Play Ball

by Ryan Krzykowski

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that we often reference Joe Ehrmann’s masterpiece, InSideOut Coaching.  It’s a primary text in the Coaching With Purpose series of lessons, and on the short list of best reads for coaches you’ll ever come across.

In chapter 4 of InSideOut, Joe tells the story of growing up in Buffalo and going sledding with his friends.  A group of boys, around age 12, they would go out all day long, wearing themselves out on the hills near their homes.  Someone was in charge of the sleds, someone brought the hot chocolate — they had their systems in place and took their fun seriously.  It was an exhausting way to spend the day, and seems to be about the most fun those boys knew how to have.

The point Joe goes on to make about the sledding is an important one.  For a man who went on to achieve great heights in high school, college and pro sports, Joe tells us that sledding with his friends in middle school was the last time he truly played.  He poses the question, how often do today’s children get to experience the great sensation of play during organized sports?  How often do they get to play freely, creatively and joyously?  His premise is that those things are rare, and that they are extremely valuable to our children.

People of my generation remember growing up playing, independently of adults.  Not unlike Joe’s experience, we’d be out for hours, unsupervised, choosing up sides and playing whatever games were in season.  While those days aren’t necessarily completely gone, it’s certainly different now.  In general, children are playing less independently and many struggle to know what to do when given opportunities to play apart from adult guidance.

As coaches of children of all ages, we have an opportunity to stoke the flames of creative, joy-filled play.  These kids are playing on the teams we coach.  They are there to play.  And while no one is suggesting that we roll out the balls, turn them loose and hope for the best on game day, I have personally been challenged to think more about how to foster that “great sensation of play”.  It doesn’t matter how brilliant my drills and schemes are with the players I coach if they aren’t enjoying the experience, because most of them aren’t coming back next year.  This idea reminds me of some wise words from the Apostle Paul:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Applied to myself:

If I coach with the most clever of schemes and tactics, and devise the most effective drills, but do not have love and do not help athletes grow in love for their sport and each other, then I am a clanging cymbal.  I am nothing.  I gain nothing.  It doesn’t matter.  I have to help them love.  I have to help them remember they are playing.