In retrospect, the line is ridiculous.
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.