By Anne Maxwell
If you’ve played sports, you’ve been corrected by a coach.
Perhaps you missed a block on the football field, smashed a hit squarely into the net on the volleyball court, planted yourself too far underneath the basketball goal while on defense only to hear the inevitable, “BLOCK OUT!” as the missed rebound sailed over your head into the hands of your opponent for the perfect put back.
Sports remains a humbling, important part of youth and teenage years. There are so many lessons to glean from those practices and games, and I was fortunate enough to be encouraged - and many times yelled at - by a coach. I respect them for their dedication, unseen hours of preparation, and endless love for the game and the joy they found in shaping young athletes.
We’ve gotten accustomed to the immediate response of frustration, angst, and occasional meltdowns when something goes wrong. But then unexpected happens and you’re reminded once again that the drama of the unscripted, pure, surprising element of sports is one of the intangibles that draws us in again and again.
Such was the case upon watching my brother in law coach online last winter. Spectators were limited to all my nephew’s games, which wasn’t great for the hometown fans. But for those of us residing in another state, it offered the rare opportunity to stream most of his senior season events online. However, it wasn’t just A.J. we tuned in to watch. My brother-in-law, Kevin, was assistant coach for the team, and led the junior varsity squad.
We’d occasionally pull up the feed for A.J.’s game just a little early to see Coach Kevn’s B-Team squad put their skills to the test on the hardwoods. While the team was competitive and the players fun to watch, the best part was watching Kevin coach. My brother-in-law is a lifetime educator, having taught junior high and high school students for more than 30 years now. He’s never easily rattled, always even-keeled, and ever ready to teach a lesson as much as he is to give direction.
Which is why he’s such a great coach. And why it was fun to see him get his buttons pushed every now and then.
We often laughed at the fact that Kevin’s own excitement during time-outs had us glued to our tiny computer screen as we tried to guess what instructions he was giving as he quickly mapped out a play on the sidelines. A Big 12 game might be on our big screen TV, but we were glued into the action courtside. Good coaches will do that - make you feel like you’re coming along for the ride, and we were all too happy to join the team more than 500 miles from our living room.
It was a close game late in the season, however, that truly made me think about the kind of coach Kevin really is.
The score was tight going down the final stretch and after a dead ball that would give his team possession of the ball underneath their own basket, Kevin called a time out to regroup and diagram a plan to gain another easy 2.
Heads nodded as the dry erase marker emblazoned the x’s and o’s and final instructions were given at the whistle and the players got into position. Players hit their screens, the post was open and the inbounds securely reached his hands all according to plan.
Problem was, the post player missed the open lay-up.
The opposing crowd cheered and the other coach called a time out to make their final plans to get down the court. The post player's head hung in embarrassment, but he started to hustle toward the huddle, probably fearing what would be coming.
Watching from miles away, we - as I’m sure everyone in the gym - expected Kevin to say what we were all thinking,“How did you miss that shot!?!?!”
Instead, as often is the case in sports, the unexpected happened.
Kevin reached out to the player and hugged him.
There were a million things a coach could have offered to that player at that time.
“Use the backboard.”
“Take your time next time.”
“Don’t miss that shot ever again!”
I don’t think any of those pieces of sage advice will resonate with that player the way that hug did. Kevin knew the player felt bad enough about what had happened. But he also knew he didn’t need berated about it. And he knew that he’d make that shot again and again in games to come.
I don’t know if that player will ever remember that positive affirmation, he received that night from a coach who knew that even with the best intentions, sometimes things don’t pan out.
But I will.
It’s so easy to put down.
It’s much better to lift up.
And it’s something that stays with others long after the final buzzer.