I’m coaching Linus’s baseball team again this year. Last year I was surprised at how much I enjoyed coaching the team and helping the kids, but I shouldn’t have been. Rather than being a new experience, it was really a reprise of an older role for me, having been a college debate coach for three years in the mid-1990’s.
I like coaching/leading people who I think I can help in some way. My style is to encourage as much as possible, to teach as much as I can, and to generally let kids work things out for themselves. That’s true as much with 8 or 9 year-old baseball players as it was with 18 to 22 year-old college debaters. Some coaches are big on technical detail, or are workhorses who put in large amounts of time and expect the same from their charges, but I was never able to fit either of those molds because I couldn’t lead by example. In baseball or debate, I was never a hard worker or a skilled technician. I had some natural talents that allowed me to play either game without much hard work, which of course can be a curse. I did the activities because they were fun, and the people I met while doing the activities were fun, and somewhere along the way I decided having fun and winning weren’t necessarily the same thing.
And fun always, always has trumped winning for me.
Which is not to say winning isn’t fun. It often is. But I’ve also known a lot of winners who weren’t particularly happy or enjoyable people, and I typically find winning to require a lot of time and effort that I find to be in short supply. So fun it is!
It’s hard for me to know where to draw that line between winning and fun when you are coaching. I think a lot about the kids I coached in college debate. I know that on many levels I failed them as a coach. I knew it at the time, and so did they. I know that if I’d worked harder, or demanded more work from them, we would have won more debates. On the other hand, I think I had pretty good relationships with the kids I coached over the years, and count many among my close friends some 15 years later. But of course that’s a false dichotomy, one that’s convenient to my purposes–I also know a lot of debate coaches who were not only friends with their kids but also demanded everything the kids had, and gave all they could give as coaches. So for me to say I did OK because I was a friend to the kids seems to come up a bit short. I could have and should have done more, but I didn’t, and I can’t change it now.
I think about that, all these years later. I think about it as I start to coach another season of baseball, and how important it was to me last year when the kids and parents had such kind words for me at the end of the year. Some even had DQ gift certificates. I thought the primary benefit of coaching the team would be the time I would spend with Linus, but in the end he was just another kid on the team (most of the time). The real benefit, from my perspective, was knowing without a doubt that I had helped the kids, that I hadn’t let them down the way I let my debaters down back in the day.
Of course, most of my debaters went on to do just fine for themselves, thank you, and the truth is that would have happened whether they won 100 more debates, or 100 less. I know I taught my kids something important along the way, even though that might not have translated into any debate wins, and even though I can’t specifically name any of the things I might have taught them, nor could they.
At least with baseball I can point to a kid and say, “I taught him to get his elbow above his shoulder when he throws.” And believe me, if I can do that with all 13 of my kids this year, I will be very proud, indeed.