“But your child quit the team! We didn’t cut them, ask them to quit, or treat them poorly. They quit; it is not our fault.”
Or is it? How many coaches have had a player who had talent but either lacked the work ethic, self-esteem, commitment to the team or consistently was late or even failed to come to practice for some extraordinary unexcused reason. Probably most of you have dealt with a player like this in your career who quit on impulse. Is it really your fault when they quit, or you dismiss them from the team? Kids usually quit for the wrong reasons, and you need to make sure you know the entire story before you let them quit. There are many reasons why a player leaves a team and not all are legitimate. This is a teaching opportunity for all coaches when an athlete wants to leave.
Sometimes it is not an attitude issue that causes a player to consider leaving your program but a legitimate time management one. My first year as a head baseball coach I had a two-sport athlete who came in early in the season. Because I had taken the team over in early March, I had only coached him for two weeks. Primarily a basketball player, this young man was a good but not great baseball player. But his attitude and support of his teammates made him special. He was struggling in the classroom and on the verge of failure. If he did not pass all classes that semester, he could not play basketball the next year. Knowing basketball was his love, and realizing his tremendous impact on his baseball teammates, I told him I did not want him to quit and instead we worked out an academic plan for his success that allowed him to remain a part of the team.
He was told he could not come to practice. yes I know, practice makes perfect, but we were not looking to make a perfect baseball player but a perfect human being. During practice he would spend his time at the library. He would come to home games 30 minutes before the start and stay home for any weekday away games. We made every possible change to his time management schedule and sought academic support wherever we could. He was relieved to be able to stay a part of the team, but worried about how his teammates would react to this special treatment. I told him that was my job to take care of the teammates. If they recognized the traits he brought to the table, I hoped they would accept the plan we put forward.
I explained to the team we had a team member who was struggling and needed some special help. He would miss practices and some games. But I felt his presence was very much needed as we tried to change the culture and success of the program. As a family we take care of our own. They all agreed this was best for him and the team. He brought his grades up, played both sports through graduation and has been a successful businessperson, father, and community leader since. I like to think that our decision to work with him instead of taking the easy path and letting him walk away, helped make this happen.
Early in my career I was an assistant football coach at the Division III collegiate level, and one time we had a transfer who came into our program. This player was extremely talented but not well versed in what it took to be a college athlete. He was late to meetings, missed practices and on at least three occasions I was asked to send our managers into the locker room and clean out his locker. He was done! But he always seemed to find a way to come back.
He kept coming back like a bad cold. Maybe the fact that he was a great kid, with a less than perfect work ethic created a scenario where our football staff was extra lenient. Maybe his willingness to accept whatever punishment the coaching staff dished out and his amazing willingness to change made him a candidate for that extra second and even a third chance. Many coaches would not have done this, allowing him an opportunity for growth, but our head coach did.
For whatever reason, the coaching staff hung with him, he changed his attitude, changed his work ethic, and became an All-American, played six years in the NFL and is one of the most respected college football coaches I have ever worked with. I often wonder what if we had given up on him? We could have so easily instead of taking the harder path that required more effort on our part to teach, mentor and monitor his daily routine. The extra effort is the job we were hired for right. Developing young adults into better people. Everyone wants to win, but great programs do it more often with great people than with problem ones. If we had kept that locker cleaned out, would he have become the outstanding man he is today. The easy choice is to let someone leave. The tougher one is to accept the challenges and work hard to make them a better person. Coaches take the easy path everyday. Great coaches take the hard ones more often than not.
As a head baseball coach, I had a transfer come into our program mid-year from a BIg Ten institution. Immensely talented, he lacked the conditioning, drive and motivation initially to be a really good player. During one of our first indoor practices, we were doing our conditioning program affectionately known as “Stations”. These were the toughest and most difficult three weeks of our season, and it was a time when we found out who was truly committed to the sport and the team. 45 stations, one minute each and when you were done, you were totally exhausted. They were meant to be tough, as much mentally as physically. After completion of the three-week program, from the best player to the worst player, there was a great feeling of accomplishment. If you survived the stations, no matter your playing status you belonged on the team. But some did not survive that grueling workout.
The second night of stations, this transfer was about four rotations in when he bolted out an end door in the field house, leaving behind his equipment, bags, and glove. Thinking he might be sick; I sent an assistant coach outside into the cold winter air to look for him only to find out he was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished into the night air. After practice the captains brought his gear to my office. I waited to see if he would come in the next day to explain himself.
Sure enough, to his credit the young man came to my office, looking sheepish as he entered and asked if we could talk. “I want to quit coach, I am not in shape, I feel embarrassed, and I cannot do this”, he stated. The easy decision for many of us would be to say thanks for your time and appreciate your effort, let me know if I can be of help in the future, right? I just could not do that.
I looked him in his eye and said, “No”. “You cannot quit, I will not let you. You made a commitment when you transferred here to play baseball. You made a commitment to this team and your family and teammates to be a part of this season. You will take your gear and you will come back tonight, and you will compete to the best of your ability, and we are not talking about this again”. I have no idea why I reacted that way other than I was worried about where this young man’s life was headed. To my surprise he gathered his gear and left. He later asked another player if I could do that, not let him quit and I laughed when I heard the response was, “Yes he can. He is the coach”.
I could have taken the easy way out. Excused him because he did not prepare, walked out on his teammates in the middle of a practice, embarrassed himself because he did not feel a part of the group and was afraid of his failure to compete. It could have been any number of reasons why he did what he did. I did not know why he responded the way he did because unfortunately I could not be inside his mind and know what truly bothered him. I had only coached him for two practices after all. What I did know was that if he left us, he would struggle, and I wanted him to succeed in life.
He came back and finished the season. He got in shape, gained confidence and was an important part of our success that year growing together as a team. The agreement we made was that he would finish that season and then he could do what he wanted. Eventually he left the program but was by then a committed, dedicated student. Today he is a vice-president of a major communications organization. He is very successful and we speak routinely.
Our coaching staff did not always get it right. I probably made more mistakes on whether a player was the right one to play than I made the right choices. I tried however to never give up on an athlete. Often keeping way more players than we needed on our roster because I always believed that if given the chance, they could prove to us their worth. As a baseball coach, I always worked to find the nine best to put on the field and not the best nine.
Sometimes quitting a team is the right choice for the student-athlete but not if the program and coaching staff are truly committed to their job and the student-athlete chose the program for the right reasons. As a coach or athletic administrator, commit to building a program that teaches life lessons. The ends do not justify the means on the path to success. Commit to following the right path instead of the easiest one. If you bring kids into your program, remember they all want to play. Freshmen are usually just happy to be there. Sophomores want to play. Juniors want to be a starter and seniors want outside recognition. It is your job to teach them through honest and straight forward conversations the values they bring to you and the values they receive being a part of your program.