When Coaches Apologize
By Doug Abrams
A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine was the volunteer head coach of a 9-10-year-old youth basketball team in a nearby recreation league. A mutual friend had introduced us months earlier, and I grew impressed with the coach’s values about sportsmanship, equal playing time, and similar matters central to a coach’s healthy relationship with youth leaguers. He had paid attention to nationally prominent youth sports advocates who “get it,” so I knew that his kids were in for an enriching season, win or lose.
In the preseason parents meeting, the coach had promised the families that their sons and daughters would receive equal playing time. He also explained why bench warming was incompatible with an elementary schooler’s need to feel like a part of the team.
By that time, the coach had already been on the sidelines for three years, long enough to begin honing leadership qualities but still early in the learning curve. Some of the team’s parents were also acquaintances of mine, and they gave him high marks for keeping his promises. He was already one of the good ones.
Then temptation reared its head one morning. The coach phoned me a few hours later to say that (as he put it) “I really blew it.” With the score close nearing the half, he played a short bench for the rest of the game. Six or seven team members got all the playing time until the final buzzer, and their teammates warmed the bench.
“I just got caught up in the game,” he explained. “I did something that I promised I would never do.” He knew that many of the parents were upset.
Temptation to cut corners for the sake of the scoreboard can prove a powerful force in youth sports coaching. Expressing solid values is easy in a preseason parents meeting, or from the security of the computer keyboard, because the words are cost-free. (Remember, “talk is cheap.”)
Maintaining solid values can be a lot tougher in the heat of a close game, whatever the kids’ age. I know that translating words into deeds takes fortitude because I have been behind youth hockey benches in plenty of close games. Coaches can easily get “that feeling” once W’s or L’s begin staring them in the face.
Chronic bench warming is bad enough, but a broken promise about equal playing time made matters worse for my friend. Then he did the right thing. He gathered the parents together before the next weekly practice, owned up to his mistake, and said that it would not happen again. The parents accepted the apology, and the team finished the season without further upset.
The Power of Apology
Mistakes happen. This story introduces this week’s column about the “power of apology.” The core proposition is that coaches, like parents, sometimes make mistakes in their relationships with children. Coaches are not perfect. When parents demand perfection, parents expect more from the coach than they expect from themselves.
At one time or another, coaches do or say something that they wish they could take back, but coaches (like parents and even players) may not get chances for do-overs. Coaches may try to do the right thing, but usually the best they can do is try to keep mistakes to the bare minimum.
Some mistakes remain serious. Fortunately most coaching mistakes do not inflict lasting emotional or physical hurt. Bench warming, for example, may prove embarrassing but can be remedied by coaches who realize they have come up short.
The calculus is different, however, when the coach refuses or fails to correct a pattern of misconduct. Or, for example, when the coach’s obviously dangerous drill seriously injures a player. Or when the coach singles out one player for a tongue lashing in front of the team. Depending on the coach’s track record, an apology may not satisfy disgruntled parents, or a board of directors who consider the coach’s suspension or dismissal. Some mistakes are so serious that, as the saying goes, the coach “cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Sometimes an apology signals a “teaching opportunity.” My friend’s apology worked because his lapse – playing a short bench for most of the game — was isolated, inflicted no lasting hurt, and resulted from a single spur-of the-moment decision born of bad judgment.
Coaches and teachers are familiar with “teaching opportunities,” which enable them to instruct players or students with positive lessons from a negative event. Sometimes the learners include the adults themselves. Whether in the classroom or the playing field, the best coaches and teachers never stop learning. A lesson’s price may be an apology to one or more parents, or sometimes even to all the parents. I think everyone learned something worthwhile from that youth basketball game a few years ago.
Early communication is key. Coaching mistakes are foreseeable, and coaches and parents need to foresee them. Early in the preseason parents meeting, I would candidly tell our team’s parents to expect some coaching mistakes during the season, and not only ones stemming from strategies or tactics. Coaching other people’s impressionable children is serious business, so I promised to make the most serious effort to avoid mistakes.
Tongue in cheek, I would close this early part of the meeting by inviting advice from any parents willing to acknowledge that they had never regretted something they had said to their child or some decision they had made. Perhaps, I said, these parents could share the secrets of their perfection. I never had any takers.