Send Me In, Coach!

A lesson in good sportsmanship.

Tom and Mary Ann Van Buskirk know all this about coaching -- and plenty more. Co-founders of Positive Coaching, Inc., a sort of academy for athletic instructors, with more than a quarter-century of personal coaching experience between them, the married business partners have either heard or seen everything.

Tom: "I was coaching at this one Catholic school. We were having our tryouts for girls' basketball, and the athletic director came over to me with the head coach and asked, 'What do you think of that girl over there? Will she start?' I said, 'No, she'll probably be sixth man.' Then the AD looked around at our brand-new gym --it was a beautiful gym -- and said, 'Her parents paid for a lot of this, you know.'"

Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.
John Johnston
Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.

Mary Ann: "I remember I was coaching a boys' soccer league -- with girls on the team, too -- and this one time at Congress Park, we'd beaten the other team, and when we lined up to shake hands their coach refused to shake my hand. My kids said, 'Why wouldn't the coach shake your hand?'"

Tom: "I had a coach who saved my butt. I was young, sixth or seventh grade, the only boy with three sisters. I'd begun getting in trouble, and one day the head nun called up my mom and said, 'Tom can't spell his own name.' I was the hot point guard on the basketball team, and my mom said, 'Get your uniform, wash it, press it and turn it in.'

"So I went to my coach to complain. He listened to me and said, 'Sit down. You know, this is your own fault. And I'm not going to let you play until you get your grades up. But I'll work with you, and I'll keep a spot open on the team for you.' Twenty years later, when I was coaching my own team, I saw him across the gym and ran over and said, 'Do you remember me?' And he said, 'How could I forget?'"

The coach's patience apparently paid off, because Tom eventually became an airplane pilot, ferrying corporate executives (and, on more than one occasion, a recent governor and his close female friend who wasn't his wife) about the region. Mary Ann, meanwhile, ran the other family businesses -- a pizza parlor and a travel agency -- "until 1982, when I had my call and I went to the seminary." Today she is a family and marriage therapist, as well as an on-call chaplain at Children's Hospital.

Both became involved in coaching the way most parents do: Their children's teams needed help. Tom and Mary Ann began assisting their three daughters' various sports teams in their spare time, until one game in 1993 changed everything.

"Our middle daughter was playing in a basketball game, part of the Catholic Schools Athletic League, and this coach, who was a nice man, had a 30-point lead with about three minutes to go," Tom recalls. "And there were two kids on the end of the bench crying -- the starters were still in. As a coach, you just don't go for the win all the time. He had lost sight of that. So we decided we wanted to help this league get better."

The Van Buskirks hurried home and wrote up an offer: They would volunteer to train all the coaches in the Catholic School Athletic League for two years. The diocese agreed, so Tom and Mary Ann flew out to Illinois for more training themselves and then dove in. By the time their two-year deal was up, they'd trained approximately 300 coaches. "Most people were receptive," Tom recalls. "Of course, there were some -- mostly older guys -- who knew everything there was to know about coaching."

The Van Buskirks had a feeling they were on to something, and in 1994 they founded Positive Coaching, a nonprofit organization dedicated to showing aspiring -- and veteran -- coaches how to teach the joy of athletics and competition without getting carried away by the fleeting buzz of victory. Since then, Tom and Mary Ann calculate they've coached about 2,200 coaches across the state, from peewee soccer dads to high school football trainers. (Colorado requires any high school coach who doesn't have a teaching certificate to go through a program like the Van Buskirks'.)

On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen men sit around several tables arranged in a semi-circle for the day's Positive Coaching clinic. Six posters with collages of newspaper articles are taped on a wall. The headlines are ominous: "When 'Kill the Umpire!' Is More Than a Taunt"; "Coach Accused in Team Sex Case"; "Soccer Chief on Firing Line."

Mary Ann introduces the clinic by reporting that out of three million people coaching across the country, about 2.5 million are untrained. "Some people think that sport is frivolous, so coaches need little, if any training," she says. "Or, if you could play the sport, you could coach it -- and the better a person played, the better coach he is." The profession has a 40 percent attrition rate, she adds.

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