The emotional balance of coaching

While being an assistant head of lower school is my main job, my role as high school coach can become difficult to put to the side at times. We are nearing the end of our basketball season, and this has been a long one. After five years as head coach though, maybe they all are. It is a job we do out of love for the sport, and a passion for sports as a way to transform the experiences of young men and women.

There are a million positive, productive reasons to coach. My biggest challenge lately, however, is recognizing how much my happiness is dependent upon the actions and reactions of teenagers. While I’ve always known this to some degree, the impact seems different this year.  In a recent blog post, I explained that a large part of our job as educators of young children is to help them balance the highs and lows of their experiences. Truthfully, it’s not much different at the high school level. Even 5 to 10 years after they have left the elementary school level, their highs and lows can feel extreme. Maybe a little less cupcakes and crying, but still up and down, as they try to figure out which emotions to internalize and which to let others see.

In sports, whether it’s the locker room or on the court, sometimes those emotions are on display for a lot of people to see. Most of us have been there as teenagers, whether we were playing a game or not. Sometimes it’s feeling stuck, trying to decide who we can trust with seeing our emotions. Sometimes, we let them out anyway, and feel devastated that we let others see such a moment of weakness. As educators, it’s our job to help them get unstuck – to help them feel better when they’re down, to hold them up high when they’re feeling great, to keep their heads level when they’re feeling particularly successful, or to let them know the consequences of showing their emotions with others.

Every season is different, even when the same players return. Each season has it’s own feel, it’s own taste, it’s own emotions, and they can swing quickly on very small moments. The younger the athletes, the more quickly momentum can swing. Teams can be evenly matched, but end in a blowout win or loss because of one little thing. Seasons can follow the same roller coaster trajectory.

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During the season, I’m constantly trying to react positively and stay focused so that my players can stay focused, but it almost always feels like your on the verge of a tipping point. If I get it wrong, I’m going to let down a team that trusts me, that doesn’t know how to lead themselves yet, and is relying on me to lead the way. I signed up for the job. I love the job. They trust me (most of the time) to do the job well.

There is a great deal of sports that is out of my control – the other team, the weather, officials, injuries. But there is a great deal I can – our game plan, my relationship with players, giving them opportunities to lead so they start taking on those roles and making our team better. In the face of adversity, I expect my team to focus and work hard, which is exactly what I have to do. Sometimes that hard work requires taking a risk that might not work as planned, but that risk might be what gets us back on track. Hopefully, after a few years of sticking with this plan, the trust I’ve earned in the locker room is enough that the players will forgive my mistakes as much as I forgive theirs. Hopefully, that reaction will provide a model for them to carry on in each situation they encounter.

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