A high school basketball coach talks about the sophomore slump that saved his family.
Basketball has always been my favorite sport. I played it for many years throughout my youth and now in my adult years I coach it. I love the strategy, planning, and camaraderie that the sport brings. I have found the bonds that I’ve formed in and around basketball to be unique compared to other sports. Many coaches refer to these relationships with their players as their “basketball family”.
I was recently a head coach at a first ring suburban school in Minneapolis. This was a wonderfully diverse high school that had young people enrolled from all walks of life. I was also a special education teacher, and had served as an assistant to the previous head coach, so I knew the culture and I knew the expectations.
When I took the helm, we were coming off a season of underachievement. We had only won a few games, and the expectations were for more of the same with me as a first-time head coach.
To create our own basketball family, I initiated daily study halls and team outings to restaurants or to do some volunteer work. I had the entire team over to my house for a spaghetti dinner in attempts to deepen the bond and create a bridge to my family at home. My wife and son knew how much I loved the game, so this was an opportunity to bring both together. It seemed that the time spent off the court was helping to build a relationship of trust and camaraderie. Somehow it all paid off, and we beat the odds with a winning season and ended up nearly getting into the state tournament.
Hopes were high as we headed into the next season. Many key players from the previous season were returning and we even had some new additions. But things began to unravel quickly. A couple players decided to steal a credit card from our weight room and go to a local mall and charge 500 plus dollars. Both players were caught and escorted from out school in handcuffs during the school day. This decision created a domino effect for the remainder of the season that revolved around negativity and unmet expectations. The trust I had built in the previous season was now thrown out the door.
For some reason, players who remained on the roster began to feel they could get away with more this year. I tried to instill a little more discipline, but my new rules and restrictions were not well received by most of the team and their parents. Things went from bad to worse, and the team began to underperform and to lose games that should have been won.
I would spend countless nights up watching film when I should have been sleeping. When my son wanted to play with me or my wife wanted to have a simple conversation, I could not engage with them. I would go through the motions at home without any real connection to my family. I would spend time with my son, but it was not quality time, it was just time. My mind was somewhere else.
My wife also did not feel the connection with me. She was running a home while I was out coaching a game that is supposed to be fun. She was overwhelmed with her own job, taking care of a house, raising a 2 year old, and likely worrying about me. She would always call me out on my lack of balance in time and I would continually justify it to her. I was really justifying it to myself and not seeing what was really going on. I was losing MY family.
Meanwhile, it felt as if my basketball family was breaking apart. Everything special that I loved about the game became so distant. I had unhappy players and angry parents yelling at me from the stands. Everything was in disarray, and as the losses grew, the focus was only on winning and nothing more.
One weekend near the end of the season, I was at a friend’s wedding. It was great to catch up with everyone, but the more I saw my friends having fun with their families, the more something became clear to me. All night, my friends were discussing things they had done the previous weekend and things that they were planning to do in future weekends. I realized I didn’t have any similar memories or plans, and I actually felt like a stranger to people I have known for years.
Somewhere within that evening I realized that this basketball family I had created was false. I gave it all my time and energy and it was all conditional, based solely on wins. However, my real family and friends wanted me involved no matter what the circumstances– good or bad, winning or losing.
So at this wedding, with friends surrounding me, I came to the conclusion that I was going to step down as head coach after only 2 years. I announced this immediately to my friends and wife. They told me to sleep on it, but my mind was made up. I remember telling them that I didn’t want to keep missing out on things like this. It was true, I was missing out on too much with my real family for a “family” that I only thought was special.
When I stepped down, the community thought I had been run out by the disgruntled parents I was dealing with. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, but in all honesty I didn’t care what was being said. I realized that my son, my wife, my real family are more important than any amount of wins. It may seem simple and cliché, but being locked in that mindset is all too common in the profession. I was just glad I saw things clearly before it was too late.
I coach at a new school now, with a new focus. My approach is about keeping things in balance and taking the pressure off the players, which actually brings out a better result on the court. The team seems to enjoy our time together, I enjoy it, and most importantly, my real family enjoys it. Now, I am truly winning, regardless of how the team performs.
Photo [main] by lumpytrout/Wikimedia
Photo [inset] by Tim Donovan/Flickr