(This was originally published by the Positive Coaching Alliance on their website. I wrote this over six years ago the day after a basketball game my son played in. Lately I’ve been wanting to get back into coaching, and this story helps me remember why I enjoy it.)
Walking off the court after congratulating the team that had beaten ours 67-22 the first game of the season, I wondered what encouraging words I would offer our players. What could I say to lessen the pain of such a crushing defeat? Then my son Justin hugged me and said he’d had “the most fun ever, it was the awesomest game I’ve ever played in!”
Stopping in my tracks, I looked down at my 10-year-old dynamo, who had decided to play “up” on a 5th/6th-grade team, hoping to improve his skills rather than stay with his fellow fourth graders. In his first game, he had scored two points, much lower than his average in the past. Yet he was wearing a smile that took the chill off that cool Oregon spring day, and he was so happy it moved me deeply.
In that moment, he reminded me why I coach to begin with. These kids aren’t competing for high school championships, or fighting to keep a college scholarship, or trying to make the NBA playoffs. They’re kids having fun playing a game they love! Their parents paid so their kids could hopefully learn something about the game, and have a good time in the process. It’s not a competitive league, it’s recreation.
I have coached youth basketball five years now, two or three teams per year, from first through eighth graders. There have been some incredible players come and go on these teams, but I have learned most from those who will probably never play competitively.
They come in looking lost, are very quiet and timid in their actions. Many crave acceptance by their peers; some are home-schooled looking for friends; others have been foster kids looking to work off some steam. My first goal is to get them to smile. This is a GAME, I tell them, and my first requirement is that they have fun.
Trying to put them at ease, team rules state that nobody is to put another down, that we are one unit with a common goal: to do our best and learn as much as we can from each other. Next comes the evaluation period, during which I do my best not to cringe or wince when a player exhibits some unorthodox technique. They miss a shot, I encourage them. They dribble the ball off their foot, I remind them it took them months to learn how to walk and to give themselves a little time and practice.
By the end of the season, they are smiling and having fun with the best players, both on and off the court. This is a much better indicator for me as to the success of a season than our win-loss record. Sometimes during the middle of the season, however, I tend to forget.
Every mistake on the court is a learning opportunity. I give them the basics, encourage them to practice on their own, and we bring a team together somewhere along the way. Sometimes we are blessed with a few players who are pretty good already and we can mix and match them so that we always have a decent group on the court.
When matched up with a team that is similar to ours, our enthusiasm usually puts us over the top. When we are outmatched, I just encourage them to play hard and keep having fun out there. However, the more we win, the better we feel. Winning is like a drug; you get a little, you want more. Soon it is easy to forget why we’re all there in the first place… to learn to play a game, and to enjoy it.
Life is full of tragedy, sadness and trial. We all learn in our own way how to deal with adversity. All through our lives, we win and lose. Even though we face many defenses in life, the best offense is to charge right into the lane and put up our best shot. Sometimes it drops through the net and we can celebrate. Sometimes it bounces off, we fight for the rebound and another chance to score. Occasionally, our buddies have our backs and grab the loose ball for us, while other times, it falls the other way and the other team gets the ball.
How we react to each of these circumstances often dictates our own win-loss records in life. The good player shakes it off and hustles back to play defense. Somebody with less confidence will sulk and scowl as he lopes downcourt, often missing much of the play happening right in front of him, leaving his teammates to work harder without him.
So not only do we try to teach these kids how to play a game, but also how hard work, determination and teamwork can combine to contribute to a successful and rewarding life.
Justin’s reaction to our first “loss” was a victory for me. By expressing his happiness at having played in his first really competitive game, Justin demonstrated he is finding the tools necessary for a happy and successful life. This time, the son taught the father a lesson: to remember that “why” he coaches has little to do with winning and losing individual games.
As we drove home through the driving rain, I asked Justin if he cared that we lost so bad, he replied “Sure, Dad. I guess a little bit.”
Quickly waving that aside though, he glanced out the window and softly added, “but that was still the best game of my life… so far.”