SIDELINE SLANTS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
When it comes to my childhood, I have fond memories of playing unsupervised games in the neighborhood. We played, argued and played some more. For the most part, adults left us alone. In fact, except for summer baseball, I don’t recall having any adult coaches until junior high basketball.

Today, kids are on teams shortly after they are out of diapers. One advantage or disadvantage is that children will inevitably be exposed to more coaches while growing up. Whether that’s an advantage or disadvantage depends on who the coaches are.

When talking about coaching, we often think first of high school and college coaches, but there are many coaches who will be in the picture long before a child is in high school.

Many of us are oblivious to the numerous volunteer coaches who work with kids in recreation programs. For better or worse, every coach in youth sports is a role model.

A Purdue University study found that 83 percent of the girls and 70 percent of the boys polled indicated their coach was the most important influence in whether they would take part in aggressive acts that broke the rules of the sport they were playing.

In the book, “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” author Fred Engh tells the story of a man who received a call from one of his former players whom he had coached about 15 years earlier. The player asked the man to be his best man at his wedding. The coach was surprised and asked the player why he would want him when he had so many buddies who could fill that role. The young man said that the coach was the person who had made him what he was today, and that without the encouragement and good direction the coach had given, he wasn’t sure where he would have ended up since his dad left home when he was 7.

Many coaches do not realize how strong an influence they have on young people.

Unfortunately, some coaches do more harm than good. There are a lot of “what drove me to quit sports” stories. One such example, according to Engh, is Alex. He loved football, and he had considerable talent for a 12-year-old. He was a first-string quarterback and his team’s most valuable player.

Alex was a shining example of all the good youth sports can bring to a child’s life.

But then, a new coach took over. This particular coach believed that a good football team was a tough football team, and the way you got tough was by persevering in the face of difficulty and fear.

The new coach screamed at the kids when they made mistakes or had them run laps as punishment for missing a tackle. Alex began to lose his enthusiasm for football.

In a game late in the season, Alex threw a perfect pass that went right through the hands of his intended receiver. The coach immediately called a timeout. He was furious that the receiver was more worried about getting hit than catching the pass.

According to Engh, in the midst of the tongue lashing, Alex spoke up and the coach spun around and said, “What did you say?”

“I said that we all make mistakes, Coach.”

“There’s no excuse for looking away from the ball like that,” yelled the coach. “That’s not a mistake, that’s being a coward.”

Engh writes that those would be the last so-called words of inspiration that Alex would ever receive from this coach. He took off his helmet, removed his jersey and shoulder pads and handed them to the coach.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the coach demanded.

Alex turned away and began to leave. After a few steps, he stopped and turned back around. “Not being a coward,” he said as he walked off the field toward his father who was there to watch his son play a game.

No one was able to convince Alex to participate in organized sports again, and a promising athletic career came to a screeching halt at the ripe old age of 13.

All of us who coach kids would do well to remember to ask, “Are we having fun yet?”

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