When asked about the success of his coaching career, John Wooden replied, “I won’t know for 20 years whether I did a good job or not.” He defined success not in the moment, the last win or another championship, but in the lives his former players would go on to lead. Should they be good fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, role models, coaches, businessmen, members of their community, etc., only then he would know he had been a successful coach.

I’m not a basketball guy, but really enjoyed his book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Reflections On and Off the Court. It’s a great source of inspiration and insight for coaches of any sport and level of experience. I read it somewhere in the middle of my (on and off) coaching career. While there are numerous quotes from the book, it is that one above that has impacted me the most. The goal of this post is to help coaches be the best that they can be.

Coaching at Indy Tourney - photo by Andy Vandenberg

In my last post, Responsibility of a Travel Coach, I discussed an example of Bully Coaching, which ended with the thought, “Why is this person even coaching?” Since then, many people have commented about their daughter’s similar experiences with coaches. So, I began writing this article, but found myself getting stuck, so I changed my approach. First, I decided to do some research and compile a list of questions to ask aspiring coaches.

Hopefully you will find this exercise helpful and enlightening. Please take your time and be honest with yourself.

  • Why Are You Coaching?
  • Do Your Actions Match Your Words?
  • Are You A Student Of Coaching And Of Softball?
  • Can You Teach The Fundamentals And Advanced Skills Of The Game?
  • Do You Seek Advice/Help In Your Least Knowledgeable Areas Of The Game?
  • Can You Admit When You Are Wrong or Screw Up?
  • Have You Defined What “Fair” Means For Your Players And Are You Being Fair?
  • How Do You Challenge, Discipline and Reward Your Players?
  • Are You Able To Motivate And Inspire Each Of Your Players?
  • Are You Aware Of How You Communicate With Your Players?
  • Are You Aware Of Your Body Language?
  • Do Your Players Know The Life Lessons They Are Learning?
  • Do You Care Equally For All Of Your Players, Not Just The Stars Or Your Daughter?
  • Do Your Players Have Fun?

Why I Coach?

And now at the risk of sounding narcissistic and like a know-it-all, I will share the following with you as to why I coach. Here’s my disclaimer: I love coaching, but after every practice or weekend tourney, think about the mistakes I made and what I can do to be better in the future. I’m not a perfectionist, but I’m still learning. I even keep notes on my mistakes and the things I need to improve upon. For me, coaching is a work in progress.

While I do see many bad examples of coaching, I often recognize good coaches and try to incorporate some of their game into mine. And I have a lot of admiration for such coaches who get it: It’s not about them (me), it’s about the girls. I strongly believe that if a coach has this at his/her core, they’ll have a chance to make a lasting positive impact in the lives of their players. I’ve seen this first hand with my daughter.

So Here I Go

I began coaching because the youth recreational league needed volunteers. Since I would be at the games anyways, I thought, “Why not?” My first year coaching in travel softball was a disaster, which you can read about on the Mission page. A few years later I was the scorekeeper for my daughter’s travel team, then a couple years later the assistant coach. The last couple years I was a varsity assistant coach. And in recent years I’ve been coaching 16u travel softball and conducting the club’s winter workouts.

I’ve got three daughters (30, 25 & 20) and my youngest will be a senior playing her final year of college softball next year. I spent many years learning the game of fastpitch softball, which is so different from the baseball I played growing up. I love the game and really enjoy teaching fundamentals, advanced skills and strategy. I am also very passionate about helping players and parents through the college recruiting process.

Although I stepped down from coaching varsity ball at the end of this spring, I plan to continue coaching travel softball for years to come. The travel team will likely rack up some wins and possibly pick up some hardware this summer, but that is just icing on the cake for me. Inspiring girls to chase their dreams to and beyond the college softball fields brings me a lot of joy. At this time, travel softball is more aligned with my core principles concerning coaching, whereas the varsity environment was not.

In my childhood there were many coaches who said, “Sports will teach you a lot of life lessons.” They never elaborated, so it was more like, “Ok dude…whatever.” My career includes retail management, sales, residential photography, auto service management, traveling the country as an IT consultant, a business building websites and my current day job in network administration. I’ve had my share of failures and successes in each of those areas. Using those experiences I like to show the girls how the things they’re learning in softball is preparing them for things they’ll encounter throughout their lives, aka Life Lessons.

I was also very lucky to have wonderful parents and a great family life. I received abundant encouragement from my mother to live my dreams and my dad made sure I had everything I ever needed. Although I was not a particularly good student, there was one teacher (English) who inspired me. He was an odd fellow who was often ridiculed in school by students. But, he saw something in me I didn’t see in myself and emboldened me to write. I never had an athletic coach who came close to influencing me beyond the field as he did beyond the classroom. The thing is that I simply did not know it way back then.

Giving Back & Volunteering

I spent my early adult life focused on myself and my career. I worked hard and long hours for years, which helped me climb ladders and earn a good living. But then everything changed in 2004. My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer, was placed into hospice care in the home I grew up in with my Dad mostly caring for her. She was given about 6 months to live. I’m sure many of you reading this have had similar life changing experiences.

At the time I was traveling the country for my job as an IT consultant. The money was great, but I was not home much. And when I was, I was exhausted. I was calling her as much as I could, but wanted to be with her. Her health was starting to really decline when I was finally able to get a short-term contract near home. Over the next few months I spent all my free time with her until she died a couple nights before Christmas.

We talked, but mostly I was listening. She wanted to share with me her thoughts, feelings and wisdom. Even as she laid there dying, she tried to comfort me. It was on one of those visits that she told me something that forever changed my life. She said, “You’re working your life away. You can’t get back the time with your girls, family and friends. They need you.”

There was more along the lines of giving and serving others that she talked about. And thinking back I remember how much time she volunteered for various school and athletic events and causes. My parents volunteered a lot of time in the athletic boosters, worked events and helped with fundraising. They did this for me, my siblings and our community. This was something I had never even thought about, because I was completely focused on my career.

Six months after she passed away I quit my job. Eventually I found a gig near home and began building websites as a side business. This allowed me to be with my family much more and to enter the world of volunteer coaching, which I outlined earlier in this post. Through the years I learned that most people are generous with making monetary donations, but few are able or willing to volunteer their time. That was certainly the case for me prior to that first youth rec ball team I offered to coach.  This was the beginning of years of volunteering for two of my daughters athletic activities.

Some people see the amount of time I put into coaching and are dumbfounded. They ask, “You don’t even have a daughter on the team and you are still coaching?” I used to try to explain why I do what I do, but these days I just smile, hold the palms of my hands up in front of me and say, “Yea, crazy isn’t it?”

Coaching at Indy Tourney - photo by Andy Vandenberg

Getting the Hang of It

I used to conduct server-based software demonstrations to groups of IT professionals numbering in the hundreds, where there would be numerous questions throughout the demo. It was the same when I taught computer classes. When you teach something, you discover everything you don’t know about what you’re teaching. I got to the point where I could answer 95% of the questions, then would get back to people who stumped me after doing some research. I learned it was okay to admit when I didn't know something.

For me, coaching softball is the same process. All the practices and camps I took my daughter to over the years taught me a lot about teaching the proper fundamentals and advanced skills. I learned how to teach first base skills at the Arizona State camp, where she learned from Clint Myers’ son Corey. I learned to teach middle and corner infield skills from assistant Oregon coach Chelsea Spencer, who was at MSU at the time. I learned hitting skills from the numerous Michigan camps she attended. That and all the other trainers she had over the years taught me multiple approaches to teaching softball skills.

When it comes to physical skills, there are an infinite number of coaches, trainers and experts who are highly qualified to teach those. However, one of the toughest things to learn is how to teach the mental skills and handle the different personalities of players. There are people out there who teach these coaching skills. I read and find things to try, but I think this skill is acquired only through experience and trial and error over a number of years. The communication skills I’ve acquired in my career have really helped me in coaching. There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all approach or knowing when to kick em’ in the pants or when to give them a hug.

So, I’ve been at this awhile now and feel like I’m getting the hang of it. Like coach Wooden, I think about where these girls I’m coaching now will be in 20 years. What will they remember about their years playing softball? When they have families of their own they too may volunteer their time in schools, sports and other extra curricular activities their children take part in. Will the experience they’re having now guide them then or help them with their careers? I like to think so. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why I coach.

I hope this gets aspiring coaches to think about why they coach and the positive impact they can have in the lives of the young ladies they’re coaching. See you at the ball park.  And I want to give thanks to all of the coaches who have helped my daughter and me during our softball journey!

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