REFLECTIONS: The Games That Your Young Athletes Will Remember…

Editor’s note: DAN VENEZIA, a former professional baseball player in the Twins’ organization, is a youth sports coach and author of the children’s book, “Coach Dan on Sportsmanship.” His website is www.CoachDan.com. 

Dan recently shared his coaching story with me, and I wanted to share it with you.

I’d like to share a great story, one that happened on Ash Wednesday during my rec basketball game of middle school kids. At the end of the first quarter, I was talking to the refs and they pointed out that one of the opposing players was autistic.  The opposing team had only 5 players show up that day, we were winning by 15 or 20 and already slowing it down.  So we stopped the fast breaks, and stopped taking three pointers.  I honestly did not notice this player as he really wasn’t involved or engaged in any of the plays.  His team had not won a game all season, which was probably why they had dwindled down to just five players.

I immediately called a time out and let my team know about the boy we were playing against.  I asked them to try and get him the ball without making it obvious.  Miss the pass, or make a poor one.  The goal was to get this player (Stephen) the ball and to get him to score.  I was so happy that every one of my kids bought into this concept.  Slowly but surely, they got him the ball.  I wish we could have captured the moment on video because his face lit up each time the ball made it into his hands.  The problem was, he was on our side of the court and although we backed off on defense, he dribbled a few times and then would pass it on to his teammates.

After 3 or 4 attempts, I called another time out and spoke to the opposing coach.  By this point he knew what we were trying to do.  I told him it would be helpful if we got Stephen the ball on his side of the court because we would love to see him make a basket.  So we left him open in the corner and he began to get passes from his teammates but with each pass he would give it back to one of his teammates.  After another time out, I instructed my team to play tight defense on everyone else, giving Stephen no alternative but to shoot.

Once again, my team responded and Stephen took a shot from 3 point land and missed, but not by much.  You could hear the crowd in the gym catching on and slowing building a sense of momentum with each pass and shot. The ooh’s and ahh’s got louder each time.  Then, with an open lane, Stephen dribbled twice and took a 10 foot shot, banking it in.  The place erupted, a standing ovation followed and Stephen smiled from ear to ear.

I couldn’t be more proud of the nine 7th and 8th grader’s on my squad.  I told them that they would not remember every rec basketball game or youth sporting event, but this game is one they would remember for a lifetime.  The important lessons of compassion, team play, and sportsmanship are ones that will stay with them for a good long time.

MAKE TODAY MEAN SOMETHING!

The irony of it all, was earlier in the day, I had made a decision for the Lentin season.  Instead of giving something up, I had decided to give up something but didn’t know exactly what to give.   I came up with a simple 4 word motto to try to live by.  “Make today mean something!”

In truth, I wasn’t thinking about that motto during the game; it just sort of happened.  It wasn’t until later on that evening that I realized that “today” had meant something for so many people, the fans, the players, the officials, and most importantly, for the young man who simply put the ball in the basket.