“Hey, you’ve got your shorts on backwards!” I yelled to Sarah, the dark-haired junior on my cross-country team, as we sat around stretching one afternoon. It was my third season coaching her, and I giggled at her oversight. Other girls on the team chuckled too; Sarah said nothing. As we left the building to start our run, I pulled her aside and apologized for publicizing her gaffe.
“Oh, it’s OK,” she said, before explaining how late she’d stayed up doing homework. “But thanks for saying it.”
I like to think this was a rare professional blunder. Now in my eighth year coaching high-school girls, I know the first rule of coaching is to not embarrass anyone. That means saying nothing about hair styles, clothing choices, backpack colors or the car Mom drives, nor making any other observation not related to the sport that could possibly be construed as critical. To coach successfully – which I define as helping athletes learn to love their sport, to expect more of themselves and to develop confidence and strength through athletics – one needs to understand a lot more than the finer points of the game, though that’s essential. In my case, I learned from my mistakes.
And others’ too. Having been a frightfully self-conscious teenager once, I know enough not to comment on anyone’s appearance, except in the most benignly flattering fashion. (“Blue is a wonderful color on you,” or “What a nice haircut!”) Of all the remarks my own various coaches made over the years, I remember first their thoughtless ones. Being criticized for having “bubble butts,” as one college coach said of our team, and being told that the stubborn zipper on my softball pants wouldn’t go up because I was a tad too large for them, did not endear me to the coach or to the sport. I vowed never to aim a similar remark at the girls under my wing.
My initial mistakes often were lapses of communication. For instance, assuming they already knew better, I failed at first to make explicit how one should not eat a cheeseburger 30 minutes before a workout or stay out all night before a state meet. I quickly realized I needed to spell it all out. The skill of delivering bad news was slower to come. One girl, the star of the team the previous year, missed four meets one season because of conflicts with another sport, and I decided not to award her the most-valuable player award because of it. But I failed to tell her ahead of time; instead, at the annual awards ceremony dinner, I announced to everyone that a competitor and teammate would be receiving the award. What was obvious to me – if you’re absent, you can’t be the most valuable – was a cruel shock to the student; the following year she went out for tennis instead of cross-country. That’s rule number two: If the news can be interpreted as bad, deliver it early and in private.
I’ve also learned to never level an accusation against a teenager without being certain I’m correct. One afternoon, two girls came very late to practice because, they said, the bus driver returning them from a field trip had gotten lost. But I’d seen other kids from the same field trip floating around school, so I confronted my two delinquents and suggested they were lying. They weren’t: their bus had pulled in an hour late, through no fault of their own. I immediately backpedaled and apologized effusively for having wrongly accused them. But neither came out for the team again. Rule number three: Be right before you accuse. That should hold true with anyone, of course, but teenagers never forgive – and they never forget.
The trickiest lesson for me to learn when coaching young women involved the hazards of niceness. When I started this work, I was always nice. If girls were tired or sore, I might back off the workout. If a kid said she just couldn’t do it – run that last quarter, or keep up with the fast group, or do one more hill repeat – I’d sympathize and say “OK, we’ll try again when you’re feeling better.” Having needed no coach’s push when I was younger, I trusted that they knew what was best for their own development. When Tim, my mentor and co-coach, became angry with the girls for such lapses, I tut-tutted to myself: “That’s not the way to do it.”
But he was right. And so I learned rule number four, perhaps the most important of all: Don’t always be nice. Care enough to get angry – sometimes. The lesson came home to me a year ago when I’d caught some of the girls walking, and others chatting, during what was meant to be a hard training session. I left practice in a huff, without so much as a good-bye, and the next day scolded the team for their lame effort. They hung their heads, apologized, and stood up to the rest of the workouts that season.
Some might think it harsh. But I’ve come to believe that overriding my own instinct to nurture and forgive can sometimes be the best approach with certain kids; some need a forceful push. When I tell them they’re capable, even when they’re not feeling up to it, I’m expressing my confidence in them. Not giving in to their explanations, excuses, and tears says I take their athletic effort seriously. “I didn’t know I could run that fast!” one young woman said after a particularly good race. She’d never have gotten there if I’d caved when things got hard.
One season, a girl who’d complained often in workouts begged me to cut short a hill workout. I folded my arms across my chest and shook my head. “Finish it,” I said, straight-faced. And she did.
Because coaching is about more than wins and losses, Liberty Mutual has honored the country’s most exemplary college football coaches – both on and off the field – since 2006 through its Coach of the Year award. For more about the award and to vote, visit www.coachoftheyear.com.
Linda Flanagan is a writer, competitive runner, and high school running coach. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post, among other publications.