Send Me In, Coach!

A lesson in good sportsmanship.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. Most attendees are football coaches, including a group of second-year assistants from North High School, whose schooling costs will be picked up by the district. (Mary Ann says one recent session was attended by football and cheerleading coaches. A sort of detente was reached when the cheerleading coach taught the gridiron guys a move.)

One attendee found himself coaching football in his rural district after the school threatened to mothball the program because no one had stepped forward to lead it. With two sons in school who loved the game, he felt he had no choice but to volunteer. Another student explains his goals for the course: "I really need some new techniques to deal with parents."

"We'll try to show you some legal ones," Tom promises. "Then, after class, we'll take you out and teach you the effective ones."

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

Next, we examine some of the pressures faced by coaches throughout the season; at any given time, you may expect to hear from parents, athletic directors, athletes, other coaches, officials, administrators and -- on occasion -- lawyers. "Lotta rules. Lotta demands," concludes Mary Ann.

"If it weren't for the pay..." Tom adds. Everyone laughs.

The course continues throughout the day. It combines discussion about general topics ("How do you gain a parent's respect?" Tom asks. "Shoot them," suggests one student. "Win?" guesses another) with specifics: "Any of you who've coached girls know that yelling doesn't work," notes Mary Ann.

The course is by no means comprehensive, and there's no guarantee that the men attending it will turn out to be the next Joe Paterno, or even the kind of coaches their students will remember when they are forty. Yet the most valuable aspect of the class may be simply to remind the participants of what a complex and important task they face.

There are the traditional coaching concerns of how to keep order and impart athletic knowledge (keep it short and simple, explain why you need the skill, demonstrate it for both righties and lefties). But today's coach must also know about nutrition (what would you do if you knew your star forward was bulimic?), drug use, sexual abuse and liability (never, ever be alone with your charges), and keeping one's temper in check (unless you happen to coach basketball for a university in Indiana). "Like it or not," Tom points out, "we're role models."

Finally, of course, you need to know how to handle your standard, modern, over-involved parent -- a subject Ryan Mullaney never could master.

"It seems to be worse in affluent districts," Mullaney says today. "The more affluent the neighborhood, the more vocal the parents feel they can be and tell you what to do. The kids seem to be playing more for their parents, and the parents expect perfection. And these days, when you've got 35 kids in a program, you can have anywhere from one to four parents per kid. You have to deal with 90 parents in one program."

As the season wore on, juggling baseball as well as all those adults proved exhausting. "I went into this having a bunch of friends at the beginning of the year," Mullaney says. "Now I have almost none."

So last month, at the end of his first season, he says, "I just decided it wasn't worth it to expose myself to that kind of pressure and abuse."

And the coach quit.

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