Hey, youth coaches: You aren’t Bill Belichick

I have news that will undoubtedly shock and dismay you, Ditka doppelgänger:

Coaching is easy.

I realize this revelation is anathema to all that we hold sacred as Americans: the unimpeachable authority of grown men wearing visors and hoodies. Still, we must find a way to carry on.

Seriously, coaching — strategy, the Xs-and-Os stuff — is a breeze. When to hit-and-run? How to attack a Cover 2? The best way to get the ball inside against a 2-3 zone? Any of us nitwits with a whistle and clipboard can figure that stuff out.

Teaching, on the other hand? Teaching is hard.

Coaching, as most of us know it, is just the manifestation of learned habits filtered through generations of a certain stubborn cross-section of citizenry. It is applying 19th-century mechanisms to modern-world scenarios. It’s jamming a microfiche into a MacBook Pro. It’s insulating your eco-friendly home with asbestos. And it makes for a particularly vexing problem in youth coaching.

Former athletes — even the best-intentioned of them — fall back on early lessons to inform their approach as coaches, seldom separating the productive from the punishing. Ancient versions of toughness and self-worth imparted by ex-paratroopers and long-dead gym teachers are today passed on to pipsqueaks who just arrived on the field from a screening of “The Lego Movie.”

Yep, there I am, doing all I can not to ruin anyone's childhood.
Yep, there I am, doing all I can not to ruin anyone’s childhood.

Look, I’m a coach. Or, more aptly, I try to coach — although I’m probably not very good at it. I’m a massive pain in the ass for my own boys, I’m sure, and my daughter won’t allow me to coach her. I find myself reflexively dipping into some of the old tropes, sometimes rendering too-harsh judgments on kids who aren’t fully formed participants, let alone entirely invested in the endeavor. It is maddening, patience-shredding, important work.

I wrestle during every practice, and then much more so afterward, with the competing notions of provoking and nurturing. I raise my voice, send players for a lap when they goof off and make everyone keenly aware of my disgust with any lacking effort from the team. Also: I never curse, I avoid embarrassing individual players, and I let the entire gym hear it when one of my guys does something well. A kid can be coaxed, urged and driven. If he has to be terrorized into setting a hard ball screen, though, he just might learn it — and then quit the game before he gets a chance to use it.

Am I part of a larger problem, complicit in the ongoing wussification of “our youth”? Honestly, I doubt it. Too many meathead coaches out there still abuse their ridiculous power, and too few in a position to speak out do so (although wonderful exceptions do exist). The sporting culture, frankly, could stand to become a good bit more wussified.

Does that mean young athletes shouldn’t be held accountable or pushed to find an inner motivation they didn’t realize they possessed? Of course not. But try driving a nail with a jackhammer, and you’re more likely to do damage than finish the job.

Any fool can stand stern-faced on a sideline and fire 1,000-yard stares through middle-schoolers, running them until they spill their guts. It takes nuance, empathy and a certain amount of humility to be a good coach — a teacher — to every kid, in any situation. Maybe I’ll get there one day, too.

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