A Coach's Reflection: Ten Lessons from a Tough Season on the High School Gridiron

coach 1Had you told me I'd become a high school football coach I would have laughed. Now, having completed my first season...I'm not sure how I managed. I am what Fellowship of Christian Athletes calls a "character coach" at a local public high school. Over the past several months I've been in the weight room, at practice, and on the sidelines. My primary task is to build relationships with players, using football as a means to teach life. I also attempted to bring levity to a coaching staff struggling through a season that left something (namely winning) to be desired. Here are 10 things I learned, some more profound than others.

1. Life is not fair. Scream and holler all you like...actually no, don't. You'll get a flag. Scream and holler up to a point. But eventually you have to move on regardless of the spot.

2. Concussions are an ugly mess. We lauded our punter after he made two tackles in a game. This should provide some indication of how our team fared. Nonetheless, we were proud...of him. It was 5 weeks later when he confessed he'd been having headaches almost daily. The problem was not football per se, but rather post concussion syndrome arising from a hit he had taken during soccer season...nearly 6 months earlier. It's tough to know whether to commend his perseverance or chastise him for ignoring symptoms. He sat out our last two weeks. At last report the headaches are subsiding.

3. Speaking of punters, it's hard to catch a punt. Particularly the end-over-end variety.

4. The Miami Dolphins' shouldn't surprise us. Team chemistry is a delicate matter. There are a lot of egos and personalities involved. It's a wonder more private chem labs (i.e. locker rooms) don't explode publicly. Speaking of privacy...

5. Prayer is often best kept private. This is biblical (Matthew 6:6), and we effectively illustrated why. Early in the season I was approached by a rival team's coach who suggested we gather willing players for prayer following our game. College teams do it, right? I hesitantly agreed provided a player led the prayer. Our post game plan crashed and burned when it became apparent that players from my team were in no mood for expressions of solidarity, much less spirituality. This led to an inflammatory comment from an opposing coach regarding the character of our program. In retrospect it probably wasn't a good idea. Success would have generated more hypocrisy than faith. Chalk it up as another chapter in a heated rivalry.

6. People don't understand church. Consider the player who confided in me regarding a terrible struggle he was facing in his home life. I asked if he had a church from which to draw support. He skeptically furrowed his brow as if to say, "Why would I go to church? I'm not perfect." A coach told me, "I don't get church." It's not that he doesn't understand the sermons. Rather he doesn't understand the politics and petty bickering. I think he was surprised to hear me say, "I don't either." But the fact remains that believers are called to community with other believers. Given that we're all imperfect that can get dicey. Sometimes...most times...it's necessary to graciously look past all that, recalling that looking past all that is exactly what Jesus has done on our behalf.

7. You have to spray shoulder pads with Lysol. Otherwise they grow bacteria. Gross, right?

8. High school coaches have families. Who knew? Most know. Not all care. Coaches have spouses and young children who adore them. These loved ones attend games in support of coaches just as parents attend in support of players. It's a shame when hands must be held over a 4 year old's ears to prevent her from hearing the expletive-laden rants directed at her dad. It's too bad a coach must suggest his wife sit on the visitor's side during home games. When a coach avoids checking email because of angry barrages from a father upset by his son's lack of playing time...that's ridiculous. Despite being on the sidelines I enjoyed the benefit of being largely anonymous, so as our season sank further into the abyss I turned around on several occasions and eyeballed these malcontents. Such displays are embarrassing to players and the entire community. I understand some coaches give as good as they get, but that doesn't apply to those I work with. Why do we tolerate verbal abuse, after all...

9. Talk is cheap; terribly so. The depth of an individual's commitment is evidenced by actions, like the coach who admits his wife to the hospital, leaves her in the company of trusted friends (at her urging no less), and arrives to lead his players on Friday night. Perhaps he is not Lombardi, but no one can question his dedication. Also, those special few players who report to practice each day and play only for the purpose of testing more talented teammates. Others spout off about their stats, but without these quiet "scout team" players who rarely see action on Friday nights the whole endeavor would be impossible.

10. Life is short. After our final game several seniors lingered on the field. Even in the midst of their frustration they realized that once they walked off of that field they would likely never walk onto another one, at least not while the lights were on. One young man knelt down and kissed the turf, tears streaming down his face. He'd been particularly difficult to motivate throughout the season, thus I couldn't help but wonder: Had it ever occurred to him just how abrupt the end would be? My guess is it had not. What kind of impact would such consideration have had upon his preparation throughout the season? Most of us go through life avoiding one reality: It's going to end. I'm not recommending a morbid preoccupation with death. But would greater consideration of the fact that our days are limited change the manner in which we spend them? Perhaps we'd watch less TV.