A coach tells his team what's most important

After years of being one of those loud parents shouting unauthorized encouragements and exhortations from the sidelines, I decided to take the plunge this year. I became a coach. My team: a group of 10- and 11-year-old boys, one of them my son. Our sport: basketball.

Becoming a coach for the first time is a bit like becoming a father for the first time. When my first child was born, I found myself thinking often of how my father behaved with his children. I became like him in many ways and different from him in others. Now, as my coaching career begins, I find myself thinking back on the many coaches I had in my youth, appreciating them anew, and also choosing in some ways to be different.

As my team's first game was coming up, I felt it was important to talk to the team. Not just about the mechanics of the game - how we'd set up our offense and defense - but also about how I wanted them to think about the enterprise we were beginning together.

I was surprised at how moved I was at the prospect of articulating my way of looking at the game. Moved both because it soon became apparent that (as trite as it sounds) the game was a metaphor for life itself, and because it seemed so beautiful and humbling a responsibility to offer my understanding to these boys just as they were about to plunge into the highly charged arena of the basketball court surrounded by their cheering families.

Here's what I said, after telling them how proud I was of the way they'd worked in our practices, getting ready for the season to begin.

'Some coaches want their teams, above all, to win. Some say no, we're out here to have fun. To me, what's most important is neither of those.

"Winning certainly feels better than losing, but I'd rather you guys lost a game you put your heart into than you won a game with a half-hearted effort.

"As for 'fun,' that's worthwhile in its place, like on the playground, where you horse around and have a 'good time.' But I'd like you to discover that there's a kind of satisfaction that goes deeper than 'fun.' It's the satisfaction of doing something with all your might - giving everything you've got - to achieve your goal. And in this game, it's also the satisfaction of being part of a team working to accomplish something together, for everybody.

"So when you're out there on the court, I want you to be asking each moment, 'What's the best thing I can do right now to help the team?' If you've got a good shot but a teammate has a better one, you'll make the pass. This game is about the guy who makes the good pass, the rebound, the defensive stop, just as much as it is about the guy who makes the basket.

"We're trying to accomplish something together. When things go wrong, I do not want to hear any of you blaming your teammates. Whoever is doing his best deserves only our help and support.

"As for the other team, I don't want you to think of them as your enemy. They are to us what a mountain is to a mountain climber: a way of seeing what we can do. We set up the game so that our goals and theirs are in conflict. We want the ball to go through that hoop, and not through the other one, but we are not against them. They are boys just like yourselves, and other than trying to achieve our goals we will do nothing hurtful to them in any way.

"Then there are the referees. There will be calls you think are wrong. Forget about them and go on. The refs are people, and they'll make mistakes. We miss shots, we travel. Why expect the refs always to be right? Missed calls happen, like rain happens. Don't waste your energy getting upset or angry. Use your energy on the game.

"Which reminds me. Try to be aware of the difference between being anxious and being keyed up. Anxiety takes your energy away from the game. It ties you up. Being keyed up means your energy is mobilized and focused. To get past anxiety, my advice is to forget about yourself. Lose yourself in the flow of the game."

Then we made a hand sandwich, and our season began.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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