By Doug Abrams
Sooner or later, all youth league, high school, and collegiate athletes confront what writer James A. Michener called “the inescapable problem” – the need to readjust when their playing career ends. The end comes sooner for some athletes than for others, but it comes — about 70% of youth leaguers quit playing by their early teen years, only a few high school players reach the top college ranks, and even fewer collegians ever reach the pros.
The athlete may get cut from a higher-level team, suffer a serious injury, or graduate from school. Other extracurricular pursuits may replace time spent playing, or family responsibilities may beckon as career obligations consume time once spent on play. For players who continue in less formal community leagues into their twenties or thirties, physical skills diminish.
I often talk with my former youth hockey players about the “inescapable problem.” Sometimes the conversations come years after the players graduated from high school, when they are in their thirties or forties and they tell me how much they still miss playing. Many have not laced up their skates for years.
My former players’ ears sometimes perk up when I tell them that they can return to competitive hockey immediately if they really want to. Without tryouts or windsprints, without having to shed the few extra pounds, and without seeking pointers from The Twilight Zone or Back to the Future. I tell them that they can stay active by working with today’s kids as a youth league coach or official.
Time and Change
An old proverb advises that “all good things must come to an end.” For most people who love playing in youth leagues or in high school or college, sports is a “good thing.” When the cheering stops, some players move to new pursuits without looking backward. But other players find it difficult to let go because sports has become such a big part of who they are.
In his perceptive book, Sports in America (1976), Michener emphasized a person’s needs for continued physical exercise throughout adulthood, often in carryover sports such as swimming, jogging, aerobics, racquet sports, or in “over-40” or “over-50” leagues in a variety of games. I too tell my players about the value of a healthy lifestyle rich in physical activity, but I also tell them something more.
I tell them that if an athlete does not want to leave the sport, the last game does not necessarily have to be the “end.” Indeed the athlete can view the last game as a new beginning in the sport, as I did when I turned to youth league coaching after my last collegiate contest. The transition to coaching or officiating usually means enlisting in a local youth league, recreational or high school program, which adults can do regardless of whether their child participates. Most adults devote some time to volunteer community service, and coaching or officiating for the younger generation is ideal for an athlete whose background and experience can help make a difference. Officiating was never my cup of tea, but I coached youth hockey coach at all age levels for nearly 35 years after I played my last collegiate game, and I never felt that hockey had ended for me.
The transition from player to youth coach or official takes planning because time — a person’s most valuable commodity — is limited for most adults who also have obligations to family and employment. Despite their best intentions, many adults simply cannot make the considerable time commitment needed to be a head coach or full-time official in youth leagues, particularly if their own child does not play on the team. But many of these same adults can enlist as assistant coaches or part-time officials. Leagues and teams can appreciate the services of a man or woman who candidly promises less-than-total availability, and then delivers.
Assistant coaches normally do not shoulder the heavy burdens of planning practices, arranging road trips, and maintaining direct relations with parents. Depending on their background in the sport, a former player can sometimes volunteer as a specialty coach, such as a pitching coach in baseball or a goalie coach in hockey. In some leagues, qualified officials are in such short supply that a limited schedule can also find a warm welcome.
When an adult turns to youth coaching or officiating, the players come first. As writer Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Coaches agree to teach from background and experience, not to try in vain to relive the “good ol’ days” vicariously through the kids. The coaches had their day; today belongs to today’s kids.
Conclusion: “Can This Really Be the End?”
“Oh, momma, can this really be the end?”
Bob Dylan asked this question in his hit song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” I tell my former players that when an athlete plays the last game and faces the “inescapable problem” of what to do next in sports, the answer to the question is really up to the athlete. By sharing their background and experience in the game while setting the right example, youth coaches and officials can postpone the end of their sports careers for as long as they wish.
Come to think of it, the decision whether to begin coaching or officiating also reminds me of inspirational lines from “Forever Young,” another song by Dylan (who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Obama earlier this week):
“May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift/ May you have a strong foundation/ When the winds of change shift/. . . . May you stay forever young.”
[Source: James A. Michener, Sports in America, ch. 9 (1976)]