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Four Words Every Coach Loves (and Dreads) Hearing

With each new season, coaches and athletes face the inevitable challenge of forging a mutual relationship that has the potential by both parties to either be remembered with gratitude and fondness or possibly, regret and resentment.

As a college coach, I am often asked by non-coaches what else is in my job description besides coaching as if the X’s and O’s of passing and kicking are the only tasks on my daily to-do list.

My response is almost always filled with a timeline comparison of precisely how much the coaching landscape has changed over the last two decades. I then have a short but distinct window of opportunity to help the inquirer try and understand exactly what coaching is and at times, what it isn't.

Twenty years ago, athletes listened to instructions and attempted to execute them many times without the opportunity or offer by their leader or coach to ask additional questions. Even if the athletes were not comprehending the play or game plan fully, trial and error was expected to be the only other option.

As a result of the era of a more closed-to-athlete-feedback exchange between team and coach, when athletes performed a skill incorrectly or made an error, it was not uncommon to find the consequence of sprints or some other type of physical penalty for the individual athlete or as a team.

What we didn’t know then or perhaps were too young to realize, was that there often was very little correlation between the penalty we were issued and the actual skill. Aside from the discipline making us a little fitter, this method creates an extra feeling of angst surrounding game play mistakes.

Today, because we are seeing many student-athletes who have been shielded from failure, it has resulted in much higher measures of anxiety for mistakes in not just sports, but in life.

However, this generation is more curious and in my experience does question the system more. I do not believe it is because they are trying to make our lives as coaches more difficult but because they want to know who and what they are working for before putting their shoulder to the wheel. This to me, seems reasonable.

While many of us as coaches are adapting by answering more questions and minimizing or deleting the system of physical penalties for mistakes altogether, we are also dealing with a generation that is being bombarded 24/7 with information. At its core, much of the content the athletes of today find intriguing may appear incredibly useless to anyone born before 1990. However, because of the sea of trivial data constantly circling our athletes, when a very real issue strikes, our athletes can either be in a state of total complacency or complete emergency.

My urgency in the perspective of today’s student athlete can only be accompanied by my plea for parents and administrators to also support their coaches through this interesting time in sports. We are navigating the waters of this generation just as our coaches did with us.

As coaches, we are often judged on the surface which is determined by how we fair on game day. Meanwhile, the other six days a week that we are shaping our athletes off the field, goes largely unnoticed and at times, is completely misunderstood.

It is on those non-game days that our athletes learn some of their most permanent lessons and make decisions on a daily basis that have zero to do with their sport but so much to do with their well-being and emotional state. Unfortunately, this is something that is often neglected or overlooked when it comes to measuring the success of a program.

As coaches, our list grows longer each year in what we are facing. While awareness and resources for all our work beyond the X’s and O’s is increasing, many parents and administrators will never know just how on the front lines coaches really are in the everyday attention that must be paid to the athletes’ emotions, needs and the symbolic writing of the story of their journeys.

The next time you see your coach or your child’s head coach as a dictator holding the team rules or the keys to playing time, know that they are doing their best and remind yourself that the message below is a small hill compared to the mountains of issues today's coaches face with their athletes. There is not a coach reading this that doesn't feel either excited, nervous, worried, hopeful or all of these when we hear those four words: "Coach, Can We Talk?

For Athletes and Parents: Please pass this on with any gratitude for any coach who has helped you beyond the X's and O's.

For Coaches: Please share online, with your colleagues or post this on your office door to educate anyone who may need help understanding the vital role coaches play in the lives of our athletes.

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