Bring Them Back

by Ryan Krzykowski

Sometimes I read something that just hits me.  It happened again last weekend.

We often mention our friend John O’Sullivan and his work with Changing the Game Project.   We’ve been on his Way of Champions podcast.  He’s been a guest on our CFC podcast as well.  Back in December, John’s latest book, Every Moment Matters, was released and that’s what I decided to dig into on a two hour car ride.

A terrific read, Every Moment presents a series of 17 lessons for coaches, built around the ideal that the most effective coaches understand what they do, why they do it, and seek to maximize their positive impact on the lives of others.  John’s writing incorporates a variety of stories, and the one shares at the beginning of lesson one hit me right between the eyes.

I won’t plagiarize John’s work by sharing the story word for word, but he writes about an experience he had in 2002 as a coach still in his twenties.  The short version is that he was coaching a soccer team of 16-year old boys in a weekend tournament and the team had already been eliminated from contention to move on to the next round.  For the purposes of this tournament the team was playing out the string.  As the team struggled in their final game of the weekend, one of the players on the team (Steve) was having a particularly difficult time.  The frustrated coach began directing loud and angry words at this one player, and these words were noticed by all.  Eventually it got to the point that coach “yanked” the young man from the game, blasted him with some “choice words” and ignored him after that.  John describes his attitude in this way: “I wanted players who would compete.  In my mind, Steve didn’t care about his team, so why should I care about Steve?”

John goes on to recount a conversation with a teammate/friend of Steve’s who mustered up the courage to suggest that Steve go back in the game, with this explanation: “He is not going to play soccer next year, Coach, mostly because of the way you treat him.  That means today is his last game ever with us.  He has played with us since he was nine years old.  And he is sitting over there feeling terrible, like it is all his fault.”

There’s a bit more to the story, and John goes on to share that he put both Steve and his friend back on the field together, enabling them to have a few final minutes of soccer together.  But the line that absolutely crushed me as I read this story was that Steve was “not going to play next year, mostly because of the way you treat him.”

I know, based on the feedback I’ve gotten over the years that there are many players and families who have been really happy with me as a coach, and that have grown their enjoyment and love of the sports I’ve coached.  I say this as humbly as I can, because I also know there are some out there who have stopped playing because of how I’ve treated them.  Or maybe how I virtually ignored them and failed to make them feel like a part of the team.  Or the harsh words that I felt justified in saying because of their poor performance.  Or the harsh words they didn’t deserve at all but got from me, because I allowed frustration that had nothing to do with them to accumulate and boil over.

As years have gone by I believe I’ve gotten better, but in reading John’s story, I was confronted with the reality that I have blown it at times, sometimes badly so.  And while I don’t want be someone who continually beats himself up for old mistakes, I certainly want to be someone who acknowledges, learns from, and if possible, seeks to make amends for those mistakes.

My standard answer to someone who coaches young children, when they ask for any kind of coaching advice, is that they should do their best to make sure the players they coach want to play again next year.  Reading the John/Steve story, that’s really not bad advice no matter what age of athletes someone is coaching.  Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than simply making everyone happy all the time, that’s not usually possible, but beginning with the idea that want all these kids to play again next year seems like a pretty good place to start.

Let’s Coach With Purpose.