Not the Coach I Want to Be

In retrospect, the line is ridiculous.

“Go Dance!”

But as an utterance that exploded from my mouth in a fit of uncharacteristic, yet inexcusable ire, the line carried a weight that I haven’t been able to shrug free from in the hours since its vocalization. Worst yet, it was aimed at a young man who had just spent the last hour pouring nothing but effort and sweat and heart for a game in my name. Beyond that, I tore the jersey from the young man’s chest and slammed it at his feet, in plain sight of his surrounding teammates and whatever adults happened to be focused on my red face.

I’ve been coaching for almost ten years. I have lost by more than fifty. I have lost at the buzzer. I have lost championships. But that moment, after what seems like an inconsequential 1 point defeat, is the lowest moment of my career.

I left high school coaching by choice. I stood on the sidelines as amateur sports circled the basin, being flushed by greed and a blind focus on just winning. I was a good high school coach, could have been incredibly successful, but I recognized the growth of an environment I, as a student, would not have been given the opportunity to compete and one I did not have the heart to participate in. Sports had lost their joy at the high school level, replaced by shiny AAU trophies and glittery new travel-team uniforms. My high school was seized by the talons of recruiting, swept from the innocent nest of fun and carried to a stone to be rended and torn by the beak of Winning.

I witnessed all of this and retreated to the safe-haven of middle school, where it was about fun, and learning, and competing. I’ve since lost and won a championship. I’ve gone winless and undefeated. But it was never about those things. It was always about teaching the young men under my charge about life. About effort. Commitment. Teamwork. Communication. It was about helping them develop life-skills in a setting where they didn’t even realize they were learning anything.

There, in the protected nest I once called home myself, I tried to mold these young men. I tried to set an example of how they should behave, and compete, and react.

Then I lost my mind.

Growing up, I never responded well to the Ogre-Coach, the coach that grew red-face and delivered his message amid a rain of spittle and curses. As a player, I was in fear of being the target of such an outburst– so much so that I didn’t even try-out for my high school basketball team as a freshman. Once I donned my high school’s jersey, I applied a sharp focus to my game so that I wouldn’t be the target of such a verbal assault. I saw friends crumble under the pressure, and others simply give up.

I’ll never forget a friend, aptly nicknamed Goofy for his playful personality, suffering such a vitriolic battering from our JV basketball coach sophomore year. It was halftime of a hotly contested game, and our coach berated us for undisciplined play. As the onslaught zeroed in on Goofy, Coach lost his mind.

It was a verbal mugging. Goofy stood, ripped his jersey off and threw it at our Coach. The other eleven members of the team sat amongst the exercise equipment of that weight-room turned locker-room in frozen silence as our coach, a full grown man, challenged the sixteen year old Goofy to a fight. The two had to be separated. Goofy never played another minute in his high school career. To be fair, that Coach’s contract was not renewed.

That story doesn’t stand alone. I have dozens of friends, and a brother, with similar ones. And when I became a coach, I knew that wasn’t the way it should be done. That’s not how you teach. That’s not how you coach. That’s not how you interact with young men.

Less than three minutes passed before I realized my mistake. “Go Dance!” probably echoed throughout the neighborhood to a chorus of snickers. It certainly felt like it in the cavernous hole that was my mind. The young man was gone. The rest of my team cleaned the court as the visiting team celebrated their victory en route to their rides home.

I found myself alone, gathering the remaining bits of my profession’s tools at the scorer’s table, when a colleague, who has her son on my team and under my charge, approached. She witnessed the entire exchange, and asked what did “they” want?

The “they” in the question was a pair of students who had interrupted the game at its most tense moment. See, the 8th grade is practicing for a dance recital for the school’s Harvest Fest. Our game had started late, and the dance teacher was likely searching for her wayward performers. Her emissaries did not seem to realize the gravity of the situation when they interrupted not only a timeout-huddle, but the final play of the game. After barking at those two, then losing the game at the buzzer, I was beside myself. It was during the post-game huddle, when I was trying to express my disappointment to my players, that one of them mentioned the dance practice. I would hear none of it.

Then the young man came running in. The same young man that the dance-interlopers had come in search of. And I wrongly assumed that my player, the young man that has given me nothing less than all of himself in the last three-plus years of my coaching him, had run off for that practice then realized he still needed to be part of the post-game huddle.

I tore his jersey from him. I yelled, “Go Dance!” I slammed the jersey to the court at his feet. (I must have been a sight.)

The young man left.

I gathered myself enough to finish the post-game huddle, but not before taking another verbal jab at the dance recital. Then, as the team dispersed to clean up and go home, the young man’s best friend, my starting center that had gotten sick during the game, told me that the young man wasn’t going to the dance practice but to tutoring.

If I had been full of hot-air and blustered every breath before, I wheezed at that announcement. I deflated, folding in on my self-importance and ogre-like gasbaggery.

Holy shit was I wrong.

The weight of it slammed home when discussing the events with my colleague. She listened to every word, and in what is her perpetual, non-judgemental way, she said: “It’s good that they know we’re human, too.” Her words hit hard. I thanked her, and she shuffled off to gather her son and headed home.

See, I’ve got to be better than that. There is no conceivable reality to justify my reaction. That’s not the coach I want to be. That’s not the leader I want to be. That’s not the father-figure I want to be. That’s not the man I want to be.

Before I made what felt like the longest walk of my career to my car, I stopped the young man’s best friend and asked him for his friend’s phone number. I told him I needed to apologize. Hours later, after the young man had finished his tutoring session, I spoke to him and apologized. I also told him I would apologize to him again in front of his entire team. Shit, if I could, I’d recreate the entire damned scene, each and every man, woman, and child within ear-shot of my line, and I’d apologize to the young man in the same, loud, obnoxious, self-absorbed voiced I boomed out: “Go Dance!” with.

In retrospect, the line is ridiculous. But the very tangible pain those intangible, weighty words might have caused will haunt the rest of my coaching days because, that’s not the coach I want to be.

Too Many Sunsets

I’ve caught too many sunsets. I realize that’s a good thing, when focusing the lens at Life. But when I’m adjusting the camera’s dial, zooming in on Dream, too many sunsets have been snapped without my Dream being warmed enough by that passed day’s sun.
Two things have happened in the last few days that have brightened the otherwise shadowed visage of my Dream. First, my cousin JJ took a leap no-one, to my mind, has recently taken in my family. He packed up all his belongings and followed the arc of his Dream before he could witness any additional sunsets. He’s off chasing that daylight in the biggest and brightest place his Dream glows. His decision burns as a beckon of inspiration for me.
The second thing that has brightened the darkness holding my Dream was ushered to me via a Hand of Fate. An email found its way into my in-box last week heralding a writer’s conference in that same Mecca for Dreams my cousin finds himself in, New York City. That Herald provided a Call that might be the next step in my journey. What caught my eye about the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference was not only the list of speakers and sessions, but the opportunity to sit one-on-one with several agents during something called the “Pitch Slam”. Here, writers get to discuss their stories and receive feedback from industry insiders. It’s an opportunity to get some legitimate, valuable feedback from people who know the publishing business.
The likelihood that my Dream is realized at this very conference is remote, at best. That’s not my goal in deciding to pay the $525 for the conference. My goal is to learn. Learn the proverbial ins-and-outs of the publishing business. Learn what agents and publishers have to say about my stories. (More on the plural “stories” later.) Learn what my Query Letter needs to say. Learn how my Synopses (synopsi?) need to read. Learn what genre I should label my stories under.
I have too many questions. And combing the tangled mane of the internet will only do me so much good. I need to take the opportunities presented to me before my Dream catches too many more sunsets. I’ve had the seed of a poem growing in my mind these days. It’s based around a metaphor where Life is a Bull and I’m the Bull-fighter, my Dream, the red cape. The more I unfurl the cape, the more the Bull charges and tries to gore. It’s a bit excessive, I know, but that’s how it feels sometimes. Life just gets in way. I don’t know that I’ll actually flesh out this poem, as I find it hard to connect my Life to such a violent vessel. We’ll see.
So what’s the plan? 
Well, I’m blessed to have a wife that is so incredibly supportive. She’s practically pushing me out the door. But swiping upwards of $700 from our savings account is irresponsible, considering we’ve been living in my parents’ house for the better part of a year to save money to buy our own home. While it would have been nice to hit on one of those parlay bets I laid down in Vegas few weekends ago, I’ll seek out students to tutor rather than rely on my gamblin’ skillz.
But money isn’t something that has me overly concerned. It’s my material. As I’ve discussed here before, I have a complete novel manuscript. At the moment, I have several trusted friends reading and painstakingly providing the much needed red marks of an editor’s pen. I have already been given good ideas to tighten the narrative and streamline the story. So, before I embark on the next stage of my journey, before I allow any more sunsets to be captured, I need to polish the manuscript to a shiney new 3rd draft. Beyond editing the current novel into another incarnation, I need to write a query letter and a synopsis for the story as well. Thing is, I don’t want to head into this great opportunity without making sure I can squeeze every little ounce of useful publishing juice out of it.
While the completion of the 2nd draft of my current novel took more than ten years, I’ve decided to head to this writer’s conference with at least one other complete novel manuscript. I’ve decided to participate in a “contest” called NaNoWriMo, or, National Novel Writing Month.
Crazy? Probably. Again, considering it took me more than 10 years to craft my first novel, I might be nuts to think I can craft a second one in 30 days. But that’s the challenge. I’m not going to fail here. I have several ideas worth exploring, and some strategies I’m going to employ, all of which I will further discuss in a coming blog entry.
As I’ve sat here writing this entry, yet another sunset has slipped by through the window behind me. My Dream rests, the dim glow of the moon providing its only light, but now, thanks to my cousin’s inspiration and a Call to Adventure, a new candle can burn for the coming nights to provide the light I need to keep chasing that Dream until the next sun rises.