As Coach Warr and I began this collaboration, we both worried about coming off as know-it-all coaches. I do not have this coaching thing all figured out in three easy essays. However, Jason and I have over 50 years of combined experience in education and athletics besides our time playing sports. While we don’t know everything, this isn’t our first rodeo, either.
A lot of times as coaches, we have parent meetings that boil down to a playing time issue. Sometimes, parents will say the coach is bullying their player by not playing them. Often, that playing time problem manifests as the family or player wanting to play another position, usually one that is more “glamorous” in their eyes.
Bullying, Intimidation, and Harassment
To illustrate this point, I would like to write about a time I was bullied as a sophomore in high school, how my parents handled it — and how it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was the quarterback of a 9–0 freshman football team. We ran the option exclusively, and I was a fast, athletic kid. I must have scored 20 touchdowns my freshman year — even five in one game. I was convinced I was the next Nebraska option quarterback.
The entire community started in — we were going to be undefeated state champions by the time we were seniors. We were the first undefeated freshman team in who-knows-how-long, we had so many great athletes, and of course, we had the greatest QB known to man. Well, maybe that’s what my 15-year-old brain started to hear and drink the poison of publicity and expectations.
All off-season, I was already envisioning myself starting as a sophomore quarterback under the Friday Night Lights. I could taste it. I was going to be QB 1.
On the first day of Fall Camp my sophomore year, my coaches moved me from quarterback to defensive back.
I was devastated. Hadn’t they watched my freshman year?! Hadn’t they heard all the people saying what we were going to do and how we were going to do it?! How could I not play the position I was put here to play? I had always been a quarterback since I started playing football! My coaches were wrong!
I did what any child would do — I went home and complained to my dad. He knew my athleticism, my passion, and my entitlement to play quarterback. He looked up absentmindedly from whatever he was doing when I told him my problem and said “Well, you throw like crap. Maybe DB is a better fit for you.”
I was crushed — not necessarily by his assessment of my athleticism — but by him not sharpening the sticks and getting out the torches for our assault on the coaches, athletic director, and school. I started in on him, about how this was unfair, and my coaches didn’t know, and they just hadn’t paid attention, and I was the best quarterback, didn’t he think so, too?
Finally, my dad had enough. “Nathan, I’m a dentist. I don’t know a lot about coaching football. So, in matters of coaching, I leave that to the experts. If they came in and told me how to drill and fill teeth at my job, I bet they would be wrong because they haven’t spent 20 years doing it. I bet if I tried to tell them how to do their jobs, I would be wrong, too, because I haven’t spent my life coaching football.”
Today, I realize the power and wisdom in my dad’s words. But 15-year-old me was still pissed off and couldn’t believe he wouldn’t support me.
What I didn’t realize at the time, that I completely understand now as a coach, is we had three good athletes at QB. There were two seniors, who had split time as the JV quarterback as juniors, and me. The best athlete of all of us was moved to wide receiver and ended up as an all-conference wide out. The other senior played QB. I moved and ended up starting at varsity safety as a sophomore.
A lot of times, coaching decisions come down to getting the best players on the field at the same time. It doesn’t make sense to have three of the best playing one position so two are left on the sidelines. That is not how you win games.
The coaches even made me play JV wide receiver two quarters a week because they were convinced my future was not at quarterback. Talk about adding insult to injury — I didn’t even get to play JV quarterback!
I’m not sure how I got over myself, but I now know — as Paul Harvey would say — the rest of the story. I can remember being upset about the “quarterback thing” as my brain now thinks about it, but soon it was gone.
I was blessed to have been moved to defensive back. I started on defense as a sophomore, started both ways as a junior and senior (at wide out on offense), played five years of college football as a defensive back, and coached 24 years of defensive football, most of them at the DB position.
Literally, that decision by my coaches when I was 15 years old dictated the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally, for the next 35 years.
Had my dad done what I have seen some parents do during my time coaching, he would have ruined it for me. There is no way I would be the person I am now if my dad had marched into the coaches’ office, or fired off an anonymous email, or started rabble-rousing in the community about how stupid our coaches were because of their decisions.
If my dad had gotten involved, I would not have started as a sophomore. I would have been a spoiled, entitled kid who wanted his dad to fight his battles. That isn’t how we grow as humans.
Again, I’m not sure how I got over myself and grew up during my sophomore football season. I can’t exactly remember it or trace the development like a novel, but I know it happened. Suddenly, I quit caring about “the quarterback thing” and started caring about being the best football player — and the best teammate — I could be.
My coaching career began that sophomore season, even if I didn’t know it.
You know who did know it? My dad. He knew what I needed. I have talked to him about this since, and he acknowledges how hard it was. Of course, he and my mom wanted me to have success. Of course, they thought about getting involved.
But he also knew that by intervening, it would open the doors for the rest of my high school career. If he did it now, he would do it again. So he told me the truth — he wasn’t a football coach and I wasn’t a very good throwing quarterback.
Sometimes the truth hurts. Parents need to trust that coaches have the best intentions for their teams, even if it isn’t exactly what the parents want. Coaches make decisions Program First, Players Second. This is the way for long-term success.
Not everyone gets to play quarterback. Not everyone gets to be the star player, headed for a Division One scholarship. Not everyone gets their name in the newspaper and is featured in the local news. In fact, a lot more members of the football team will be blocking and tackling than scoring the touchdowns and getting the glory. But the touchdowns can’t be scored without the blocking and tackling and every piece of the puzzle is as important as any other piece.
However, everyone can learn how to fail and to overcome, how to strive and to work, and how to win and to lose. The lessons in sports are bigger than who gets to play point guard.
It isn’t bullying, intimidation, or harassment when coaches make tough decisions. It is coaches doing what is best for the team. If parents can get on board with that, their high school athletes will be in a position to reap all the benefits that come from high school athletics.
And maybe set their high school student up for his or her personal and professional life.
One day after a workout between my junior and senior year of high school, I came into the locker room and saw my dad meeting with all the coaches through the window into the coaches’ office. I was shocked. I had never seen my parents communicate with coaches and I could not figure out what was happening. When I got home that night, I asked my dad about it and he told me not to worry about it; it did not concern me.
I found out well after high school that my dad had been asked and agreed to buy a teammate cleats for the upcoming season and to pay for his way to football camp since the player’s family could not afford it. I found this out from my high school coach long after graduation, not from my dad. My dad never told me the story until I asked him about it.
My dad refused to get involved with my coaches for me for the WRONG reasons but got involved with another player for the RIGHT reasons.
That is the sports parent we should all strive to be — one who does what is needed for the good of the program.
Thanks for reading. In the last article, we are going to explore the ways to help our children get the most from high school athletics.