the mistakes I’m talking about.
Poor practice planning at times?  Of course.  Too many kids standing in lines, too many conditioning drills for no purpose other than conditioning, too long of practices, etc.  But those aren’t the mistakes I’m talking about.
Poor scheme or strategy?  Yeesh.  I still feel badly for the first teams I coached.  They had an idiot coach trying to get them to run an offensive scheme for which they simply weren’t fit.  But that isn’t the mistake I’m talking about.

The mistakes I feel the worst about are the ones I made because my perspective was WAY out of whack.  Like too many young coaches, I tried to apply what I personally valued as a former college athlete (winning) and what I had learned was important while playing college sports (winning) to the group of high school kids who knew better than I did.  Because I thought that everyone should care about winning – and only winning – to the extent that I did as an athlete, far too many times I acted in a way that didn’t meet most of my players’ needs.  Of all of those poor decisions I made, the ones that continually pop up in my mind are getting on the bus after a tough loss.

By the time the kids were done showering and had hopped on the bus, more than enough time had elapsed for them to process the loss and move on to the more important issues that face teenage boys.  Because of that, there were times that they entered the bus joking around, laughing, and generally having fun…you know, like teenage boys should be doing after they get done playing a game.  Unfortunately, my adult filter and competitive adult mentality had not had enough time to process the tough loss, so I was often still upset.  Since I was still upset, I was of the belief that everyone around me should be taking that loss as hard as I was, and I was certain that one of my roles as the head coach was to get them to understand how upset they should be about losing that game.  So, to all of the kids who played for me,

I’m sorry I yelled at you on the bus.

Here’s what I understand now.  The kids tried to win the game because that’s what they do; no kids ever go into a game trying to lose.  I had failed to realize why they were playing in the first place.  My job as a coach was to teach them how to prepare and how to compete while ensuring a safe place for them to learn all of the wonderful characteristics than can be taught through sport.  If I, as an AD, saw the actions of me as the coach, I would ask myself the same question I use with coaches and parents now: What characteristic or personal quality would the kids have learned had they won that they didn’t learn because they lost?  Because if I had been coaching the right way, they would have learned all of the good stuff regardless of the outcome of the game.

We (adults) still get far too hung up on the result of games without realizing just how many aspects of winning are out of our control.  I can’t remember off the top of my head where I first read this (possibly the Jerry Lynch book titled Let Them Play – awesome book, by the way), but I like this comparison between athletic levels.  At the professional level, winning is essential.  At the collegiate level, winning is expected.  At the youth level (including high school), winning is a wonderful little by-product that occurs when everything falls into place at just the right times.  John O’ Sullivan has even created a performance equation: Talent + State of Mind + Coaching + Deliberate Practice + Luck = Performance.

In order for adults to buy into that philosophy, it’s important that we define “success” correctly.  Knowing that sometimes the other team is just bigger/faster/stronger/smarter than we are; knowing that sometimes the ball bounces the wrong way; knowing that sometimes our players’ thoughts are on more important things than a game; etc. etc. etc., we can’t define success to mean winning.  If winning becomes our ultimate goal, what positive takeaway comes from a loss?  We have to treat winning like a by-product of everything going right for us, which means we need to define success differently within our programs.

John Wooden – one of the best – offered his thoughts about success several times.  This is the best quote I can find from him: “Success is peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.  What is so important to recognize is that you are totally in control of your success – not your opponent, not the judge, critic, media, or anyone else.”

So let’s make a couple assumptions.  As a highly competitive adult, I was going to be upset and frustrated after a loss.  As normal kids, they were going to be focused on the fun of the game and hanging out with their friends.  As the adult, I needed to recognize that I wasn’t going to be able to teach them correctly until I could process the game through my competitive adult filter.  To make the game a safe environment for learning what’s important, I should have allowed the kids to enjoy the time with their friends in a setting that’s centered on a game and addressed the learning opportunities after the emotional attachments (both mine and theirs) to the game had faded.

Then, to match Wooden’s definition of success, my questions shouldn’t have anything to do with asking why we lost.  Better questions for the kids would sound more like this:

– Did you give your best effort in preparing for that game?
– Did you give your best effort in executing your job during that game?
– Did you execute your job to the best of your ability during that game?

Those are the transferable skills to our adult world.  That’s what all of us, as adults, should strive for when heading off to and coming home from our jobs every day.  Am I prepared for my job today to the best of my ability?  Did I perform my job to the best of my ability today?  We all know that our adult work days are often disrupted by things that are out of our control; we need to provide the same understanding for our kids who are playing games.  Coaches, coach them up.  Parents, support the heck of out them.  But in the end, don’t yell at them on the bus.

26 Responses

  1. Michael

    Just read this Mark. I might suggest a very slight amendment based on personal experience. Different kids have different objectives. Making a team out of humans on their first go-round with a for-real competitive team is hard (so props for your work). But some kids are competitive like you and some less so. Being aware of those differences and getting a team aligned and moving in the same direction is just plain hard. Other than that I think you got it bang on, showing a lot of good self awareness.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      I absolutely agree with you. I think it’s important for our coaches to know how to motivate kids because they are all motivated by different aspects of participation. In this post, I’m referring more to the “when” and “how” of motivation…at least, that’s what I was trying to do.

      I also talk quite a bit about trying to meet the needs of most of our kids. That’s more where I missed the mark as a coach. I assumed that every kid was motivated by the same things that motivated me. I wanted to be better than everyone else; I wanted to play college sports; I wanted to be defined as an athlete. The truth of the matter is that most kids aren’t wired like that. You may enjoy reading this and this about the difference between coaching our 3%ers vs. coaching our 97%ers.

      Thanks for the read and comment!

  2. Jay Lamb

    Your article is right on point. I have coached basketball teams over the years. Some were very talented and driven to win, and some were not very talented but loved playing the game. I treated both types similarly by letting them know that if they worked hard and enjoyed the experience they won regardless of the score. Many coaches have lost sight of this, and lose the joy of the competition and learning that goes on with these young people. The experience can be one the kids remember fondly, or remember their favorite day being the last day of the season. It is all up to the adult in charge. I have two children who have gone through high school sports and they have been on both sides of the experience. The person in charge mattered.

  3. Fred

    As you know from NFHS surveys a vast majority of our young people out for high school sports do so to (1 be with there friends (2 have fun with their friends. This makes our adult sensibilities and need to win a little more down the list as to why they play or we coach high school sports. Very good article. Thanks

  4. Chad R

    Great article Mark! It is hard sometimes to draw that line no matter the age of the kids that you are coaching. I learned that the hard way coaching 5th grade football last year (including your son). I think that I learned more from them then they learned from me! One thing that I took pride in as a coach was that every kids said they wanted to come back next year and that they ha fun regardless of the number of wins we had. Thanks again for the reminder and another great article.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Thank you for the read and comment! He had fun and got to spend time with this friends – the two most important parts of the game for kids.

  5. Excellent article, and I appreciate you being able to apologize to your players – this is something all coaches need in their play books. For so many students, sports is an outlet – physical, social, emotion, even spiritual. Coaches don’t know if an athlete is having a tough time at home, or even depressed, and at a breaking point. You don’t have to know what’s going on with your players at home, but it’s important to realize you don’t know. As Peter Marshall once wrote, “Treat every human heart as if it were breaking.” Good advice on many levels.

  6. Janell Regimbal

    Great article! There is so mush wisdom there for new and not so new.coaches of all levels. Once kids are done playing the game their experiences good and not so good stay with them and influence who they become. That’s a responsiblity and a priveledge.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Absolutely true – and we realize that too late in many cases. Thank you for the read and reply!

  7. Terry Dunphy

    Well stated Mark. Unfortunate that all coaches can’t enter the ranks with the wisdom of experience. Coaching our young folks remains one of the most important of all vocations.

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