Coach: An open letter to all high school coaches
Hang with me here as I address a topic possibly overlooked in the high school coaching profession. Normally, with this column I try and be positive and enthusiastic about sports in the community, but today, just to keep things off balance a bit and out of the comfort zone, I reach out with a slight dose of criticism.
Let me preface it all by saying that I believe coaches today do an incredible job, working usually way too many hours and putting in an unbelievable amount of energy, passion and effort to make the program successful.
Clearly the coaching profession at the high school level has reached new heights. Due to increased training and improved technology, modern coaches are better prepared, smarter on physical conditioning, strength training, nutrition, practice planning, scouting, the psychology of motivation, skill teaching and game strategy -- just to name a few (maybe more than a few!).
In short, coaching high school sports, like any profession, has gotten better as it has evolved. This is a natural and, to some extent, the expected result.
There is, however, (and you probably had a feeing a "however "was coming here) one area of significant neglect that I chose to address in this week's column. It deals with a vital responsibility of the varsity high school coach that I believe has been way underutilized -- if not completely ignored -- by many: The relationship between the high school coach and the youth sports program in the community. What should be a natural and important component of any program is, in my slightly less-than-humble opinion, too often overlooked.
There are exceptions of course. And there are varying degrees. But in general, the ones that are doing it usually aren't doing it with enough emphasis, and the ones that aren't doing it are kind of neglecting a basic responsibility of the coaching profession, particularly the head coach.
Even more direct, and being maybe a little to blunt, coaches in high school today are not putting enough emphasis on developing relationships and reaching out to the youth in the community where they coach.
This includes communication with junior high schools, feeder teams, travel teams, youth programs, park district programs and, really, any group that is involved in the particular sport you are coaching. It takes some researching and some time and effort, no doubt, to find out all the different programs offered, but the results and the end game are well-worth it.
Simple efforts are so much appreciated. Reaching out to the coaches of the youth programs in your particular sport, just letting them know you are there to help, and offering any assistance should they ever need it, is often all that is required.
Maybe the most important thing is just to be visible. For both the young kids and the youth coaches, let them see your face, let them know you care, go watch some of their games, offer to speak at a practice, run clinics for them in the off-season, invite them to come to the high school games, talk to the parents, pass out flyers, etc.
For me, when I coached varsity basketball and girls softball, it was a natural. When I started coaching in a new community, I was excited to find out what programs there were, who was running it, and to learn about the kids in the program.
I was always curious. Were there some up-and-coming young stars? (maybe that another school was trying to "recruit"?) Were there kids struggling a bit now but who had real potential down the road? What was the coaching like? How was the program being run? What were the numbers as far as participation?
Unfortunately, a lot of coaches in high schools today don't see that as a primary or even secondary obligation. Many just wait for the kids to come into their school and then get to know the athletes and start to work with them.
That can lead to problems.
I still have vivid memories of getting the head job at one school (we will keep it anonymous) and the girls basketball program was really struggling. I went to watch the local junior high team play and there were only maybe eight girls on team; to put it kindly, they weren't very good -- small, not very athletic and not skilled. I was a little worried about what I'd gotten myself into, but then the cheerleaders came out at half-time. Wow! There must have been twenty of them! And the cheerleaders were all tall, energetic and athletic. All these great potential athletes and they were cheering instead of playing!
Things got worse when I asked some of them after the game if they were thinking of trying out for basketball when they entered high school. The response I got from most? "Well, if I don't make cheerleading, maybe I will try out for basketball."
But I digress.
The point here is to emphasize the importance of the high school coach making a real effort to reach out. I speak not just for myself and from my own observation; this is a comment I have heard from many in our youth sports community. From parents to coaches to program administrators.
Again, to reiterate, it is in varying degrees, and there are exceptions where high school coaches are actively involved, but in general, it is an area of coaching too often overlooked.
Keep in mind my success as a high school coach was so good it led me directly to journalism. 'Nuff said there.
I always joke (painful as it is) by saying that I finally achieved 100 career varsity wins, the only problem being is it took me five hundred games to get there!
So take my advice for what it is worth ... but I do think the community youth programs would appreciate an increased attachment to the high school, in all the ways described above. That has to start from the top, with the head coaches.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.