The exchange between coach and team is prime ground for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and mistakes.
You might call it a part of the game.
It starts early, and if you plan on a long coaching career you need to clarify your message.
What makes a good coach? Someone who knows the game, knows the players, and knows their place.
In The Beginning
My coaching run began when my kids started kindergarten. After a gritty, tough as nails, man guided a team through a first soccer season I made a personal commitment to keep the kids in my circle away from sports killers.
Athletes quit competing for every reason imaginable, from "no one I know plays sports so I quit," to "I hated the coach and will never play another game." They drop out. Some never drop back in. To anything. A bad coach can ruin self-esteem in a hurry.
After the first season I went on a crusade to make sports the best things in my teams' lives. From first grade to high school seniors I stayed on that message.
The last year was a fluke season of basketball. My youngest son fought through injuries, a broken wrist, a dislocated elbow, a strained back, and decided to play recreational basketball instead of wrestle his senior year.
He asked me what I thought of his decision. I said I liked it as long as I could coach the team. We made a deal. He would play, I would coach, and he and his buddies got to pick their teammates.
If you've ever watched players in the NFL Combine, then you have an idea of what's involved in drafting a basketball team. It's a big-time event. First you watch a gym full of high school students cycle through drill stations. They dribble. They shoot. They run.
And some of them tank the drills so they'll get picked for the team their friends play on.
Somehow all the kids that wanted to play together ended up on the same team. My team.
At our first practice I addressed the guys with these words:
"Men, this season we play basketball. We will learn basketball. I know you think you can play. You could all be varsity starters if you wanted to. Keep telling yourselves that. The truth is, if you believed you were that good you'd be on the high school team instead of this one.
"You're not going to turn into a superstar playing rec ball. I don't expect college scouts to sneak in to watch you. If you get a scholarship offer from anywhere, throw it away. It's not real. This much is real, though. On this floor for the next few month you'll learn more about sports than you ever expected.
"Basketball is simple. Put the ball in the hoop and score two points; step back and put it in the hoop for three. We all know that. What we don't know is how to find the best shot.
"The rules of basketball don't allow any of you to bring a ladder out on the offensive end, climb it, take a pass, and drop it straight down the net. None of you are tall enough that you don't need a ladder. So what is the best shot? What is your signature move that ends with a score? That's what we'll find out.
"On the whistle, everybody up and make two lines for layups. No dribble, just pass first time through. Second time do a dribble-spin. Third time use a hesitation step. All set? Let's go."
Some could shoot a layup. Some could dribble and spin. A few used the Euro-step. After three rotations through the line we took a break.
"Looking good," I said. "Real good. That's one-on-one ball. Can any of you beat a team of five by yourself?"
Hands shot up.
"Let's keep that in reserve. Until then, let's think five on five."
The Last Game
During the season the players refined their pick and roll game. They recognized when to run and when to walk the ball up. They learned to trust each other and jelled as a unit.
At the last game of the year, the last game of my coaching career, more than the usual spectators sat in the stands. It was a rowdy bunch ready for a win, ready to cheer.
One of the players had an older brother who divided time between cheering and riding the student-referees. His funny comments weren't making the refs laugh. Parents in the stands weren't amused, either. College humor can have that effect.
After a timeout, the older brother said a few choice words. I bit my lip to hide my laugh in front of the team. The ref didn't hide anything. He said he would call the game if there was one more outburst from the fans. I made my plea.
"We all know this is the last game of the year," I said to the sports fans and family members. "It's also my last game to coach. I don't want to forfeit. Let's keep it down until the last whistle and show some sportsmanship."
I said the last words to the older brother baiting the refs.
Time ran out, the buzzer sounded, and the older brother let loose with a few lines of emotion that upset the ref.
The Coaching Moment
True to his threat, the ref came over and threw the older brother out of the gym. Ejected him with as much vigor as a baseball umpire tossing a belligerent manager.
This is where the coaching lessons came into play.
As soon as the ref made his out-of-here motion, one of the dads grabbed the mouthy kid, slipped a hammer lock on his arm and started marching him out. I recognized the dad. He was a police officer in his work life and knew how to handle situations on the verge of going out of control.
What does a coach do?
I zipped over and explained my jurisdiction. Inside the gym was my problem, outside was his.
"I'll take over from here, officer."
"He was thrown out and I'll see that he leaves."
"This is a gym, officer. It's a gym problem. It's my problem. I'll give a yell if things get further out of hand. Now, let him go. Kid, come with me."
After a few seconds of giving me his death-ray stare, the policeman released the older brother. I gripped his upper arm and walked him back to the stands.
An Unplanned Exit
"See what just happened?" I said. "The cop wanted you outside and you didn't want to go, right? Once you got outside and started pulling away from him, he might have a reaction from all the training he's done. He might be out front waiting for another try. Let's go to the stands, get your backpack, and leave through the side door. It's all about time and place, kid, and I just saved you from trouble you don't need.
"I'll miss coaching. I'll miss your brother playing and you in the stands. It's been more fun than I imagined. Now let's end it right, okay?"
The kid left, but the final act left a smile on my face. On the way out of the gym I fell into step with some of the moms from the team.
"Turned out to be a great year," I said. "And it ended with a clean escape from Johnny Law. Did you see how I handled the cop?"
One of the women turned and said, "That was my husband."
"Yes, ma'am. And I was glad to have his help. Thanks for being good fans."
With that I pretended I left something in the stands and exited the building by the side door.