by Ryan Krzykowski
Many years ago, early in 2012, I landed on a stated purpose for myself as a coach. I coach to help young people develop a love for sports and a love for others that will steer them toward becoming someone who will change the world for good.
The words sound nice — who wouldn’t want to help young athletes under their care grow in love for the sport and for others? But my hope has always been that the statement would serve as much more than nice sounding words. The idea was that it would provide me with a lens through which to view people and situations, a filter to use when processing decisions, and as a means of self reflection and evaluation.
So when our 6th grade football team played its game last weekend, my purpose statement was put to the test. Our boys finally had the “easy” game on their schedule — they were playing a team that had struggled badly all year, and our kids were going to have their way with them on the field. Maybe I coached differently during the week, knowing the game should have been a blowout, but I avoided any talk of our upcoming opponent and fought hard against whatever temptation I might have had to allow any of us to coast through our practices. Imagine my surprise when our kids trailed 7-6 near the end of the first quarter. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We just weren’t playing anywhere near our best, and with a small lead at halftime, I let the kids know they were playing down to the level of their opponent. I didn’t raise my voice, but I’m sure irritation and frustration were coming through loud and clear. Another factor that had turned my mood sour was that a number of our players had begun complaining to me and the other coaches about uncalled penalties. “I’m getting held” was the most common of those complaints, and I learned that listening to kids whine about officiating is a trigger that quickly upsets me.
The game ended, and while our kids played better in the second half and won by a couple scores, it still wasn’t very good. My postgame talk focused on how they need to play their best regardless of the score. I was still crabby about the first half whining and disappointed with how the team played overall as I pieced together those comments. Then we all went home.
Driving home and for the rest of the day I began to think about my words to the boys, both at the half and after the game. I firmly believe everything I said was true, and yet I couldn’t help but feel like I had messed up. I thought about the phrases “love for the sport and love for others” and wondered if my words could possibly have helped anyone grow in those areas. I thought about how at the beginning of the season we had 22 of 26 players who had never played on a football team before, and that my goal or vision for the group was that all 26 would be eager to play football next fall. I realized that while I almost certainly hadn’t done irreparable damage, that there was a need to talk with the group at our next practice and also hopefully learn something that will help me handle similar situations better in the future.
At the next practice a few days later, I began by telling the team that they need to always strive to play their best no matter the opponent, no matter the situation or score. I told them I didn’t think they did that in the last game, but then I proceeded to talk about many of the things they did well. We had the offense stand up — and applauded their ability to keep their composure and convert a 3rd and goal from the 30 yard line by scoring a touchdown after a couple penalties put them in a tough spot. We had the kickoff team stand up, and highlighted the job they did of giving the other team terrible field position twice in the 3rd quarter that eventually led to our defense recording two safeties. We congratulated the defense on recording those two safeties and for playing an entire game and only giving up a single touchdown, which is really pretty good.
I didn’t walk back anything I had said at the game; I couldn’t, it was all true. In fact, you may notice I reminded them of most of it. But the difference was I came to the second conversation with purpose and vision. On my do-over, I didn’t come at these new first-year players with a crabby, frustrated tone like I had the first time. And in addition to pointing out areas for improvement, I also intentionally highlighted the positive things they had accomplished in the game. If I was an 11-year old who consistently got talked to the way I spoke to them on game day, it would be hard for me to want to go through multiple seasons of that. On the other hand, our conversation on Tuesday, while honest, left these kids feeling good about themselves and the fact that they play this game. I hope it made a difference as they decide whether or not to play in the future.
Let’s Coach With Purpose.